Posted by: magnussonllc | February 28, 2012

Setting and resetting expectations

We sometimes create our own difficult clients by not creating, setting and maintaining realistic expectations from the very get go.

Disconnects in customer communications and understanding can happen at a number of points throughout the engagement.

They can happen:

  • During the sales process
  • During project kickoff
  • On change requests
  • On status calls and in status meetings
    During every informal communication that takes place, though less likely in written form like emails

While we try to document communications with our customers and get their signoff on expectations and understanding, that doesn’t always happen – or what we sign off on may be a generality when in fact the details are up for interpretation.

A crucial part of running successful engagements is the ability to set or reset customer expectations early in the project. A technique we can successfully use is called UPDATE.

Understand Customer Expectations

Customers have different expectations of what they want and need from us. These expectations will influence how they perceive our deliverables. Sometimes they have correct expectations, where we have done a good job setting realistic expectations during the sales effort.

Sometimes their expectations might be too high or even too low. In order to set expectations successfully we must first know what expectation level the customers have.

Primary (and secondary) deliverables

The next step in setting expectation is to be very clear about what we deliver and how this will be delivered. These deliverables needs to be clearly defined in our SLA.


We also have to clearly define to our clients what we will NOT deliver. By agreeing on everything that is out of scope we will be able to manage expectations much easier on latter stages in the engagement. Many services professionals are reluctant to explain the don’ts early in the engagement because they think that it will negatively affect the customer satisfaction.  However, it is always better to deal with this conflict early in the engagement.


Sometimes when we communicate our don’ts to the client they experience emotions of worry and concern. What will happen if we don’t do this? What are our alternatives if this doesn’t work?

When setting or resetting expectation it is a good idea to explain what our alternatives might be. What is our fallback plan? Who will help us out if we cannot resolve these issues?


Trust in your team, trust in the customer and the trust in the solution is the core ingredient that holds everything together.

A huge part of resetting or setting expectations is to show trust in our ability to solve the challenge even with the all the limitations above explained to the client.

During this part we can explain of our team’s competence, experience or anything else that could establish trust from the customer’s perspective.

Knowing the customers concern and connecting your trust points to those concerns would make these trust points even stronger.


The last part of setting or resetting expectations is to thoroughly walk through all the steps of the engagement with the client and explain how and why we deliver our different milestones.

Clarity around the process is key for successfully managing the project going forward.



  1. Hi,

    This post is very timely as the topic of expectation management in project management is getting a lot of steam nowadays.

    I would like to republish this post on PM Hut ( ), where many project managers will benefit from it. Please either email me or contact me through the contact us form on the PM Hut website in case you’re OK with this.

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