Bad news does not get better with time. Managing client EXPECTATION.

Posted by Katie Blatherwick on December 28, 2015

As you may recall from last month’s post, The Three E’s in managing software development are: empathy, expectation and exhibit. Last month’s focus was on empathy. This post will focus on the next of The Three E’s: Expectation.

Why Does Expectation Matter?

Expectation with regards to client relationships is a big deal. Applying empathy to management of client expectations is critical. Imagine that you take your car to the mechanic for new brake pads and the mechanic tells you it will take $400 and four hours to get the job done.  By providing this estimate, the mechanic has set up your expectation; regardless of whether you are happy about the duration of time or the price, at least you know what to expect.
And so you leave to complete other errands while your car is at the mechanic’s shop. Now imagine returning after four hours to pick up your car and being told it will take another two hours. You think to yourself, “Gee, it would have been better service if the mechanic called me after three hours, to save me a trip back to the shop.” At this point, it is fair to say that most customers would be justifiably perturbed.
Now imagine that you try to make the best of the situation. Luckily you have a book to read, so you sit down in the waiting room and read as you wait. After two hours pass, you fully anticipate your car to be done, or at least expect for the mechanic to come talk to you, but unfortunately that is not the case. You begin to stew a bit, and after thirty minutes more pass, you track down the mechanic and ask, “Is my car ready? It's been two and a half hours!”
While the mechanic is seemingly surprised by your question, your mind wanders to thinking things like, “is this person this inconsiderate?” and “How does this company stay in business when it treats people this way?”
When told it will take another half hour, you return to the waiting room, blood pressure elevated, and though you try to read your book, at this point you are much too angry to focus on anything except bad customer service. After forty-five more minutes, the mechanic finally announces that he is done. “What a relief!” you think to yourself.
As the mechanic rings up your order, he shares that he would have been done much earlier if he had only needed to change the brake pads, but your car also needed new rotors and drums and that is what took so long. While you would have preferred this information three hours earlier, at least having the additional explanation brings you a bit of relief. However, this relief is short-lived once you see the invoice. Instead of $400, as you expected, the bill instead shows $1,200!  

How to Avoid the Angry Customer

The analogy above, an unfortunate story many of us can relate to as a frustrated customer, is also a fitting comparison within the world of software development. Though producers and project managers are often very honest and clear about the issues that arise in a project, they often fail to manage client expectation at a point in time that the client can participate in the decision to proceed with or abandon an effort. When you close-off clients from less-than-desirable issues that arise in a project they are left only to stew and grow upset once they are sitting with what they are dealt.
In software development, we are not manufacturing widgets; we are often building something for the first time—every time. Although developers have the skills to implement the client’s vision, it does not mean that any client’s vision is like that of the last client. Even something as simple as an “out of the box” blog requires one or two custom tweaks in order to meet the client’s design. For a successful project, it is paramount that a development team works together to empower the client. 

Effective Methodology

In my experience, an effective method for a project manager to accomplish up-to-date client expectation-management is to make sure the developers doing the work always have a clear understanding of the time and cost of each project. Having this information will help the developer when an issue that changes the timeframe and/or cost is encountered. The project manager has the expectation that developers will update them on necessary updates, and in return the developers can rely on the expectation that their project manager will work out the necessary details with the client. This way, the entire team benefits when the process for expectations is clearly defined by the project manager at the onset of the project.

Not only does good expectation-management create a stronger relationship with the internal team, it also is the groundwork on which trust between client and consultant is built. When the entire development team is synergized, incorporating client cooperation becomes far more accessible. Creating open, transparent, communication with clients allows us to be less leery of sharing unfortunate news, should it arise. When every relationship begins with clear expectations, navigating the stress of everyday chaos throughout each project becomes far more manageable.

The Element of Group Dynamics

From Agile methods to waterfall, high communication versus hefty documentation, the methods and frameworks used in the practice of software development have yet to solve the simple human element of group dynamics. I've found that when appropriate expectations are set by a strong leader, it begins to address what frameworks and methodologies cannot. As a project manager puts in the time to synergize the various personalities within the group, using expectation-setting as a focus, the entire development team becomes more capable at riding out the inherit waves of the unknown.

Key Lessons on Expectation:

  1. Set your internal team expectations first.
  2. Establish client expectation up front, and involve clients sooner rather than later in regards to any shifts in their project.
  3. When expectation is managed, a project manager is more equipped to regulate the innate “unknowns” of software development.
  4. Expectation can provide improvement in your team's group dynamics, where project management frameworks and methodologies may fail to do so.

In next month’s post I will cover the last of The Three E’s: exhibit, in which I will expound upon the importance of showing your client progress during the development process.

Katie Blatherwick
Katie Blatherwick has spearheaded dozens of Website and Web application projects for BlueModus from concept to launch and everything in between. She uses her rich experience in business process development and analytics, technology, and SDLC (Software Development Life Cycle) management to ensure that her clients' projects launch smoothly. Katie holds a bachelor degree in Management of Information Systems from the University of Colorado.