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How To (Gently) Crush Your Client’s Dreams

When clients have unrealistic goals, how do you bring them back to reality without convincing them to take their business elsewhere?

How To (Gently) Crush Your Client’s Dreams
[Photo: Flickr user Anthony Quintano]

“We want to be on the Today show!” That was the response Jennon Bell Hoffmann heard when she asked some new clients what their goals were for their project, an educational video series that needed to crowdsource funding.

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“We all smiled and laughed,” said the Chicago-based freelance writer and marketing consultant. She then did what she does: help the clients set up a media plan and a timeline. But then milestones came and went, and Hoffman realized that the clients weren’t holding up their end of the project. The funds hadn’t been raised, the scripts hadn’t been written, and the YouTube channel hadn’t been set up.

And the project dragged on while the clients continued to inquire about when they’d get their big break. “I’m really anxious for it to just be over,” Hoffmann admits. She says that she notices this disconnect with some of her clients. “They were under the impression that getting something big like the Today show happens automatically if you get a marketing person.”

Managing client expectations can be a tricky business for independent contractors and small-business owners. When clients seems to have unrealistic goals for their projects, how do you get them to get real without convincing them to take their business elsewhere? Here’s some advice from several small-business owners who frequently need to crush dreams (nicely).

Explain What You Do

Kelly McNees is a Chicago-based book editor who frequently needs to educate her aspiring-author clients. “They often expect the process to move more quickly than it can or should,” she says, or they think, “I am sitting at my desk waiting for a job to come in and can start immediately on the work.”

Experience has taught her never to presume clients’ expectations. “It’s very important to me that a client knows exactly what they are hiring me to do. I have to educate people about what an editor does, how long that takes, and what that should cost.” This way, McNees has been able to avoid some headaches. “There have been times when it has become clear that someone is looking for something else–an agent, a yes-woman, a ghostwriter–and we’ve been able to part ways amicably because we had the conversation before work began.”

Make Sure Your Clients Understand Their Product

Sometimes it’s not enough to just tell your clients what you can do, but to make sure they are realistic about their own project. John Capo does theater PR for shows large and small. “I explain that every client has a place in the media landscape,” and that clients not only need to know where they fit in, but to embrace the PR plan he’s tailored to their strengths. “Sometimes that means coverage in smaller publications, but often the audiences for these smaller publications is where your die-hard fans live.”

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This type of leveling can be tricky when the clients’ product is especially precious to them, like, say, their offspring. Lori Day is an educational consultant who helps parents applying to private schools for their children. She says, “Some parents come to me with a copy of US News and World Report,” expecting her to magically deliver their children into top schools. “But for kids that have B’s and C’s, that’s not going to happen. I have to get parents to recognize their kids for who they are.”

Reshape Your Client’s Expectations

When presented with parents expecting a miracle, Day is often able to shift their perspective. “I have an ability to very gently massage parents into the direction I want them to go,” she says. “They’re secretly looking for boundaries, calling out for guidance and coaching. How you deliver it really matters,” which Day frequently does by relating to her clients as a parent herself.

Rebecca Scritchfield, a registered dietitian, must level with new clients on a regular basis. “Occasionally a person will come in with a magic number in their mind that they want to weigh. Sometimes it is a weight they haven’t achieved since high school–or even childhood!” She has to show her clients another way of viewing health, one that is not tied to a number on a scale. When they do lose weight, it’s attributed to improved eating habits and a new enjoyment of exercise, not their dream clothing size. “Some clients make all these amazing changes and lose very little weight, or none at all, but they are so happy and their medical labs look great. They can finally make peace with their body.”

See Red Flags As A Gift

If after going through the above steps, a client still expects a miracle, don’t fret about losing the job, but see an opportunity to save time and effort. When Day’s parents won’t see the light, “I consider myself to have dodged a bullet. If potential clients don’t respect your expertise at the beginning, they won’t respect it as you coach them through the process. They’re never worth the money.”

Capo agrees. Sometimes a potential client will disagree with him over the quantity or quality of coverage he believes they will receive. “If clients remains unrealistic in their expectations, then I typically will not work with them. They are ignoring the opinion of a professional, and those kinds of situations only get uglier as time goes by.”

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About the author

Since 2002, Claire Zulkey has run the blog Zulkey.com. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Jezebel, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and the Los Angeles Times.

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