Managing expectations

Jan 27, 2020

Managing a client’s expectations is a delicate art that requires planning, restraint, and diligence.

In the AEC profession we strive to perform miracles. That may have elicited a cynical chuckle from you, and rightfully so. Most days, the best we do is to make steady progress toward an achievable goal. However, once in a while the client will call with a real dumpster fire of a problem, and we’re just clever and lucky enough to arrive at the perfect solution that fixes it. It feels great.

But have you ever saved the day, only to get a surprisingly underwhelming response from the client? Perhaps they were lukewarm in their thanks, or didn’t even acknowledge the achievement? Worse yet, perhaps they weren’t even happy with the result, despite the fact that you just moved mountains for them. It can be frustrating and can lower your morale. It can even lead you to feel resentful toward that client, in light of all you’ve just achieved for them.

Perhaps – just maybe – it’s not their fault at all. It’s ours.

Our industry is not known for our detailed and eloquent messaging skills, and that’s perfectly OK. We’re trained to be scientists and engineers first, and communications often takes a back seat. But when it comes to making sure our clients are ultimately happy with what we do – which, let’s admit it, is the point of this whole thing – we must be effective educators and communicators despite our innate discomfort or unwillingness. Firmly incorporated within our responsibilities for technical projects is the obligation to accurately communicate what we do and why we’re doing it, to build consensus and understanding, and most importantly, to make sure that the client is aligned with our objectives throughout the process. That way, when we achieve successes, both big and small, the client will appreciate them and be pleased with the outcome.

Of course, this critical part of all projects usually isn’t written into the technical specifications or the construction sequence. So, we need to make a special effort to manage expectations by incorporating these strategies into our project execution:

  • Be realistic from the start. Sure, we all want to tell our clients about our great work. But it’s one thing for you to say “We’ll design an excellent building” and far, far another to promise “The builder will construct this in half the time.” A shortened construction timeline may be what you both are hoping for, but the wise professional knows what variables may lie ahead and doesn’t get caught up in expectational exuberance.
  • Keep a level head. Have you ever started to see good results in the early stages of a project, only to see conflicting or negative results in its later stages? We’ve all been there; we get caught up in the early good news and can’t wait to start our cheerleading routine in front of the client. Our optimism is infectious, and is hugely important, but until we know all of the data, we can’t know 100 percent of the outcome. So instead, we must temper mid-project good news and act with restraint. And while that may be less exciting to deliver or for the client to hear, it’s much more responsible professional behavior.
  • Check in early and often. One of the biggest mistakes we as professionals can make is to get too far along a project timeline without checking in with the client. Remember, our clients are often in a dynamic environment and their needs and goals could evolve over the course of a project. We need to re-calibrate with them often to make sure that we’re moving in parallel. If we fail to do this, we risk leaving an understanding gap that could lead to disappointment at the end of the project.

The management of a client’s expectations is a delicate art that requires planning, restraint, and diligence. For most of us it requires a little movement outside of our comfort zone. But in doing so, whether you just handled a routine service or you completely saved the day, you’ll know that they will appreciate your success because it’s exactly what they wanted and expected. And that, of course, leads to more opportunities for us all to save the day in the future. So let’s get out there and work those miracles!

David Coyne is a principal and the COO of Liberty Environmental, Inc., which provides environmental consulting and engineering services to clients across the United States. Coyne can be reached at

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.