How to Set and Manage Client Expectations From The Get-Go

You just received a new project request from a client, and you’re excited to work your creative magic. 

But, before you dive in headfirst, you need to set the stage for success right from the start.

I’m specifically talking to you if you’re a service-based business or if you create custom products!

Yes, I get that you are the designer, artist, or writer. But when a client hires you, you’re no longer working in a silo. Instead of creating whatever pops into your head and presenting the final product, you need to approach your creative work as a COLLABORATION

Sure, your clients trust your talent and expertise, but for your work to truly hit the mark, they must be included and have a voice throughout the process.

But finding that balance between your artistic vision and their expectations can be challenging! 

On one hand, you don’t want to sacrifice your unique approach by giving in to every request, suggestion, or comment from your client. On the other hand, you do need to be flexible and open to new ideas and perspectives.

The key is to establish a good working relationship that leads to a final product you feel proud of and they feel satisfied with!

To help you navigate this delicate balancing act, I’ve pulled together some of my best advice as a business coach for creatives. These tips will enable you to set clear expectations for both yourself and your clients!

Whether you provide services or craft custom artwork or products, this guide will help you make collaborations successful, impactful, and enjoyable for everyone involved.

Lay the Foundation

When it comes to managing client expectations in your creative business, I am a firm believer that a proactive approach is best. 

Instead of putting out fires as they pop up, taking steps to anticipate communication breakdowns, disconnects, or conflicting agendas can prevent unnecessary conflicts and improve your overall client experience

While it’s impossible to foresee every possible scenario (some things will just have to be learned through trial and error as you go), laying a solid foundation for your client experience and project process can make a world of difference!

Define Project Goals

The first step to establishing a solid foundation for your client project is to define the goals early on. 

What is your client trying to achieve? 

Many service providers offer complimentary discovery calls, project Kickoff Calls, or in-person meetings to answer this exact question. 

These initial and ongoing meetings will allow you and your client to discuss expectations, preferences, requirements, and constraints from the start. 

Once you know what they want to achieve you can collectively set metrics and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) to objectively measure progress and success

Remember, “What we can measure, we can manage,” and this rings especially true when it comes to managing client expectations and goals.

Clearly defining what your client’s definition of success looks like and setting clear objectives and benchmarks ensures that everyone is focused, and on the same page, eliminating any assumptions throughout the collaboration.

The more you know, the better you can deliver.

Plus, these initial meetings can set a solid foundation and familiarity for communication moving forward. 

This leads me to my next point…

Clear Communication

Never underestimate the power of open and clear communication. 

Throughout your work together, communication will help you set and maintain realistic expectations with your client so they feel confident and looped in every step of the way. 

Here are my 4 rules of thumb when it comes to solid client communication:

  1. Communicate Early and Often. Stay one step ahead by maintaining a consistent flow of communication. Keep timelines, project details, and ideas bouncing back and forth to set yourself up for success.

  2. Go “live” whenever possible. Never hesitate to pick up the phone or hop on a Zoom call to work through challenges or questions promptly (and encourage them to request the same within your project scope and availability). 

  3. Say it again, and again: Ever heard of the “Rule of 7”? That’s how many times a message needs to pop up to stick. So, repeat yourself (even if you feel like a broken record)

  4. One message, one goal: Be it an email, a meeting, or a call, stick to one main thing. Don’t cram in too much info – clarity is key, and it keeps things from slipping under the radar.

This kind of communication fosters a strong working relationship and promotes smooth progress toward achieving the project’s goals while managing expectations. 

COO Tip: A great communication reminder is to simplify technical or industry-specific terms for your client, and remember not to assume they know everything you do. After all, that’s why they hired you!


Now that you understand their goals and the project specifics, you can offer a few different options to work with you with varying levels of support

Giving your client a choice instead of only working one very specific way can make sure you’re maintaining control of the process while also showcasing a willingness to be flexible within reason.

Once you agree upon the level of support you will provide for the project, it’s time to outline your contract. 

The importance of clear boundaries and expectations cannot be overstated. Before you sketch a single design or write a single word, it’s essential that you craft a comprehensive contract that outlines: 

  • the project scope and parameters (what is, or is not, included)
  • timeline, 
  • and specific work guidelines. 

Contracts may feel stuffy and formal, but they are really there to protect everyone involved, both you and your client. 

Your contract will help you set important boundaries around things like the number of revisions allowed (don’t let yourself get buried under a mountain of revisions) or your preferred communication channels to take the guesswork out of the process and avoid unnecessary surprises from the get-go! 

I like to say,

“Clear is kind.”

The more clear and transparent you are upfront, the better your clients’ experience will be!

COO Tip: If you sell a product, a contract likely isn’t necessary. However, you can still take the sentiment to heart. In your product descriptions, be clear about what your product does or does not include, what materials you use, and any information about shipping expectations, etc. This will ensure your customers know exactly what they’re getting. It builds trust and you may even find your audience is more inclined to buy from you now and in the future!

Know Who You’re Working With

Understanding your audience on multiple levels is absolutely crucial when it comes to managing client expectations. To ensure a smooth working relationship, you must have a clear grasp of not only your own target audience (aka your client!) but also your client’s target audience, and the key players on your client’s team. Identifying and understanding who will be involved in the decision-making process for each project is essential!

Your ICA

First, you need to do some ICA (Ideal Client Avatar) work. As a business owner, having a solid understanding of your ideal client is non-negotiable. This enables you to tailor your project offers to attract the kind of clientele you prefer to work with.

This goes beyond the basic “age, occupation, and location” demographics. 

Consider whether your ideal client is a business with multiple team members and stakeholders or if you’re dealing with individual customers seeking specific services or custom products. The answer to this question will significantly impact how you structure your offers and ultimately shape the client experience.

Your Client’s ICA

If your client is a business and they’ll be using your creative work to connect with their target audience, you need to go the extra mile and understand their ICA. Who does your client serve? Some businesses focus on B2B (business-to-business) interactions, catering to other companies, while others are more B2C (business-to-consumer), dealing directly with individual customers. 

To truly grasp their needs, conducting market research is key. This will help you better understand where your client stands in their marketplace, allowing you to leverage your creative skills to help them connect with their audience more effectively.


And it doesn’t stop there. You’ll also want to get to know your specific client inside and out, along with all the stakeholders involved in the project. Familiarize yourself with the key decision-makers who will have input and a say in your project and the outcome. This is especially important for anyone who has approval power over specific pieces of your project or your project as a whole! By doing this, you can tailor your communication and cater to their unique needs and preferences, creating a smoother collaboration process.

Remember, knowing who you’re working with not only ensures you’re on the same page but also helps you deliver exceptional results that align with your client’s vision.

Educate Your Client 

Never forget, your client brought you on board because you’re the pro! Your creative expertise and skills are not their zone of genius, and that’s precisely why they sought your help. They probably don’t have the same level of experience or understanding as you do, and that’s absolutely okay. It’s your responsibility to bridge that gap and earn their trust by positioning yourself as the reliable expert they can count on.

So, how do you achieve this? 

Well, education is key. 

Throughout the collaboration, make sure to provide your client with just enough context to help them grasp the reasoning behind your creative choices and recommendations. Don’t overwhelm them with industry jargon or technical details, but do share insights that shed light on why certain decisions were made and how they contribute to the project’s overall success.

This not only fosters a sense of collaboration but also helps to prevent any potential miscommunications or misunderstandings down the line.

For example, let’s say you’re designing a website for a client, and you decide to use a particular color scheme and layout. Instead of just presenting the final design, share the rationale behind your choices. 

Explain how the color palette enhances the brand’s identity and triggers certain emotions in their target audience. Clarify how the layout optimizes user experience and encourages visitors to take specific actions. By going the extra mile, you not only showcase your expertise but also build your client’s confidence in your abilities.

It’s all about embracing your role as a guide and educator.

Creative Brief

There’s one more step you can take that sets the stage for success: the creative brief. 

Now, a traditional creative brief may not be appropriate or even necessary for every creative business, but regardless, the goal of this document is necessary for any industry. 

However you do it, make sure you present what you have in mind to the client BEFORE diving in head first.

If you choose to share a creative brief, this document serves as the blueprint, capturing all the essential information we’ve discussed so far in a concise and focused manner.

Before you push back on this one, hear me out!

I know that on the surface briefs can seem restrictive to creatives who like to go with the flow. 

The good news is: creative briefs are never set in stone. If new information emerges, inspiration strikes, or the project evolves you can always revisit and update the brief as needed. 

The creative process is a journey, but a creative brief will help support your creative choices and provide the necessary structure and approval to keep your creativity in alignment with your client’s goals. 

In the creative brief, you’ll: 

  • Summarize your understanding of the project (and your client’s ideal audience if they have one!)
  • Highlight the project’s goals and objectives as well as metrics you’ll use to assess if and when they’re achieved. 
  • Identify any specific preferences or requirements your client has shared.

This way, you’re all on the same page, and any potential misunderstandings can be ironed out before they become issues.

Finally, it’s crucial to have your client review and approve the brief before moving forward with your creative work (just sending it isn’t enough). This step ensures that they feel confident in your understanding of their needs and vision, and it also gives them a chance to provide feedback or clarifications.

By having the creative brief approved upfront, you can avoid costly and time-consuming miscommunications later on in the project. It becomes your roadmap, guiding you towards delivering precisely what your client envisions and needs.

Getting back on track

What we’ve covered here so far addresses how you can proactively manage your client’s expectations. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the fact that in some cases, you may plan ahead for everything and anything under that sun and STILL find that you don’t meet your client’s expectations. 

When things seem to go sideways, instead of beating yourself up about it or getting frustrated, as the business owner it’s your responsibility to put on your professionalism hat and get things back on track!

This is where your preparation and communication can really come in handy! Lean on the facts and the data. 

Then guide them with your expertise:

Refer to the contract and creative brief you both agreed upon and then use the info collected from their goals, your market and ICA research, metrics, KPIs, and the definition of success you collectively set for this project. 

If the client continues to push back,  take time to hop on a call to discuss the disconnect. 

Continue to lean on the structures you’ve already put in place to enhance client experience such as communication and education so you can more seamlessly move past the roadblocks and constructively get back in motion!

Customizing Your Client Experience

Managing expectations is a key part of the client experience you curate for every project you take on. However, creating a truly exceptional client experience from beginning to end involves more than just that. 

If you’re eager to learn more about crafting a “wow” client experience, dig into some of my previous content, where I explore the art of creating a client journey that your clients will love, while also boosting your bottom line.

Read it here, “How Client Experience Can Take The Pressure Off Sales.”

Remember, the key to serving your clients well, while doing the work you love, lies in surpassing expectations, anticipating your client needs, and consistently providing top-notch service that sets you apart from your competitors. 

By taking the time to understand your ideal audience’s preferences and pain points, you can build a client experience that leaves a strong impression and fosters long-lasting business relationships.

Let’s Jump Start The Process

Want me to audit your current client experience to help you proactively set and manage expectations in your creative business? This is the kind of work we can do together when you apply for a 90-Minute Clarity Call with me! Click here to schedule yours today!


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