Business: Set Client Expectations

Posted on by Larry

ArcheryOne of the challenges we have in this age of “anything you want, instantly available,” is setting client expectations for a project. Specifically, what are they getting for their money and when is more money required?

I don’t presume to have all the answers and look forward to reading the comments, but here are some thoughts to help you negotiate the “Shoals of Expectations.”


First, and I can’t stress this enough, put whatever you are doing into writing and get both parties to sign off on it. (Though, I will confess, even I don’t follow my own advice all the time, much to my regret.) The purpose of this document is to clarify what is being done and avoid the inevitable “You said you would do …”

This is not necessarily a contract, especially for smaller jobs, but a detailed listing of what the client wants you to do and what you propose to do to meet their needs. For many projects, a simple detailed email document is enough.

This list should contain:

This last line is critical. Clients are forever changing their mind as they see what is possible and how great it looks. This is normal human nature. It is also human nature for clients to say: “This is so cool. And it would look even better if you made one small change and had it do that.”

In most cases, the change is small and it would improve the look of the piece. Except, now they are taking advantage of you. You need the ability to go back to the client and say: “I agree, it would look better. But we can’t do it within the timeline and budget we agreed to.”

If you don’t have an original agreement, in writing, on what you are expected to do, you don’t have much to stand on when you go back and ask for more time or more money. I discovered this personally as we were building our new studio. Much of the work was based on verbal agreements, which lead to all kinds of confusion and hurt feelings. My fault – I knew better, but I was anxious to get started and didn’t follow my own advice.


Hollywood marketing is famous for making the really, really difficult seem both obvious and instantaneous. Consider the line: “Well, we just rotoscoped a few dozen shots, added the alien background and inserted some 3D mocap characters. It really make the scene pop!”

Well, yeah. And took a crew of close to a hundred people three weeks of 12-hour days to accomplish. The client sees this is possible, but overlooks what it took to get there.

Clients need to be reminded that what you are selling is time and your creative skills. Creative skills are hard to quantify, but time is easy. Anytime that a client expands a project such that it requires more time, there needs to be a meeting discussing the changes, how much time or money or staff is needed to accomplish them, then give the client the option to pay more or demand less.

You are welcome to give your time away free whenever you want. However, clients are not allowed to assume you will give your time away free. They should always expect to pay something when the parameters of a job change.

Remember, your job is not just to create an incredible program. Your job is to earn a living and pay your bills while creating incredible programs. It would be wonderful to offer your services for free, but the rent still needs to be paid.

The key, here, is to explain to the client what it takes to make the magic happen. Especially for complex tasks, showing the client what’s involved in creating the magic can help prevent the client from feeling you are just arbitrarily jacking up the price. (One client was especially demanding until I gave them the opportunity to rotoscope one frame of video. After that, discussions became much easier.)


Most of us would enjoy working on a high-end, high-budget project. But, all too often, we are asked to create a champagne campaign with a beer budget. Separate what is essential for a good program from what would be nice to add. Set expectations by explaining how much time is required to do the work the client is demanding.

In general, clients start by demanding the world for free. However, most clients realize that time is money, provided you explain why the money is necessary. During the initial discussions, clearly establish what’s the minimum required, then, when possible, do more. Exceeding expectations makes both sides feel good, but only when there is a clear understanding of the basic requirements.

The discussion stage is also a good opportunity for you to determine how reasonable the client is likely to be. If they are inflexible during initial negotiations, you have a pretty good idea that they will remain so during the life of the project.

One of the most important questions you can ask yourself is: At what point do I walk away from this project? There will ALWAYS be someone willing to do it cheaper. Faster. Not as well as you would do. It makes no sense to work for four weeks on a project, only to lose money every day you are working on it.

First, you’ll have no love for the project as you become increasingly unable to pay your bills; this decreases both your interest and the quality of your work. Second, you’ll lose the opportunity to take good-paying projects because you are locked into a money-losing turkey.


Some clients specialize in making us feel guilty: “If you walk away now, this project won’t get done, I’ll lose my business, these poor kids won’t have a home and I’ll need to shoot  the dog.” Those aren’t your problems. Your problem is that the client isn’t paying you for the work you are doing.

If you have an agreement, you can refer back to it to gain control on resetting budgets. But, if like many of us, you started work without an agreement, now you have a harder time to get the client t0 pay more: “But, when we started, you said you’d create all the effects this project needed.”

Your best option is to keep the client fully informed on how the project is going, what’s going quickly, what’s taking time and how changes are impacting the schedule. With open lines of communication, budget changes become easier. The worst thing you can do is stay quiet as you get further and further behind, because no client likes a discussion that starts: “I think we are going to miss the deadline.”


Setting client expectations is a balancing act – with the actual balance point different for each of us. It requires a clear understanding from the beginning of the work involved, on-going communications on the status of the project, and instant discussions when the scope of the work changes.

Clients don’t like surprises. They also like to feel that you care about their project as much as they do.  The good news is that once the client realizes that you have the best interests of the project at heart, they are more likely to trust you when the inevitable problems crop up.

I’m interested in your experiences – how have you set client expectations so that budgets and deadlines keep pace with the on-going growth of a project?

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4 Responses to Business: Set Client Expectations

  1. Al Davis says:

    I agree with all your principal points. I have one addition. Always have your key client conversations “face-to-face”. It has become so common place to conduct business via email; where so many misunderstandings can occur. If you are physically looking at your client, the likelihood of actually reading the situations are so much greater. The opportunities to convince, or educate a client are greatly enhanced.

  2. Billy Walker says:

    All good tips Larry. I’ve done these types of things for years. When client issues arise they typically will occur when you decide to ignore these types of procedures. Rules of engagement clearly stated will almost always keep you out of hot water. Ignore at your own risk.

    I’ll take it a step further. Items of real importance such as usage, usage restrictions, payments/progress payments to name a few always require me to state the obvious contained in a given paragraph as well as asking the client to read the paragraph in its entirety and then sign and date that specific subject area. I try to keep this to 3 or 4 items of importance so it doesn’t get too crazy. I find this tends to eliminate almost all problems.

  3. Paul Kagawa says:

    Great article Larry. For years I’ve been using a contract that was originally from the Freelancers Union Contract Creator, a free online form that you fill out to generate a basic contract stating the scope of the work, your responsibilities, the client’s responsibilities, etc.

    After you fill it out once it generates a text document that you can then modify for new jobs, by using “find and replace” in Word or OpenOffice.

    Clients like it because it spells everything out in advance. It’s gotten me out of trouble many times when there was a misunderstanding. You can check it out here:

  4. Sharon says:

    The most important part of my contract is the third page, called “The Change Order Form”. This page is used when requested changes will affect the price. The previous price is stated, the requested changes are written out, and the new price is then stated. Both the client and I sign this page. It can be used as many times as necessary.

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