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Setting expectations for agency clients

One of the biggest sources of friction between agencies and clients comes from mismatched expectations.

Too often agency leaders don’t do enough to set realistic expectations during the business development phase of the relationship. It’s exciting to get a deal done so we often allow prospective clients to entertain inflated expectations without correcting them — or to avoid discussion of expectations altogether.

Chip and Gini explain that for healthy, sustainable relationships with clients, agencies must get agreement on shared expectations every step of the way. The agency’s process and timeline should be clearly explained so that everyone knows what will happen and when results can be expected.

Avoiding the expectations conversation may lead to short-term business wins, but they often produce bad-fit clients and high churn rates.

Key takeaways

  • Gini Dietrich: “When you’re in new business meetings, the questions you have to ask are what are your expectations of us? What does success look like?”
  • Chip Griffin: “We all know that agencies cannot be successful without a lot of help from our clients.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “We tend to think, Well, gosh, prospects are going to freak out that it’s going to take us six months to get results. So let’s just not mention it.”
  • Chip Griffin: “If the prospect doesn’t like your process, it’s better to find that out before they sign than after.”

The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: And I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: Gini, I’ve, I’ve got some expectations that I need to clue you in on. Great. Right after this.

Gini Dietrich: I answered that very happily, but now I’m scared of your expectations.

Chip Griffin: Well, no, I’m, I’m addressing your expectations, really, because, you know, I know that you had expected that we would have a million listeners by the time we hit the five year mark, and I guess I might’ve forgotten to tell you back then that I didn’t think that was a reasonable expectation.

And so we’re not quite, not quite there.

Gini Dietrich: We’re not quite there. That’s all right. I understand. I don’t think I’m as understanding as some clients might be, but I understand.

Chip Griffin: Well, you know, I mean, you had, you had mentioned that you were, you wanted those numbers, but, and I just wanted you to be my co host so badly that I just couldn’t, I couldn’t, I couldn’t tell you the truth that that was not a realistic expectation.

We deal with it when we got to that time.

Gini Dietrich: And here we are, and we don’t have a million. Shoot. Well, bummer. I guess you’ll have to find a new co host. Make sure you tell them the next five years, not going to get to a million.

Chip Griffin: Well, then why would I do that? I mean,

Gini Dietrich: I feel like you’ve learned your lesson. It’s a lesson you should learn.

Chip Griffin: I mean, maybe, but you know, then I wouldn’t be like a lot of agencies, which is, which is how we got here because agencies sadly often do not set accurate expectations with prospects before they become clients or even clients when they’re talking about some new initiative or new plan that they want to implement, because we don’t want to be the bad guy that’s telling them, yeah, getting into the Wall Street Journal next week is probably not going to happen, right?

Because we want them to sign on the dotted line. We want them to hire us. We figure. Yeah. Yeah. We can sort all that stuff out. They’ll just, they will like working with us so much that we’ll be able to get past that.

Gini Dietrich: Last week, I had, so we’re recording this in October, I had someone from my team come to me and say, So client A wants to launch their new product the day after Thanksgiving.

To which I laughed out loud. And I said, and what did you say? And he said, I wasn’t sure what to say. So I didn’t say anything. And I was like,

you, you have to tell them we can’t launch something the day after Thanksgiving. Like nobody will care if you’re not going to launch it before Thanksgiving, we need to wait until January. And so I had to give him the pep talk to go back and say to the client, like, this is not, this is not smart. We, we, you really shouldn’t do this because that is not an accurate expectation that you’re going to launch a new product and have all sorts of fun things happen for you the day after Thanksgiving.

Chip Griffin: And this is a U. S. based business. It is. Because I’ve certainly seen foreign businesses sometimes, you know, not realize, Oh, this is a day I haven’t in other countries as well.

And so you’re like, Oh, no, I guess we probably don’t want to roll us out on Maltese Independence Day or whatever, you know, which is a real thing, by the way, just so everybody knows. Because it’s one I’ve stumbled across in the past when I wanted to get something done, some colleagues in Malta. Anyway so.

Yeah, I mean, that’s, I, I don’t even know what to say. I mean, I guess, you know, if, if it was something where, you know, it helped them to break through the lines at Walmart to get in, like, then maybe that’s an okay day to launch. But if it has nothing to do with cutting the line, knocking other people over to get that, you know, magic toy for your kid, then…

Gini Dietrich: The reason was we don’t want our team to have to work over the holidays.

And I was like, wait…

Chip Griffin: wait, what?

Gini Dietrich: That was the reason.

Chip Griffin: Wouldn’t the team then have to work the day after Thanksgiving, which most businesses give off?

Gini Dietrich: And also the week up leading up to including the day of Thanksgiving, right? Or everything. Because usually when you launch something big, you’re working the day before.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, because I can tell you that years ago I did do a campaign that was targeted at Black Friday and that was not fun for me or the rest of the team. Because we did have calls on Thanksgiving and you know, we had stuff we had to do, but it was, I mean, it made sense because it was a Black Friday themed message that we were putting out.

And so you kind of had to do it that day, right? So it made sense in that context, but I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to target that day. But any case, that’s a great example, because it’s the kind of thing where you do have to sometimes hear clients say things that you’re like, well, do what? You think this is possible?

You need to be the adult in the room who is happy to go to them and say, look, this is not a reasonable expectation. Here’s what we can do. But too often either with prospects because we want to get them to sign or clients because we don’t want conflict. We don’t push back in a timely fashion to let them know. And so we, we often allow their unrealistic expectations to linger.


Gini Dietrich: I mean, that’s, that’s, it’s a perfect example. And that’s the conversation I had with my team, which was, listen, we can’t let this linger. You have to go back immediately and say, we don’t think this is going to work. And here’s why. Here is our recommendation. And, and they did, you know, I mean, To your point, a lot of times we want to avoid conflict and they were, they definitely wanted to avoid the conflict.

But I said, it’s going to be much worse in the long run if we don’t attack this now and say, expectation wise, your expectation is wonky. Not in those words, but your expectation is wonky. Here’s what we recommend instead. And I really said, like, we need to, you, you need to wait until middle of January before we even think about launching this, because you’re not going to get anything between Christmas and New Year’s.

Or I mean, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Geez Louise.

I’m getting all my holidays mixed up. That was rough.

Chip Griffin: Last week or the week before you mixed up your transcription services and created a brand new one. And I don’t know, my expectations of you are going way down. Anyway. You know, I, I think that the, that we need to spend more time remembering that we want to talk about ourselves as strategic advisors to clients.

We want to elevate how we appear and how we think about ourselves. And we talk about, you know, what we need to price like we’re actually giving advice. Not like we’re just, you know, worker bees. All of that’s great. But then you actually need to step up to the plate and when, and when it is time, you need to have those difficult conversations.

And I, I think it really does start during the sales process, during the business development process, because this is where I think that you’ll often end up with the largest gap in expectations. Because first of all, as we’ve talked about repeatedly here, we’re often presenting a proposal to a client for a solution based on extraordinarily little information.

And so we’re all sitting in the room around the table. We’re on the zoom with all sorts of happy talk about all of the great things we’ve done for other people, all of the great things that they would like to see happen. And we never really have a true meeting of the minds of this is what the expectation is on the client side, and here’s how we’re actually going to get there on our side.

And so if you, if you allow the ambiguity to exist, yes, you may get the signature on the contract, but you’re setting yourself up for failure somewhere down the road, 3, 6, 9, 12 months down the road, when the client realizes… you didn’t do those things I thought you were going to do. And maybe you did such a great job in building the relationship that they, they accept that, but maybe they don’t, maybe they come back to that and they say, you know, I, I thought you were going to get me in the Wall Street Journal.

I thought we were going to be able to do this launch by this date. I thought we were going to have this many viewers on our website. If, if, if those things are still in their mind, because you didn’t correct them upfront, you are now setting yourself up for not just a client who is not likely to renew or continue the relationship.

But they’re likely to be unhappy, and unhappy clients often tell other people that they’re unhappy. So, yes, you won some short term revenue, but you’ve really shot yourself in the foot for the long term.

Gini Dietrich: Yes, and I would also add that, you know, you may not have asked the question, and the client may not have given you their expectations.

Because the question wasn’t asked and then in their head, they’re like, Oh yeah. Well, I expect just based on my knowledge of how this agency, how these types of agencies work, they’re going to do this, this, and this. And there was no conversation about expectations. So you’re going along the assumption that you’re doing things the way that you do.

And the client’s going along on the assumption that things are done the way that it’s either they’ve had in the past or they have some notion in their head of how it works. And there’s no meeting of the minds from that perspective too. So when you’re, when you’re in your new business meetings, one of the questions you have to ask is what are your expectations of us?

What does success look like? Where would you like to be a year from now? How does that look? What types of things do you consider results? Those are the kinds of questions you should be asking every single time so that you can understand where their expectations are maybe unrealistic and you can set those straight for them.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. I mean, and, and I think, you know, what does success look like?

That’s one of my favorite questions. Right. The way I usually pose it is, you know, a year from now, how will we know we’ve been successful? Yep. And, and so that often will surface any unrealistic expectations. It’s still not fully enough, right? Because sometimes you may be in agreement on the actual goal, but what it takes to get there, there may not still be the meetings of the mind.

So I think part of our job on the agency side is to set the expectations of, of what the start of the relationship looks like, what the engagement from the client looks like, because a lot of times clients may think, Oh, you’re just going to do all the heavy lifting and we don’t have to worry about it.

But we all know that agencies cannot be successful without a lot of help from our clients. And we cannot allow them to think that, yes, we will take all of the burden off on you, right? There is going to be a burden on them, whether that’s reviewing things or providing you information or providing interviews so that we can write things off of it or whatever.

There is a requirement for not just active feedback, but timely and active feedback. And if we’re not setting those expectations from the get go, that may be a pain point down the road as well. So it’s not just the ultimate goals. That’s, that’s where you should start, but you need to make clear that they understand what it’s going to look like in the, in the lead up to getting those results.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. And I think you’re exactly right when you said at the start that we don’t, we want, sometimes we want the signature so badly and the new clients so badly that we’re not, maybe we were not totally honest about how long it takes. Like from a PR perspective, a communications perspective, it takes some time. You know, three or six months is easily, depending on what you’re doing, how long it will take before you see any results. And we’re fearful that the prospect will say, Oh, I don’t have time to wait for that. Or I want to launch something the day after Thanksgiving. And we’re not, we tend to not say, Well, that’s not realistic. And here’s what is realistic.

Or we tend to think, Well, gosh, you know, prospects are going to be freaked out that it’s going to take us six months to get results. So they don’t know what they’re paying for for those first six months. So let’s just not mention it.

Chip Griffin: It happens a lot and I’ve had agency owners say to me, well, you know, why would I want to draw their attention to things they may not like?

Gini Dietrich: Because it’s going to take that long!

Chip Griffin: Right? Because it’s what’s about to happen, right? You know, I mean, it’s why the, the doctor says this may sting a little, right? Instead of just, oh, let’s see what happened, right? Because if you know, it’s going to sting, you can prepare yourself for it.

Right. If you don’t know it’s going to sting, then you’re really shocked and surprised and really angry probably when it actually does. So you need to be clear with your clients and your prospects about when it’s going to sting and you need to help them to understand here’s what the first three months look like.

And it’s going to look in many cases really boring to the client. So you do need to find some ways to work in some – I don’t want to say fun, but more noticeable deliverables into those early stages. You know, and it’s, it’s one of the reasons why the PESO model is so effective for agencies because you can turn out blog posts far sooner than you can get an earned media piece placed or get a journalist interested in your stuff.

Right. So there’s, there’s many more opportunities. And so it’s one of the reasons why agencies should be looking at particularly the owned content piece, because it’s a way that you can at least start showing movement and motion and progress of a sort, even before you get into the big stuff that the client is really looking for.

But you need to let them know, this is what it’s going to look like. There’s going to be a lot of agreeing on messaging, there’s going to be a lot of brainstorming sessions, there’ll be a lot of, you know, back and forth with your team to make sure we have language just right. And if you don’t set that expectation from the start, then they’re going to get frustrated when three, four weeks in, they’re like, why are we still just talking about talking points?

Why, why do we, why can’t we just be out here talking? Why haven’t you set up in any interviews yet? Why aren’t you putting out press releases? Because we’re not on the same page yet. It takes time for us to get up to speed. And that’s part of the process.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. And you raise a really good point that the PESO model works really well for for this kind of stuff.

Because, you know, with one client that we started with just about a year ago, one of the very first things we did was launch a podcast. And it was ugly to start, you know, a year later in it’s the content’s gotten more sophisticated, the guests have gotten more sophisticated, like all of those things.

But the fact that we started it, I think we started it on the third week of working with them. And so they saw progress immediately. But like I said, it was ugly, but they still saw progress and they still saw that we were doing something and they were participating because one of the executives is the host of it.

So they felt like some, there was progress being made as we worked on the other stuff that was more longer term.

Chip Griffin: Right. And that’s why it’s important when you’re putting together, you know, a proposal, a strategy, you know, plan, whatever you want to call it for a prospect, that you mix in these things where there’s short term wins and long term wins, right?

It’s, if you all, if it’s everything into the long term, then it will take too long to see anything. And that will cause frustration. If you only focus on the short term, yeah, you’ll get a lot of little wins. But ultimately, clients like to hit home runs too. And so, you know, you, you need to, you know, at, at least look like you’re trying to hit the home runs and you’re not just sitting there, you know, being happy with you know, a walk every time at bat.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. And I would say too –

Chip Griffin: Use my baseball analogy here as we hit the post.

Gini Dietrich: Hit the postseason, make it, they were going to thought they were going to, yeah, the Red Sox are not, yeah. Short terms, I forgot what I was gonna say anyway. Yeah.

Chip Griffin: Got to mix the short and the long term. That was my point.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, you have to, you have to mix them both. And, you know, it’s really, it’s a lot easier to say, Listen, this is our process.

This is what you can expect. And this is how long it will take us. So like when we do our process, we, of course we use the PESO model. But we also add in lead nurturing in there. And so with this client I mentioned, we didn’t start a lead nurturing program until about five weeks ago. And that’s because we had to create all of the stuff to go with it, right?

We needed case studies. We needed testimonials. We needed content and really juicy content. We needed a survey. We needed all of this stuff that would allow us to do lead nurturing really well and really effectively. And so we couldn’t start it until, so it’s almost a year in before we even started that.

But we’ve had all these smaller wins along the way that will allow that now allow us to go to launch into in its second year, a lead nurturing program that’s going to start to generate leads.

Chip Griffin: And look, if the prospect doesn’t like your process, it’s better to find that out before they sign than after.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, absolutely. Yes.

Chip Griffin: Yes. So you don’t want to share this in week one and here’s the calendar and they say, no, no, this is not good. You need to change this. Share it before they sign so that you can have that healthy discussion then. And if you’re not able to convince them that your way is the right way, or you’re not able to find some modified version that you can still… you know, adopt and feel like you can succeed with, then it’s better to walk away. It’s better not to walk into something where it’s doomed to failure from day one. That just doesn’t, it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. And so you need to really get good at setting those expectations and describing the process that it’s going to take to get there, because that helps people understand if it’s worthwhile, you know, and I think that, you know, if we look at a lot of things in our lives, that it’s the same way, right?

I mean, you know, if I say, okay, you know, I’d like to go run a marathon. Sounds good. It’s going to take, you know, the nine months of very detailed training. Right. And I’ve, I’ve run half marathons, you know, and I, and, and even that takes training, I never did a full marathon because it was more training than I was willing to accomplish.

But if someone said, Oh, sure. It’s easy. I mean, because people will tell you, you’ve done a half marathon, a full marathon’s really no different. It’s funny. I mean, on the one hand, they are correct because it’s not like I’m running for time. I just run to get across the finish line. But it’s still a lot more mileage that you have to put in on a very consistent basis in order to be able to do you know, the full 26 miles.

So, you know, you need to look at the process and make sure that you are comfortable and the client is comfortable with it, because otherwise you’ll feel just the same way that you would have if you had signed up for the Boston marathon, showed up and, you know, without running a mile, no prep, and you’re like, forget Hearbreak Hill…

Gini Dietrich: Crawling across the finish line, maybe. It’s a great analogy. And, and it’s, I think the reason that it’s used so often is because it does illustrate that you can’t go out and run 26.2 miles without training for it,.The same thing you can’t, you have to have a specific training program and you know, I don’t run, but I cycle and the same thing.

I have to have a really specific training schedule to help me reach my goals. And I use that analogy when I talk to clients, depending on, you know, if, especially if they’re athletes as well, then it’s a really easy analogy to say, okay, well. You’re going to train for your 5k and this is what you’re going to, this is how we’re going to get you there.

And then you’re going to train for your 10k and this is what we’re going to do to get you there. And it’s a great analogy to use for, for those who understand, you know, the training piece of being an endurance athlete. So I think you’re right. You just have to, it’s, it’s a lot better to learn about it upfront if they’re not okay with it, because three or six or nine months down the road, you’re going to be frustrated.

They’re going to be frustrated. You’re going to end up breaking ties anyway, and it’s probably going to cost you more money than you made in the long run. And they’re going to tell people you suck.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And you have to be careful that you don’t, that you don’t look at your past track record and say, well, I’ve never done this before, so it’s all fine.

Because that’s, that’s another thing I hear. Well, you know, I’ve run a successful agency. That’s not how we’ve done it. We’ve, you know, we really haven’t had bad experiences. First of all, I think you’re probably not remembering the bad experiences. Right. You’ve blocked them out. I, I would be truly shocked if we, you know, went client by client over the course of the 10 years or whatever you had your agency and didn’t find, I mean, even ones where you probably did set good expectations, you, they, they may still, you know, have felt you didn’t, right.

So you know, and I think that, that you can’t delude yourself in thinking that just because you’ve been able to do it before means that it’s a good practice. And, and not to, to continue to destroy the running analogy. But about 10 years ago, I ran my last half marathon. I ran it on 72 hours notice.

Sorry. Now, in fairness, I had planned to run 10 miles that day anyway. So in my mind, I was going to run 10 miles anyway. So I’m just, I’m just running an extra three, but there’s a big difference between a 10 mile easy training run and a 13 mile, because I’m a competitive guy, even though I’m slow as dirt, you know, and, and much slower today, obviously, but back then I was still slow as dirt. And so I, but I ran out and I ran my best time ever in a half marathon, really, really dumb to do when you weren’t actually training to do it because that was the last half marathon I ever ran because I totally trashed my legs and I’ve never been able to do double digit runs again because I just, I pushed myself way too hard.

And so then everything started hurting and went downhill from there. And I got old too. So that complicates it.

Gini Dietrich: Well, yeah, there’s that. It’s a good lesson though.

Chip Griffin: Hopefully older means wiser in the agency world. It may not in running, right? But it does in the agency world. And that’s what we talk about here on the Agency Leadership Podcast. I think now that we’re really on the verge of just going completely off the rails here, flying over the handlebars of the bicycle or whatever, you know, it’s time to draw this episode to a close.

I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And it depends.

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The Hosts

Chip Griffin is the founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA) where he helps PR & marketing agency owners build the businesses that they want to own. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur to share the wisdom of his success and lessons of his failures. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Follow her on Twitter at @GiniDietrich.

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