From Blind Expectation to Great Expectations

Everyone has expectations, from family & friends to colleagues, and most vitally to any professional services business, customers.  Most of the time, however, we understand the expectations of others incompletely.  We approach relationships from the perspective of our own expectations, but don’t often take the time and effort to understand the other person’s expectations.  This is complicated by fact that people often aren’t willing or able to verbalize their expectations; some even actively attempt to hide them.  And not understanding the other person’s expectations always leads to trouble.

The classic Indian fable “The Blind Men and the Elephant” humorously demonstrates the dangers of having only a partial understanding of a truth.  (If you’re not familiar with the story, watch the video above for a wonderful spoken rendition.)  In our case, the elephant represents client expectations.  The moral for us is that we need to take the time to fully explore and understand the elephant — client expectations — before we make judgments and formulate our plans to engage with the client. And when the elephant is client expectations, that elephant may be constantly changing.


In a well written, two part article on managing client expectations1, David Alev introduces the S-M-I model: Set, Monitor, and Influence.  I like the model, but think that starting with expectation setting falls into the very trap that I point out above — we haven’t first taken the time to discover the preconceived expectations of the client.  Expectation setting is selfishly motivated; it is centered on what we want to accomplish, not on understanding and delivering what the client wants.

I would like to propose a variation on the S-M-I model: Discover, Influence, and Monitor, or D-I-M.  (I know, the name is not very complimentary, but I think the model is smarter than the name implies!)  Discovering the client’s expectations at the start of a new relationship or new engagement helps in understanding the client better.  Only then will you have a chance to deliver what the client wants.  Only then can you successfully monitor and influence their expectations.

I can hear some of you thinking…”sometimes what the customer wants is not what they need”.  This is often true, and one of the primary value adds of an effective consultant is to understand what the client needs and then help them satisfy that need.  But when what a client truly needs is not aligned with what they expect, it becomes the job of the consultant to influence the client’s expectations and bring them in line with the need.  Only then will the need and any solution to that need be embraced by the client.  So we see that once again, this process of aligning expectations to underlying need starts by first discovering the mis-aligned expectations.


So how do you discover the expectations of your clients?  Here are my Four “C”s for Discovering Client Expectations:

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.  The only way to discover client expectations is to engage.  Make sure you do more listening than talking.
  • Carefully observe.  Most of human communication is non-verbal.  The client’s body language, tone and actions should be consistent with what is being said.  If they are not, keep digging.  You may also learn things from observation that you simply won’t get from what is being said.
  • Confirm.  When you think you understand the client’s expectations, share your understanding with them and get their confirmation.  This validates your perceptions, and builds trust and intimacy as the client realizes that you are genuinely intent on understanding them.
  • Clarify.  If you cannot confirm your client’s expectations, or if you get confirmation, but from a client who has a glazed look in their eyes (non-verbal cues again!), then work to clarify your understanding through more dialogue.

Only once you’ve gotten validation of the client’s expectations are you ready to move into influencing the client’s expectations to help meet their needs and monitoring their expectations as progress is made towards a solution.  (The second part of David’s article contains helpful tips for influencing and monitoring expectations.)


“Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

— “Great Expectations”, Charles Dickens

Mostly likely at one point or another in your career, you have experienced the pain of failure due to misaligned expectations.  One day you found yourself sitting in the rubble of a failed project or a ruined client relationship.  Like this fitting quote from Dickens, you may very well be able to reflect back to that first instance where you felt a tug of uneasiness that you were not on the same page as the client.  Perhaps you had been so consumed with your own expectations for the relationship that you simply ignored the client’s expectations.  Or maybe you understood the client’s expectations at the onset, but stopped listening altogether as you became embroiled in an always hectic business environment.

If you have experienced this pain in the past, take heart! It is possible to manage expectations. Commit to invest the time required to fully discover, influence and monitor your clients’ expectations.  Refuse to blindly engage customers, and help your clients realize their great expectations of success!

What do you think of the D-I-M model for managing expectations?  Can you think of an example from your own career where discovering client expectations led to a successful outcome?  Where a lack of understanding of expectations led to failure?  Leave a reply below and share your experiences!