Tips to Manage Unrealistic Client Expectations

by Andrew Miller   |   Aug 09, 2016   |   Clock Icon 8 min read
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“That client is just being unrealistic!”

Stay in the marketing agency world long enough, and you might find yourself uttering this phrase more than a few times.

The truth is, clients can have unrealistic expectations sometimes. In my experience spanning 10 years and hundreds of clients, a seemingly unrealistic client is usually a client that is not being properly understood.

Here are the seven most common client quotes that indicate a potential problem in the relationship. Inexperienced agency owners or consultants might write these off as unreasonable requests, but most times they come down to mismatched expectations.

It is essential to understand the underlying issues and address the root causes of each client request. To help get you started, I have included ideas on how to respond, ways to defuse the situation, and how to prevent future occurrences to build long-lasting client relationships.

“That’s not what was in the proposal.”

Issue: The client and agency have different expectations

Root Cause: Expectations were not properly set in the sales process

Clients start forming opinions and expectations from the moment they engage with your company. The formal relationship typically starts with a few conversations with your sales team. You are setting yourself up to fail if your sales process doesn’t include a detailed discussion about the client’s objectives and your ability to deliver on them.


  • Clarify your clients’ business objectives
  • Determine if progress toward their goals is measurable
  • Establish timelines and milestones
  • Create communication protocols for planned and unplanned requests


  • Assume your clients’ objectives are the same as everybody else’s
  • Paint yourself into a corner by agreeing to unmeasurable goals

“We need to adjust our strategies.”

Issue: A client is moving the goalposts too often

Root Cause: Strategies are not delivering the expected results

Objectives and expectations can change throughout the course of a campaign based on your client’s business or external factors. Don’t be afraid to pivot when a strategy clearly isn’t working, but make sure the shift is deliberate and well planned.


  • Dig into the root causes for the strategic shift
  • Look for ways to test the new strategy before investing the time and resources to the full change


  • Assume the strategy or objectives are always to blame; many times the tactical execution can be improved
  • Make decisions with insufficient data

“Why are you recommending that?”

Issue: Client doesn’t understand the rationale behind a decision

Root Cause: Strategies are not presented in terms of client objectives

Agencies become experts at solving different marketing challenges across many industries. This can lead to the false assumption that clients understand our work as well as we do. We must continue to put ourselves in our clients’ shoes and communicate in their language if we hope to develop a high level of trust.


  • Make sure your recommended tactics ladder up to strategies, and that those strategies accomplish the client’s objectives
  • Provide rationale for all of your recommendations and decisions
  • Frame your conversations in your client’s language


  • Assume the client understands your decision-making process
  • Use industry jargon or technical terms unless the client understands it

“Can you give me an update on our campaigns?”

Issue: Client is not up-to-date on results or work in progress

Root Cause: Agency is not proactively checking in and providing updates

It is extremely easy to get too busy or too complacent with our campaigns and forget to include the client in conversations and updates about progress. There should be no surprises when progress toward client objectives is on/off track. Even when things aren’t going well, proactive communication goes a long way toward identifying issues and discussing options for improvement.


  • Acknowledge client requests quickly, even if just a confirmation of receipt and an ETA for a response
  • Schedule regular update calls or meetings to review results and progress toward goals
  • Automate basic reporting to share metrics with clients and use your update meetings to share insights and recommendations rather than just regurgitating data
  • Be upfront with a client if strategies aren’t producing the desired results


  • Just identify the problem—offer a solution
  • Assume you can hide bad results by not communicating with a client
  • Treat all clients the same by providing cookie-cutter reporting

“You can do that too, right?”

Issue: Agency performs work that is out of scope, a.k.a. Scope Creep

Root Cause: Agencies are afraid to say “No” to unreasonable requests

Of course you want to please your clients and provide excellent service, but don’t bite off more than you can chew. Most clients are respectful and understand there’s a limit to what an agency can provide, but many times we end up on a slippery slope by not identifying what is and is not in scope. We don’t have any grounds to say “No,” or, even better, “Yes, and…” before presenting a separate project with a new scope.


  • Have frequent prioritization discussions so you know how important new initiatives are compared to the original work
  • Refer to your original contract when new initiatives are discussed
  • Make it easy for clients to agree to additional scope by explaining how the new initiatives will complement the existing work


  • Be afraid to push back on client requests if they fall too far outside of your existing contract
  • Risk missing a deadline or not hitting a goal because you took on more than you bargained for
  • Set yourself up to fail by overpromising and under delivering

“My cousin’s teenage son told me about a way to improve our results. I want to try that.”

Issue: Client wants to find a magic potion to fix all of their issues

Root Cause: Client doesn’t respect your expertise

Remember that you are the expert. Your client hired you to solve a particular problem, and they should expect honest, data-backed recommendations. Still, they may become prescriptive and propose a solution from an outside source, which could be a blog post, an old marketing adage, or the latest buzzword-laden webinar.


  • Listen to your client’s ideas or suggestions
  • Ask about the rationale for their suggestions
  • Try to figure out their motivation: Are they unhappy with your service, or are they just trying to help?
  • Provide a logical, concise, data-driven counter-argument, if necessary, and make sure your client is equipped to make an informed decision


  • Just tell the client what they want to hear
  • Assume anything about what your clients do/don’t know
  • Shoot down their ideas in an insulting way

“If you can’t make this happen, we’ll have to cancel our agreement.”

Issue: Client is applying leverage by threatening to take their business elsewhere

Root Cause: Client isn’t happy with the results, the relationship, or both

Every client–agency relationship eventually comes to an end. It’s the nature of our business. Reputations are made and lost based on how you handle these situations. If you burn too many bridges, you’ll eventually have to pay the price when future clients get wind of your tactics.

In my experience, most client relationships end on good terms when we are empathic and see things from their perspective.


  • Know when to agree to disagree
  • Have a plan to gracefully terminate the relationship if necessary
  • Leave the door open to work together again, if appropriate


  • Get defensive
  • Torpedo your work efforts to get back at the client
  • Escalate the tension levels unnecessarily

“Let me make sure I heard you correctly.”

You have identified your client's missed expectations and fixed their short-term pain.

That's step 1.

Now let's make sure it never happens again. Practice active listening and let your client speak. Ask probing questions if you need more information. Always recap your conversations and to-do's after a client conversation to ensure both sides are in agreement. Don't hesitate to ask for clarity if something doesn't make sense to you.

Most clients would rather answer a seemingly silly question than have to fix a miscommunication later on. Establish and exceed your client's expectations to ensure the mutually beneficial relationship continues as long as possible.

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Portrait of Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller

Andrew is a data-driven marketer, speaker, and problem solver. He co-founded Workshop Digital in 2015 and as the VP of Client Services, he ensures our teams of passionate people have what they need to help our clients achieve their goals. Andrew regularly speaks to marketing and professional audiences with an authentic, passionate message to raise their collective marketing intelligence.

Andrew collects hobbies and devotes his time to his family, competing in triathlons, amateur gardening, and mentoring Richmond youth as a member of the Junior Achievement of Central Virginia board of directors.