The conventional wisdom about “managing expectations” is that you should determine what someone’s expectations are, and then surpass them. Theoretically this is supposed to please them. It’s an interesting approach but I believe it is misguided. Why? Because the client’s expectations are often flawed in the first place.
If you contemplate the origin of expectations, it is easy to see why they might be distorted. Many people get their notions of what lawyers do from television, or perhaps anecdotes from family gatherings, or even from someone sitting at the next stool in a bar. Even sophisticated repeat users of legal services often have expectations that are simply not realistic.
In the world of expectations, processes seem to occur almost instantaneously. For example, let us suppose a lawyer needs an evaluation of a business for negotiations on the purchase or sale of the business, or even for litigation regarding it. How long would it take to get such a valuation? A client might think it should take a week, when it might in fact take three weeks, or three months.
When I ask professionals who do such a valuations how long that process takes, it’s usually quite a bit longer than I would have guessed.
Each of us has ruler in our head against which we measure everything. The ruler represents our expectations. But what does that ruler look like? If I think that a process should take only a few days, a week or two later I will feel as though the professional serving me has dropped the ball… has let me down… doesn’t care at all about me… is unprofessional…. In fact, I’m beginning to resent that professional, and now I have a negative predisposition toward any fee that might appear in an invoice.
What this picture overlooks is the opportunity the professional has to shape and mold the ruler in the client’s head, so that the client’s expectations (the ruler) will be more realistic. It does not follow that the client would necessarily be upset because a valuation would take several weeks instead of several days… the unhappiness is created by the dissonance between the artificial expectation and the reality.
So, I advocate not attempting to ascertain expectations and transcend them, but rather to engage in a process designed to create reasonable expectations – and then to transcend those. In essence, I am not satisfied with taking the ruler as I find it. Instead, I want to take advantage of an opportunity to transform that ruler into a state that is in harmony with reality.
I believe that the reason so many professionals do not engage in the process of modifying expectations is that it simply does not occur to them. The discussions with the client do not reveal the distorted expectations that the ruler already contains, and therefore it does not occur to the professional that modifications might be essential. Problems begin with a basic, grave misconception: that the client starts with reasonable and informed expectations. This misconception likely arises from a psychological phenomenon which basically says that we assume that what we believe and know, others believe and know as well.
So do yourself a favour. The next time you are in the role of serving someone else, whether a client outside your firm or one of the other professionals within it, take a few moments to explore what their ruler looks like, and then help them modify it in harmony with reality so that it will realistically measure your effort and the results that are at least possible to achieve.
If I’m allowed to shape the ruler, I can almost always meet or transcend the expectations of the person in whom that ruler resides. In other words, I have precluded the outcome of falling short on impossible expectations.
I argue that modifying expectations is a “license to print” client satisfaction – and leaves traditional thinking about managing expectations in the dust.