Avatar photo Alex Thompson
Nov 13, 2023

“I remember it was 2007. And this client, a major one for our agency, had just signed my quote for SEO. We were both excited about our partnership and they were eager to start seeing results.


‘Great!’ he said. ‘How long til we get on page 1?’


And just like that, the honeymoon was over. I immediately stopped him. ‘Let me lower your expectations,’ I said.


His reply: ‘You must be the worst salesperson in the world.’


I then went on to explain the process, our methodology, and what he could reasonably expect. And that client? They’re still with us today after 18 years.”

– Michael C., EngNet

Managing client expectations can be tricky. On the one hand, an enthusiastic client is one who actually appreciates what you do for their company. But when their expectations don’t match up with reality, it can lead to serious disappointment, dwindling budgets, and full-on churn.

So, how can your agency get better at managing client expectations? Here are 5 winning strategies.

1. Conduct a Thorough Client Needs Assessment

Step one of managing client expectations is understanding who you’re working with.

What are their pain points that led them to sign on? What challenges are they facing today and have faced in the past? What are their goals with this partnership?

Starting out your relationship with a thorough client needs assessment is key to gathering this vital information.

Every agency will have its own “flavor” when conducting this analysis. But some good questions to get you started include:

  • What are your business’s top priorities?
  • What are its biggest challenges?
  • Which marketing objectives do you hope to achieve? (drive web traffic, build awareness, generate sales leads, etc.)
  • What marketing have you done in the past to achieve those objectives? How did they perform?
  • How do you plan to gauge/track the effectiveness of this campaign?

For an example of a great client needs assessment, check out the needs analysis form for Zoe Marketing & Communications.

Sitting down with your client and going over these questions before starting the work will:

  1. Let you create a campaign more tailored to your client (better results)
  2. Nip any outlandish client expectations in the bud (before they get out of control)

Tip: Shut up and listen.

Make a conscious effort at active listening during this stage. That means:


  • Asking follow-up questions (don’t just stick to the script)
  • Paraphrasing your client’s answers (“So what I’m hearing you say is…”)
  • Don’t interrupt, judge, or make assumptions

2. Create SMARTer Goals

Setting shoddy goals is the main culprit in bad client expectation management. The clearer and more defined the goals, the easier it is to measure and prove the success of your campaigns to clients.

When setting your campaign goals, use the SMART framework:

  • Specific (targeted)
    • No: Increase revenue from our marketing campaigns.
    • Yes: Generate more inbound leads from our PPC campaigns.
    • Yes: Generate more inbound leads from our Google Ads and Bing Ads campaigns.
  • Measurable (quantifiable)
    • No: Use PPC to bring in more targeted leads.
    • Yes: Generate PPC leads at $100 CPL.
    • Yes: Earn 150 MQLs from our PPC campaigns.
  • Attainable (realistic)
    • No: Earn 350 MQLs from our PPC campaigns with a ROAS of 9,000%.
    • Yes: Earn 200 total leads with an average of $80 CPL.
    • Yes: Earn 150 MQLs from our PPC campaigns with a ROAS of 400%.
  • Relevant (related to larger goals)
    • No: Earn 150 MQLs from our PPC campaigns with a ROAS of 400%.
    • Yes: Earn 200 total leads at $80 CPL for our new product launch PPC campaigns.
    • Yes: Earn 150 MQLs from our new product launch PPC campaigns with a ROAS of 400%. 
  • Time-bound (on a schedule)
    • No: Earn 150 MQLs from our new product launch PPC campaigns with a ROAS of 400%.
    • Yes: Earn 100 MQLs from our new product launch Google Ads campaigns in March.
    • Yes: Earn 250 MQLs from our new product launch PPC campaigns with a ROAS of 400% by the end of March 2024.

Tip: Avoid scope creep if you can, but be prepared anyway.

According to the Project Management Institute, 50% of projects experience scope creep, resulting in 43% of projects coming in over budget and just 51% finishing on schedule. Setting highly defined SMART goals will help rein in scope creep, but you should still be prepared for it by building quoting for extra work into your agency’s processes.

3. Agree on What Success Looks Like

The best way to deal with a client who has unrealistic expectations is to come to an agreement on what success looks like.

And that means defining your campaign's KPIs.

Organic traffic, engagement time, bounce rates, impressions, conversion rates…

There are plenty of marketing metrics and KPIs out there you could use to point to your marketing success. But few get the heart of things like financial figures.

Money is the universal language of all clients. And it’s how you should frame your core metrics, both when setting goals and when reporting on progress to your client.

For instance, a good early metric to focus on is cost per lead (CPL) as it gives a clear breakdown of how your client’s budget was spent. For instance, maybe this past month you generated 100 leads from a $10,000 budget, resulting in a CPL of $100. You can then report on CPL changes over time to show your client optimization progress.

Later, as your relationship grows and you get more access to sales data, you can refine your core metric to show return on investment (ROI). This success measure is an even clearer indicator of your marketing’s real value.

That being said, you should also include other metrics in your reporting that you know are important to your client (this is where the client needs assessment comes in).

For instance, an ultra-competitive client may want to see competitive analysis data in their weekly reporting. Others may want engagement metrics like time on page, bounce rate, and pages per session.

What’s important is that:

  1. You understand these individualized needs before working together.
  2. You equip yourself with the tools needed to report on these metrics.

Read More: The 6 Personalities You Need to Please in Client Reporting

4. Report Consistently or Provide a Client-Facing Dashboard

Good communication is the foundation of any trusting relationship. When it comes to managing client expectations, overcommunication is key.

A lot of clients you work with have likely been burned by bad agencies before. And one of the main challenges you’ll face is earning the trust of a highly skeptical client. Consistent and frequent reporting is one of the best ways to build that trust.

Make it standard procedure to update your clients with weekly, monthly, and quarterly progress reports that hit all the KPIs you both agreed on. You can speed up the process by using tools that feature scheduled reporting and custom report templates.

Some marketing reporting tools also offer a client-facing reporting dashboard complete with white-labeled designs. That way, clients can login and see campaign results for themselves whenever they want.

Tip: Get face-to-face with your updates.

Even if you think your reporting speaks for itself, be sure to carve out time to present each report to your clients. Not only will you be able to give context to the numbers. Your time together will also build rapport and help further establish trust.

5. Use the Right Tools to Answer Client Questions

Clients are bound to have questions during your progress updates—that’s just the nature of the business.

However, the one thing you can change is your ability to answer those questions on the fly.

That’s where interactive reporting comes in.

Interactive reporting (as the name suggests) lets you drill down into the metrics that make up your reports.

So for instance, say you generated 75 qualified leads for your client last month—a good haul.

But your client is new and a bit of a skeptic. So she has some questions:

  • How do I know these aren’t spam?
  • How many of them are existing customers?
  • Are these leads actually qualified and part of our target audience?

You could answer these questions with non-interactive reporting. But you’d need a few hours to put the data together. And by that time the client may have already started researching other agencies.

But with interactive reporting, you can drill down into details on individual leads right from the reports. So as soon as a question comes up, you can look at call transcriptions, customer journey, contact details, marketing attribution, and more—all in just a few clicks.

In the end, interactive reporting lets you show answer client questions in realtime and better prove the value of your marketing.

Tip: Proactively communicate bad news.

No matter how talented your team or how strategic your marketing plan, every campaign is bound to hit bumps in the road. 


Rather than sweeping bad results under the rug, get in front of the problem. Come to the table with 1) a hypothesis on why things went south this month and 2) a plan to improve next month. 


Reporting proactively on lackluster results does wonders for building trust and ensuring a long-lasting partnership.

Wrapping Up

Knowing how to manage client expectations is a must for marketing agencies.

Beyond taking the time to understand your client’s challenges and objectives, you also need the right tools (like WhatConverts) to be transparent, inspire trust, and show the true value of your marketing.

Read More: 9 Best Marketing Reporting Software for Agencies in 2023 (In-Depth Look)

Avatar photo
Alex Thompson

Alex Thompson is a professional copywriter and content writer with a passion for turning complex ideas into digestible, educational content that keeps readers engaged. He specializes in content marketing, SEO, and B2B marketing.

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