Managing client expectations is a big part of an adviser’s job

Don’t over deliver simply out of fear of creating conflict or even losing the client relationship

In recent surveys reporting the challenges faced by advisers, managing expectations and servicing and attracting new clients lead the list. Having talked in this column about the ways advisers hold themselves back when it comes to attracting new clients, it’s time to tackle the issue of expectations.

Like many other limitations on our potential, expectations aren’t in our conscious periphery. Everyone has expectations, but few of us are aware of our own and others’—and fewer still share them. When we aren’t clear on client expectations, it is impossible to meet them. When we aren’t aware of our own, they can create unnecessary difficulty and dilute performance.

One client may call your office, leave a message and wait days to hear back. Others might leave a message and call back in an hour if they haven’t heard from you. The difference? Expectations.

I’m working with a planning firm that is overwhelmed by service demands. The firm and its team put in long hours yet experienced pinched profits and lackluster growth. Traditional practice management might focus on pricing or segmentation as the obvious answer. But what’s really happening here?


Mindset is the real limitation—in the form of a failure to establish and manage expectations. The firm took clients as they came and serviced them on call, regardless of the request.

They told me: “We didn’t know how to explain services, or put boundaries in place. When clients ask for help beyond what we were hired for, we say ‘yes’ because we don’t know how to say ‘no’ after all these years. And we don’t charge for those extra services because we never told them we would.”

Translation: They never set an expectation, making it very uncomfortable to do so later. They over delivered for fear of creating conflict in the relationship, and possibly losing it.

To understand what’s really happening, and thus to solve for the real problem, we have to delve deeper than traditional business approaches.

Hardwired to ensure our survival above all else, our brains quietly pull our strings in ways that avoid threats at all costs, even if the cost is our success and happiness. Having evolved in very different times, the primitive part of our brains that does this processing doesn’t understand the difference between a hungry sabertooth and losing a client.


Our prefrontal cortex is the cognitive, “thinking” part of our brain that we have access to when we’re not under threat. Thus, the advisers knew intellectually their approach wasn’t working for them; they experienced the pain of it daily. Yet, when faced with confrontation in the form of saying ‘no’ or charging for additional services, the primitive brain stepped in and slammed the brakes.

To our primitive brain, things may not be perfect but we’re alive, so no need to change anything. In this firm, the cycle had gone on for well over a decade, with the firm frustrated yet failing to take action. From the outside, there is no logical business case for this behavior.

Which leads me back to the real premise of this column, that logic does not dictate much of what we do. Our behavior is driven by our mindset, which is driven by embedded beliefs, biases and behaviors in our brains that run the show from behind the curtain.

As I write this, the firm is well into the process of communicating with every client about its additional services, structure and pricing. I’m pleased to report that they haven’t lost a single client; their communications have been quite positive, and they feel more empowered than ever.

The real gain here is that these advisers understand more fully not just what has been happening, but why. They recognize that facing their own fears and limitations, and harnessing the power of expectation setting, is what brought this much-needed change to bear for their benefit.

After more than a decade of discomfort, they took an expanded view of themselves and their practice, deciding it was time to take charge once again, and bring the purpose and passion back to their practice.

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