Managing Client Expectations

by Sunitha Narayanan

"Life is so constructed that an event does not, cannot, will not, match the expectation." --Charlotte Bronte

I need a job now. Can you help?
I must change career direction. What is your expertise?
I've always job searched this way, why should I change?
I have always dreamed of... Can you imagine career ideas to support my dreams?

A career consultant works with a variety of clients with individual needs and expectations. Not only do clients have expectations, so do consultants. When the two sets of expectations overlap reasonably, the chances of a successful outcome for the client-consultant relationship is high. However, when there is a mismatch, the effectiveness of this relationship can be seriously jeopardized, resulting in negative feelings and poor results.

How can consultants recognize a mismatch between spoken and hidden expectations? What are some benchmarks that can be mutually set to understand and meet client expectations? Which skills help consultants identify their own expectations in the counseling process? And, what if there is incongruence between expectations, needs and actions? How can the participants move towards congruence and successful outcomes?

The "impatient" client

Lisa wanted to find employment right away. "How long will it take to find a job?" was her favorite question. Within two weeks into her search, Lisa expressed frustration that nothing was working. The processes used by the consultant to acknowledge this disappointment included:

  • Using "reality testing" as a tool, summarizing and asking open-ended questions: For example, "What are some things that are bothering you the most?" "What would you like to do differently?" Asking questions helped move this client towards proactive steps.
  • Quantifying the time actually spent on the search versus the perception that a "huge" amount of time has been wasted: The exact time used was mapped by creating a spreadsheet with benchmarks that employers targeted and the time the client spent weekly on specific job search tasks. She remarked after this exercise, "It hasn't been long, has it?"
  • Revisiting the self-assessment process: Some of the opportunities pursued by the client were a misfit with her values, interests and skills. This process helped the client make a list of target positions rather than applying for "all" positions in her field.
  • Encouraging the client to include informational interviewing into her job search: This strategy started out slowly but the client saw rich results, such as resume advice and leads.

Lisa eventually accepted an offer with a marketing firm, garnered through informational interviewing.
The "agreeable but passive" client

Stella's goal was to prepare a resume and delay job search. However, Stella was reluctant to get started on a resume draft. She always responded eagerly to suggestions, promising to send information for drafting a resume, setting a deadline for completing the resume data and looking through career resources. A month into the relationship, the client and consultant were still revisiting conversations with the same theme. How can the consultant help "unfreeze" Stella?

Paraphrasing conversations to bring out unspoken fears such as adjusting to a new city and missing her "old" life, and asking questions such as, "What are some concerns stopping you from completing these career tasks?" helped Stella address her concerns, for example:

  • Acknowledging her fear of driving without dismissing it made the client feel self-confident. Since she lived in a city with limited public transportation, this would change how she approached her job search. Once this was clarified, she was optimistic about preparing her resume.
  • Recognizing her difficulty in gathering resume data: An exercise that identified skills from past experiences helped in creating a functional style resume.
  • Encouraging writing as a tool to explore her "ideal day."

Stella has redefined what her "ideal" job is and is willing to embrace the risks inherent in life/ career choices.
The "resistant" client

John relocated to the United States where his employment opportunities were limited by visa restrictions. John described himself as a high energy and achievement oriented individual and wanted the consultant to find him contacts. As he shared, "I am confident of selling myself; just find me a contact."

The consultant gave him a contact and suggested he have a resume ready for that conversation. John responded, "It doesn't need any work." Other suggestions were also turned down. The areas of mismatch included John's reluctance to look at the larger picture and the consultant's frustration about feeling "ineffective." These processes may help both the client and consultant.

  • Revisiting the action plan highlighting how short-term goals can help reach long-term goals.
  • Sharing how changes could be made on a resume without sacrificing content.
  • Creating a support resource for John by connecting him with another client in the area who also had visa restrictions. John could benefit from such a relationship.
  • Recognizing that effectiveness as a consultant in this relationship is to continue to present ideas and challenge perceptions.

Did these strategies help? Not to perfection. However, talking about these issues did improve client-consultant communications.
What is the role of a consultant in managing diverse expectations, both from clients and within themselves? It is to recognize that clients and consultants can be speaking the same language but saying and meaning different things. Each client is unique and requires the consultant to look inward and revisit their counseling skills, identify areas of growth, and be honest about what they can offer to their clients. Client expectations and consultant expectations are two sides of the same coin. Bridging the gap through improved communication will allow for successful outcomes -- some minor, some significant.

Sunitha Narayanan lives in Cincinnati, OH, where she has taught career exploration at the College of Mt. St. Joseph and Miami University. As an independent career consultant with Ricklin-Echikson Associates she also assists clients with global transition and career management issues. She has masters degrees in counseling and higher education administration, and has published in Mobility magazine and Corporate Relocation News. Reach her at Email: a.narayanan@fuse.net

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