Elance Blog

How to Set Expectations with Clients and Avoid Stress

Finally! It’s Friday afternoon. You’ve put in a lot of hours this week—including some late nights—but it looks like your extra work has paid off—you’ll be able to enjoy a real meal tonight, maybe spend some time with friends and most of all just kick back and chill out. You spontaneously smile at your computer screen and start to feel the tension begin to drain from your back.

Then comes a ping—an e-mail from someone you’ve been following up with for months. They just posted a new message in the Elance Workroom that they want you to move ahead on a project and deliver it Monday.

Your smile deflates into a resigned sigh as you turn your attention to the details of the request, and your dreams of rest flicker and fade away like an iPhone run out of battery life. “Looks like it will be a late night,” you mutter to yourself.

Yet another Friday has gone from fantastic to frustrating. You wonder, “Is there any other way? Can I really manage a freelance career without constantly getting pushed around by others’ time demands?”

My answer is yes!

As the CEO and founder of Real Life E®, a company that provides time coaching and training services that empower people to accomplish more with peace and confidence, I’ve found that overcoming the cycle of stress often comes down to setting reasonable expectations with clients. Here’s some of my expert time coaching advice on simple techniques you can use to take back control of your time.

Why is setting time expectations so important?

The challenge for freelancers is that if you don’t set reasonable expectations up front, you’ll end up stressed and your client will end up frustrated. Elance provides excellent online collaboration tools for project planning, including the ability to make milestones, give weekly status reports and to share files in progress. But this virtual office technology doesn’t “think” for itself—it is a tool for documenting and tracking a well-thought out project plan. To plan and estimate effectively, you’ll need to have a clear understanding of the details of the project and consider the variables. (Here’s an Elance post with more specific tips on making better estimates--Right On Time: How to Estimate Project Time Effectively) Make sure both parties communicate any reservations about milestones and projects before terms are finalized with Workroom messages.

What’s one of the biggest problem areas?

Communication is by far one of the biggest issues. It’s essential that you’re responsive to your clients, but it’s OK to set limits on when you will be accessible. If you struggle with setting boundaries, consider establishing “office hours” to contact each other or meeting times when you can chat about your progress in the Workroom. Also try not to set the expectation that you will answer all communication immediately. If you consistently answer e-mail and voicemail in about 24 hours, as opposed to 20 minutes, customers won’t be upset if they don’t hear from you right away. (For more info on this topic, check out my blog post on How to Set E-mail Expectations.)

What about when you don’t hear back from clients?

When clients don’t communicate a decision until right before a deadline, it can wreak havoc on your workflow. To ensure that you protect yourself for such a scenario, try to establish milestones for your projects that include information in the notes section about what you will need from the client. This helps you clarify up front what clients need to provide for you to move forward.

What if the scope of the project changes?

Despite your best efforts to define the requirements for the project and reasonable milestones, changes can happen. Perhaps a website ends up needing many more updates than you anticipated, or a client comes back from a conference with 10 new ideas for the project. Providing excellent service without major stress once again comes down to communication and setting expectations. For instance, if you’re noticing that a task is taking you much longer than you expected, post a note in the Workroom as soon as possible asking your client how they would like you to proceed. That way, your customer can tell you what to focus on and what’s not a priority so that you stay within your hours. On the other hand, if the client is suggesting that you take on something not already within the scope of the project, you can ask them to create and assign a new Elance job to you.

Are there any other ways freelancers can eliminate deadline stress?

Before you make commitments to a deadline and agree to terms, make sure you have a clear sense of when you can complete the work. Just because a client wants something as soon as possible, doesn’t mean that you should plan to stay up until 2 a.m. trying to finish everything for them. Also other factors such as other pending projects, a vacation you have booked or simply a sick day could affect how quickly you can deliver results. Make sure you have open hours on your calendar and plan ahead before you agree to the Elance project terms.

Do you have any other final time tips?

If there’s any part of your business that’s consistently causing you time stress, ask yourself the question, “Should I be setting my expectations differently for myself or others?” Most of the time, the answer is yes!

If you would like to receive more insight on how to go from feeling guilty, overwhelmed and frustrated to feeling peaceful, confident and accomplished, visit www.ScheduleMakeover.com.

About the Author

Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder and CEO of Real Life E®, a time coaching and training company that empowers individuals who feel guilty, overwhelmed and frustrated to feel peaceful, confident and accomplished through an exclusive Schedule Makeover process. Real Life E® also increases employee productivity, satisfaction and work/life balance through custom training programs.

Elizabeth has appeared in Inc magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and on NBC. She was selected as one of the Top 25 Amazing Women of 2010 by Stiletto Woman and as a member of the Young Entrepreneurs Council featured in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Mashable, and many other media outlets.


Excellent advice, and I would like to add that -- wait, it's 5:15, and my wife (a.k.a. as Boundary Babe) is calling from the other room about my needing to get ready for dinner out.... : )

I so agree with the above predicament. I am a new provider and relatively inexperienced in managing time. As a result I take up too much work and end up working late nights. The worst is when a new project that you've been looking forward to has been awarded. The deadline says one week, but there's an existent project thats already taking up too much time. Since we cannot anticipate when the client will award the job how do we tackle this? Plus i think clients also need to specify in the job requirements the date by which they expect the job to be complete to aid clarification. I think Elance needs to look into this and develop some kind of a thing to solve this issue! Im having a tough time with tackling deadlines at the moment.

Thanks for your comments!

It is true that it's hard to not get stressed with deadlines, especially when you're new to freelancing.

I wrote an Elance post on How to Eliminate Deadline Stress that you might find useful: http://www.elance.com/p/blog/2010/06/eliminate_deadline_stress_heres_how...

Also, if you go to www.ScheduleMakeover.com you can receive "5 Ways to Say No to Avoid Overload."

Although it's tempting to take on everything all at once, it's better to say, "No" than to constantly be overwhelmed and potentially not meet client's needs on time.

To your brilliance!
Elizabeth Saunders

Thank you for writing on this subject.
As a new provider, there are scenarios listed here that I did not anticipate but can readliy imagine occurring.
Do you have any advice on dealing with clients who do not post time estimations correctly in the terms agreement? Obviously, I have already run into a situatlon such as this where I and worked more than the alloted time for a fee/hr basis on a transcription project via Time Tracker but the client was referring to pay per audio hour transcribed. They of course listed the terms as pay per hour. There is no option for audio hour. Hopefully, it was an honest mistake on the clients part. My choice as a client would have been to quote the project as a fixed rate per file transcribed without an hourly component. What do you advise, Ms. Saunders?

Thanks so much for this. As a new provider, you bring to mind scenarios that may not been anticipated. Great stuff! Hopefully this will serve to set me and other new providers up to "Win" on Elance.

Hi RNExpertise-

You make an excellent point. Here's how I would craft the agreement in the future based on your past experience:

1. Make it a set project fee.

2. Clearly re-emphasize in the agreement that this is a per hour worked fee NOT an audio hour fee. To clarify further, you might also want to give a tentative estimate, like I believe this will take 4-6 hours of work.

Hope that helps!

To your brilliance!
Elizabeth Saunders

I don't see what this articles can bring to the Elance freelancer scene. I just see through it an auto promotion of frustrated CEO..

Great post, with practical and helpful insights. I tackle similar issues in my book, "What do you expect? The question you need to ask!" The objective is to bring ourselves to realistic expectations. We often do not realize what our expectations really are until we are too far along, and feeling the pressure to fulfill what we promised. How much better to analyze them earlier, and perhaps negotiate a more realistic set of expectations. Then, if we do exceed our promised work, we come off looking so much better, and feeling less stress as well. For further insight into my process for dealing with this, check out my website, www.whatdoyouexpect.ca.