Why do clients with unrealistic budgets have unrealistic expectations?

Why do clients with unrealistic budgets have unrealistic expectations? This is a question I often hear from web designers and creative agencies.

We’ve all been there. You take on that project with a small client who has very little budget, either for the experience or the promise of more work, or simply because you need the cash and just can’t say no.

You know these are the clients who will try and squeeze more requirements in after agreeing a brief (aka scope creep), they want a million revisions and changes afterwards, they’re on the phone every five minutes and they don’t pay on time.

Conversely, you get large clients with realistic budgets. They know what they want and they expect to pay for it. They pay on time and once the job if finished, it’s finished.

So it’s good that our small clients are thinking big, but what causes this phenomenon we see with small budget clients and their unrealistic demands? And what can we do about it to make our lives easier and manage their expectations?

What’s their problem?

We asked a number of web design clients what they thought the causes were and the number one answer was:

A lack of understanding of what’s involved in providing the outcome they want. And therefore a lack of appreciation of the value of what you provide (and how long it’s taken you to learn it).

Proliferation of tools like Wix and Canva don’t help. You’ve seen the ads that promise beautiful results using these tools. The fact is they’re just tools. They don’t give the user design skills. And we can see the results out in the wild (‘wild’ being the operative word).

No wonder everyone is confused and people query the rates for a professional designer.

Berenice Smith, Hello Lovely Design

People just don’t understand the thought that goes into a design: the psychology behind colour theory, the art of composition, the mechanics of responsive design and the effects on performance on any change.. just name just a few parts of the puzzle that is web design.

Size matters

We can see a relationship between client size and their understanding and knowledge – and therefore appreciation of value and real-world pricing.

Smaller agencies and freelancers will naturally attract smaller clients and start-ups, mostly because of budgets. And because they’re networking in the same circles. And there is a general assumption that small agencies and freelancers will charge less.

Established clients will likely have been down the cheapo route and realised that while they’ve only spent a small amount, it was a waste of money as they’ve see no return on it. They’ve learned the hard way that you get what you pay for and that real value is measured by ROI. Well, certainly with web design.

As WordPress developer Alan Fuller of Fullworks says, “Clients with unrealistic budgets, due to either lack of research or a lack of understanding the ROI, have unrealistic expectations”.

Trying it on

Let’s not just put it all down to ignorance though. There is an element of audacity too. A trait common among entrepreneurs and small business owners. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. That’s what I was always told.

Either way, the problem for these clients is they inevitably end up with a provider whose skills and prices match their budget. And this often means they get a product that has problems, which they end up spending more on fixing, or it just plain sucks and returns nothing on their investment.

The other side to this coin is that while clients don’t understand the value in what we do, it means they cant differentiate between a cheap and an expensive service. They don’t understand why one developer charges ‘the earth’ bill Joe Bloggs down the road will do it for a fiverr [sic].

All the while making them increasingly wary of web developers.

We’ve all had clients come to us because they’ve been seemingly “shafted” by the last designer, right?

Is there a solution?

As Kerry Orton of Orton Marketing says, “Selling a service is harder than selling a tangible product”. And that’s the key point here: clients not understanding what they’re getting for their money.

There are two things we can do to clarify things for clients: We can educate them and we can ‘productise’ our services to make them more tangible.

Make it easy for them

As Robin Waite explains in his book Take Your Shot, packaging up your services as products means breaking them down into manageable, understandable chunks that promise a guaranteed outcome, rather than selling the mechanics of the service itself.

Your product must have a set of features which provide a guaranteed result for your clients. It must be delivered over a set period of time. It must be recognisable – this is called packaging.

From Take Your Shot

It means the client can see what they’re getting. They’re buying an outcome. An outcome is tangible and you’re limiting the scope of what you’re offering so you can manage expectations, reduce friction and avoid disappointment

Some people, you just can’t reach

Educating your audience isn’t quite as straightforward. For three fairly obvious reasons:

  1. How do you educate someone on the value of what you do?
  2. At what point in your funnel do you educate them?
  3. Do they really want to be educated? Do they need or want to know the intricacies of what we do?

Simply explaining what’s involved behind the scenes, all the things they didn’t realise were involved and how long it took you to learn these skills. You can do that, right – but when? When do you get the chance to explain?

If I take my car to the garage for repair, I don’t need to know what exactly is being done. I just want to know that my car will be fixed – properly. I’m not just taking my car to the garage because I don’t have time. I need their expertise.

Surely the garage would want me to understand that value before even considering giving them my business. That’s easier for them than having to do a big sales pitch at the door.

So assuming we’ve excluded those who aren’t willing to listen, at what point do we need to educate out clients to make them understand what they really need and what’s involved in providing it?

It’s not you

So we’ve identified the problem. Clients have unrealistic expectations because of lack of insight into what we do. This means they can’t possibly value that work because they don’t understand what’s involved.

We see that, in general, these unrealistic clients are just starting out in business and have little understanding of real-world pricing and value.

But the real question is do they need or want to be educated?

So it seems if we don’t package our services or we don’t get the opportunity to educate our clients on what we really do and what they really need, they have to learn the hard way through disappointment.

That can’t be right, but is it just part of the process of learning through the experience of running your own business?

Have you had a similar experience with unrealistic client expectations, and how did you handle it?

David Orchard

David Orchard

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