Managing Expectations: The Myth of the Non-Existent Timeline

If you live and work on planet Earth then you’ve experienced something like this:

Joe: Hey Suzie, can you get me X.

Suzie: You betcha’, but I’m pretty swamped right now. When do you need it?

Joe: No rush… whenever you get to it.

managing expectations

Joe and Suzie think they’re on the same page. Solid.

It seems like a harmless exchange so far. Unfortunately, there’s a decent chance this relationship is about to take a nasty hit. Remember, Suzie said she was busy. What happens to a task that doesn’t have a defined timeline when you’re busy? Usually, nothing. Fast forward 3 weeks…Suzie’s been tied up with “high priority” tasks, some of them were even items for Joe:

Joe (now frustrated): Hey Suzie, where is X?

Suzie (sensing Joe’s frustration and getting defensive): I just haven’t been able to get to it. I thought you needed it “whenever…”

Joe: Well yeah, but that was like 3 weeks ago. What have you been doing all this time? This is a small task!

Suzie: Fine! I’ll drop everything and have it for you tomorrow.

Joe: Fine!

Suzie: Yeah, fine!

miscommunication leads to anger

Turns out, Joe and Suzie weren’t even reading the same book.

Boy…That escalated quickly. The problem all started when Suzie and Joe decided to move forward without agreeing on a delivery date.

Every request comes with an expectation of when it will be delivered, even if the requester can’t or won’t identify it. When someone says “Whenever you get to it” they really mean “This is a really easy task and surely you’ll get it before the next board meeting in 3 weeks, so I’m not going to be pushy and set a date.” Or even “I know when I need it, but I’m not going to tell you because maybe then I’ll get it early.” Or maybe they just haven’t consciously acknowledged that there is a date they need it by. Whatever the case, it’s trouble.

Here’s a personal experience: A few years ago I decided to lease my first brand new car. Upon closing the deal I told my dealer that I was in no rush and that it was ok if it took a week or two to get the car delivered. And I wasn’t lying, it really didn’t matter to me. However, the dealer insisted he was getting me into my new car by the end of the week. It was important to him! With his assurances in mind, every day that week I got a little more excited about my new car and by Friday, I was stoked to go pick up my new ride. So, when I found out my car wasn’t ready, I was pretty annoyed. I grew increasingly annoyed and ended up flat out mad as more days went by. Finally, the car arrived about a week later. It didn’t matter that I’d started out with no firm delivery date in mind, the dealer set a date of his choosing and then missed it, turning a win into a loss by mismanaging my expectations.

So, what should you do when a client asks you to accomplish something but doesn’t give you a deadline or timeframe?

Look at your workload, identify a place where the task fits, add some buffer, and provide a delivery date to the client. If they accept your date, great! Now, you can focus on delivery. If they reject your suggestion, you’ve just uncovered the hidden time constraint. Now, you’ll be in a position to negotiate and agree upon an acceptable date.

Congratulations, you’ve just averted a crisis by successfully managing your client’s expectations! This is easily one of the most important factors for providing great customer service, keeping your client happy, and maintaining a positive relationship during your work together.

Side note: If there really is no due date, then, in my opinion, there shouldn’t be a task. If something is so unimportant that it doesn’t matter when it gets done, why on earth would you ever spend time doing it?