How to make (and keep) client promises

It’s the beginning of a new year, and if you’re like me, you’ll be reflecting on your lessons learned from 2014 and making your list of improvements for the coming year.

One of your key areas for improvements might be delivering better on your client promises. In an earlier blog post, I said that one of the 3 secrets to exceptional customer service was setting realistic expectations with your client. In other words, we need to make client promises that we can actually keep.

But how do we do that, as small business owners, when we’re juggling many client projects and business priorities, and not to mention personal commitments? All these demands and distractions have a very real impact on our ability to deliver. In this article, I discuss 5 tips to help you make and keep your client promises.

Factors affecting promises

Let’s start by breaking down the key factors that affect your ability to deliver on client promises:

  1. How complex is the work itself and how long does it takes to complete?
  2. What else do you have on your plate? This includes other client work, business and personal demands on our time.
  3. How is your state of mind, both mental and emotional?
  4. Are you learning from old mistakes?
  5. Unexpected or unforeseen factors that arise.

By considering these five factors each time you need to make a client promise, you are much more likely to make promises you can actually keep.

“…as small business owners, we’re juggling many client projects and business priorities, and not to mention personal commitments. All these demands and distractions have a very real impact on our ability to deliver.”

Know your work process

It’s not only important to know what (and how complex) your process is but you should also know how long it takes to complete. Some techniques to help you with this are:

1. Document your processes

know-your-small-business-process-peer-business-consultingMany organisations, especially small businesses, underestimate the value of documenting their business processes because they see it as a lot of effort for not much gain. It’s true that you won’t earn any revenue from this activity, but documented processes make it easier to explain the steps and timeframes to clients, help you find any inefficiencies or duplications, and make necessary improvements, and enable you to time your tasks (we discuss this further below).

You don’t have to spend months documenting your processes. Even just a bullet point list of the tasks/steps involved is better than nothing. And, you can always outsource this activity to a business process or operational improvement expert. A good business process specialist will not only document your processes for you, but will also recommend (and even implement) improvements.

2. Time your tasks

The whole point of timing your tasks is working out how long things are going to take. It’s best to time tasks from live projects and on as many jobs as possible, so that outliers or anomalies are averaged out. If it’s not practical to time your work while you’re doing it, review this in the post-implementation phase of your project.

When timing tasks, it’s important to be as truthful as possible. It is especially important to understand the parts of the process which are heavily reliant on external factors, such as client input or approval, as these are the things that can push out or delay delivery.

“By considering these five factors each time you need to make a client promise, you are much more likely to make promises you can actually keep.”

Know your workload and other priorities

Every busy person knows the importance on understanding what else is on your plate before committing to something. It can be difficult to stay organised when you have a lot on. Here are some tips to help with this:

  1. Make a list of everything you need to do.
  2. Categorize everything in your list into groups, e.g. client work, prospects/leads, marketing activities, internal tasks.
  3. Get clear on what’s a priority and what isn’t. I usually put client work first, then prospects and lead generation next and then internal work. But this can change from day to day.
  4. Block out time in your calendar to actually do the work. There’s no point filling your calendar with meetings and then doing all your real work at night.
  5. If it helps you, include your personal commitments in with your business ones – in your task list, in your calendar. Whatever works for you so that you have a holistic view of all your commitments day by day, hour by hour.
  6. Be flexible. Meetings get cancelled, people call unexpectedly, personal things come up. Be ready to make changes to your priority list at any point in the day.

Look after yourself

client-promises-look-after-yourself-peer-business-consultingI’m often astounded by the number of small business owners I meet who try to put on the “I’m always in control” act and then crumble at the first sign of stress. I’d rather just be me. If I’m having a bad day, I call it a bad day and then cut myself some slack.

If you’re a sole trader, your health (emotional, physical and mental) is paramount to the continued operation of the business. So look after yourself. Take breaks. Take a day off once in a while. Pamper yourself if you’re feeling a bit run down. Do whatever it takes to keep you in a good physical, emotional and mental state. No-one is always in control. And if they say they are, they’re liars!

Learn from your mistakes

There’s an phase in project management called the post-mortem or post-implementation phase, where you review what went well and what went wrong after a project is complete. Things that went well should be embedded into future processes, if not already, and things that went wrong should be analysed for their causes and improvements made.

I don’t think small business owners do this enough. The job finishes and they move quickly to the next project and go ahead to make the same mistakes all over again. Every project completed provides an opportunity for learning and improving. And a business which is not improving, is not growing either.

Always allow “buffer time”

I’ve mentioned this in earlier posts and I still think this is something most people struggle with, and not only small business owners. We never give ourselves any buffer time, in case something goes wrong. And things often go wrong… another client issue arises, the process takes longer than you planned, you make a mistake and have to redo something, you have an emotional issue to deal with, your kids get sick. It happens.

Prevent whatever “it” is from affecting the client promises you make by always allowing a bit more time in case of emergency. That’s it. No more discussion. Just start doing it.

* Stock images sourced from Shutterstock and Death to the Stock Photo.


Peer-Business-Consulting-Angeline-Zaghloul-5What did you think of this article? Post your comments and questions below. And if you found this useful, please share with your networks.

About the Author: Angeline Zaghloul is an expert in business strategy, client management and business processes, and is the Principal of Peer Business Consulting, a Sydney-based consultancy providing strategy and operations support to startups and small businesses.

* Portrait by Markus Jaaskelainen.


  1. Pingback: 3 biggest customer service no-no's | Peer Business Consulting

  2. This is such an excellent guide to steps to take to manage workload and keep promises. I’ve begun to implement everything you are suggesting (slowly) and I’m beginning to really see the results – with more balanced work days and even happier clients. I was able to phone two clients yesterday with confidence and they were very happy about that. Thanks so much for your great posts! Gina

    • Hi Gina, I am so pleased that you are seeing results by putting these guidelines into practice. It is a slow path if you’re not used to working this way but it has worked for me and I know it will continue to work for you. Thanks for the great feedback!

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