In Stephen Covey’s famous book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, my favorite habit is – Begin with the end in mind. From my perspective, that is what the art of setting expectations in sales is all about. How often have you met with a potential client and the two of you are on different pages, they were expecting one thing and you were expecting something else. Many times the inability to set clear expectations can hurt the sale from the start.

In the Sandler sales methodology we teach a concept called up-front contracts. Up-front contracts are the glue that holds the sales process together. If we clearly articulate what we are trying to accomplish and get mutual agreement from the prospect for each step along the way we will be better able to drive the sale and shorten the sales cycle. Here are five ways to help set clear expectations:

1. Define the Roles
What are both you and the prospect bringing to the meeting and what do you want to learn from each other? How many times have you walked into a meeting and the other person thought you were there to do a brief fifteen minute call and you wanted an hour to do a formal presentation. If you discuss what you want to accomplish in the meeting up-front, you can eliminate any mismatch in expectations.

2. Articulate the Anticipated Outcomes
One of the most important ways to set clear expectations and next steps is to define the possible outcomes at the beginning of a meeting. It’s important that both you and the prospect work towards the same ends. We can say something like, “We can spend an hour together and determine at the end if it’s a fit to discuss a next step in the process. Does that sound fair?”

3. Go Ugly Early
A senior executive at one of my technology clients has a great expression, Go Ugly Early. What he is really saying is to get all of the bad news on the table in the initial stages of the conversation. If we discuss possible roadblocks and issues early we can more effectively deal with them throughout the sales process.

4. Avoid Mutual Mystification
Many prospects dislike giving sales people bad news. Instead of telling the sales person the truth, they use words like probably, try, or we will do our best. Many salespeople have “happy” ears and when they hear these words they assume it means “yes”. When setting expectations we need to listen for these words and clarify what the person is actually saying. “So when you say probably, what do you mean?”