Setting Customer Expectations

Professional genealogist Josh Jenkins reviews the importance of using Terms & Conditions with genealogy clients in this article at GenBiz Solutions!

Setting Customer Expectations

[Editor’s Note: Josh Jenkins is a professional genealogist and owner of]

America’s economy was founded on the principles of a free market. In simplistic terms, someone (typically a business) provides a good or service and in return they receive payment. This is the basis by which companies either flourish or fail. Many other economic factors come into play such as supply, demand and market volatility, but the general premise is elementary.

As a genealogy business, there are many forms of products and deliverables we offer our clients, so it is difficult to quantify exactly how much of a service they have received at the close of a project. Each case can be dramatically different. One project may include DNA analysis for heritage determination that required locating a distant cousin for testing, while another case could command an all-day excursion to a federal archival facility.

Due to the fact there are so many different types of cases we handle, it is paramount that customer expectations are set before beginning each project. Every case, no matter what type or requirements, is based and billed upon number of hours worked. This can be difficult for many customers to come to terms with. The reasoning? Many services we receive in our lives revolve around physical deliverables.

Take for example having your vehicle’s muffler repaired or replaced. You expect a quote for the repair at the outset, a detail of what work will be performed and finally an expected result of having your muffler repaired or replaced. You do not imagine much deviation from the initial estimate and will pay upon satisfaction.

Genealogical and related research efforts are a much different type of service. As many seasoned researchers can attest, some lineages and research objectives still have “brick walls” after years of research. As professional genealogists, we are providing a service, which can lead to little or no information being found. It is a difficult pill for both the customer and the provider to swallow – especially when first beginning in this field.

In the event of little or no information being found, the young genealogist may feel guilty. Perhaps they may not bill several overage hours in an effort to obtain some semblance of a result for the customer. The customer may feel like they were duped, especially when there has been no face-to-face communication, a reassurance they typically receive in brick and mortar business transactions. This is why customer expectations are extremely important to detail before the beginning of any project.

Prior to project initiation, our Terms and Conditions are clearly explained. Our six-page policy is a lengthy read and has deterred some clients from engaging us for services. It is important to recognize that some customers have unreasonable expectations. These are formulated from previous service encounters as aforementioned, as well as glamorized ancestry-related television shows. Our T&C evolves over time as new types of research, services and technologies become available. No project begins without the potential client reading it and then submitting payment in full.

The fact that our customers must “pre-pay” for services is also an area of contention among not only customers but fellow genealogists. I personally have never experienced it, but I know of several colleagues who put in many hours of research, document ordering costs and more. They never received a dime in return, often from irate customers.

Many whom I am in contact with also worked with me in’s Expert Connect (EC) program earlier this decade before the genealogical behemoth made a quantitative transition with The EC program had a decent system in place whereby the client’s funds were placed in escrow until the completion and approval by the customer. This system was far from perfect since there were many times that the customer wouldn’t accept the project was over. The professional would then have to request to accept the project on their behalf in order to issue payment. This would not only delay payment to the researcher, but would cause stress and additional administrative work.

In my opinion, the top priority for a professional genealogist, aside from providing top-quality research, is to be compensated for work. We are not hobbyists in any sense of the word. We are offering a service and should be paid on our schedule. As customers review a large number of genealogists world-wide, they have the ability to pick and choose from the best. It is important we as professional genealogists temper customer expectation and guide them through a process that is often unfamiliar to them.

Josh Jenkins

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Josh Jenkins

About Josh Jenkins

Josh is the founder and lead researcher at He has provided genealogical, locate and forensic DNA research services on a global scale for over a decade. He has previously worked for, has researched for the television hit Finding Your Roots and investigates civil rights era atrocities for the The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ). Josh completed his Master of Science in Information Systems from UMBC and concurrently works in several Information Technology fields. He lives in Columbia, Maryland with his beautiful wife and three boys.