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If you’ve been freelancing for more than a day or two you have probably experienced scope creep. It looks something like this:
[Phone rings; it’s your client]
Client: Hey! I was up in the middle of the night thinking about the project we’re working on.
Client: I know we initially said we would forego the paragraphs about why fracking is so bad for the environment, but I’m really not sure the piece is going to work without it. So can we add it back in?
At this point, you have a very critical decision to make. Some freelancers, afraid they might lose a good client and be faced to find work again, might choose this response:
You: Hey, Karen. No problem. We can definitely add that in. I’ll work on it later today.
But wiser, more seasoned freelancers know better than to give in quite so easily. Their response might look more like this:
You: Hey, Karen. I completely see where you’re coming from on that.
Can I ask you a few more questions about it? [Asks relevant questions to further understand the situation.]
I see. That makes complete sense for the project. I can definitely tally up what that will add to the cost of the overall project and get back to you with a bid before I begin working on it. How does that sound?
There’s the key difference: a seasoned freelancer recognizes scope creep from a mile away and already has a plan to take care of it when it strikes.
You can do the same.
In this guide, I’ll help you avoid scope creep no matter what stage of freelancing you are in.
What is scope creep?
Before we jump into why scope creep is such a bad thing in the first place, let’s talk about what I mean when I use the term “scope creep.”
If you’re a savvy freelancer, you most likely charge by the project. Better yet, I hope you charge by the value that you bring to a potential client. And when you work this way with clients, there are bound to be change orders.
A change order is when a client asks you to complete more work than you originally planned on completing.
It happens all the time. In all kinds of businesses.
It’s not inherently evil.
But what can happen if you’re not careful is a sort of unofficial, lawless change order called scope creep.
In other industries (architecture and construction for example) when a client has a change they want to implement, they’ll write up a change order, discuss it with all the parties it affects, review additional costs, and agree together on the best steps forward.
Scope creep, on the other hand, is less collaborative. It results primarily from over-anxious clients adding more ideas to the project—typically unchecked by any other parties.
And it’s this kind of unmanaged, unplanned, one-way communication that can literally kill your freelance business.
Change Orders (Good)
Scope Creep (Not Good)
Collaborative in nature. All parties sign off on new cost, timeline, and deliverables.
One-sided. Client often changes deliverables. No change in cost or timeline.
How scope creep kills your freelance business
So why is scope creep so deadly? There are a lot of reasons every single freelancer should avoid scope creep like the plague. Here are just a few.
1. It demolishes your profits
Any business that wants to stay in business and doesn’t rely on million-dollar funding rounds has to rely on profits to stay afloat.
The better your profit margin, the more you can reinvest into your company or save for a rainy day.
As projects get slightly bigger and more time-consuming without matching budget, the extra time and effort you take to meet the new demands eat right into your profit.
It’s something you simply can’t afford as a solopreneur.
2. It sets a pattern & precedent
Suppose you let your client get away with it just this time. But then that client refers you to a friend and brags about how flexible you are and how able you are to add in last-minute ideas.
Suddenly, you risk contaminating your entire client pool with clients who take advantage of your and eat up your profits. That’s a fast way to go out of business.
3. It opens a floodgate
Again, you might be asking why it would be such a big deal to add in one thing here or there with a client. The problem is this: where do you draw the line?
If you accept a “small change” this time around but can’t accept it the next time around, that can lead to frustration on your client’s part. If you do choose to accept scope creep once, make sure you are 100% clear about your intentions for the future.
How to handle scope creep like a pro
Okay. You get it. Scope creep is bad. But knowing it’s bad for business doesn’t necessarily solve your problem.
Below are two actionable, real-world solutions to help you prevent and avoid scope creep in your freelance business:
Outline a project scope document
Before you begin any client project, you should outline the scope of the entire project in a simple project scope document. This can be included as part of your freelance proposal document if you so choose.
While this added document may seem like a lot of extra work, the hours you’ll invest into this document will save you loads of headaches and hours of extra work during the course of the project itself.
Have your client review the document and sign it. You may need it later.
Here are just a few things you might want to include in your Project Scope Document:
- Overview of the project and goals
- Detailed description of the work to be completed
- Project timeline with milestones and due dates
- Deliverables – what will be provided to the client
- Responsibilities – what the freelancer will do vs. what the client needs to provide
- Assumptions – what is being assumed as part of the project
- Exclusions – what is not included as part of the scope
- Payment terms and schedule
- Change request process – how scope changes will be handled
Have a professional response ready when you see scope creep coming
In addition to using a project scope document, you should also be prepared to handle scope creep when you see it coming.
That means you (or your team project manager) have to:
- Be intimately familiar with the details of the project scope document.
- Be unafraid to address early signs of scope creep with your client.
If (probably when) you receive a scope creep email from your client, you’ll want to:
- Acknowledge you heard them clearly.
- Remind them of the project scope document.
- Offer additional alternatives.
It’s important to remember that most clients don’t intentionally try to scam out into more work or more hours. Many clients have something come up they genuinely didn’t see coming and decide to add it in during the project.
Therefore, avoid getting defensive, rude or short with your clients just because they’re requesting extra work. Take it as an opportunity to increase your total revenue and delight your client. If you handle it well, scope creep can make you lots of money.
Here’s an example of what a professional response to a client who may be adding scope to your project might look like:
Thanks for your email. From what I can see, you’d like us to:
- Add the extra “our story” page with images and text about your company.
- Turn the static image on the homepage into a rotating carousel.
Is that right?
We can definitely do that kind of work and we’d be happy to. Since it falls outside the original scope of the project, it’ll require extra resources including a larger budget.
Would you like me to send you a new proposal outlining what those additions will cost? Or would you like to remove something from the original project in order to fit these in?
Remain calm and dignified, but stand your ground. Oftentimes, clients just don’t realize what extra resources, time, and money such changes will require.
Here are two more scripts you might consider using:
Hi [client name],
I received your request to [describe scope creep ask]. While I want to provide excellent service, expanding the scope at this stage could compromise the quality and timely completion of our original agreement.
If you’d like me to take on additional work beyond our original scope and schedule, I can put together a change order for your review and approval. This will allow us to clarify the changes, costs, and timeline adjustments needed to make it work for both of us.
Please let me know if you’d like me to draft a change order, or if you’d prefer to stick with our original project scope for now. I’m happy to discuss further to make sure we’re on the same page.
Hello [client name],
I’m writing to touch base on the additional work you requested for [describe request]. As this falls outside of our original project scope and timeline, it would be considered scope creep.
Per our agreement, if you need to amend the project scope, I’d be happy to provide a change request form detailing the additional work, timeline changes, and costs. This will allow us to document the changes and make sure we’re aligned before proceeding. Please let me know if you’d like for me to put together a change request form for the new work.
It’s going to happen… but you can handle it
The sad truth is, scope creep is going to happen. It’s almost impossible to avoid.
You’re a smart freelancer and you can handle it like a pro. Just remember: you’re protecting yourself and your business and building a foundation of respect and transparency with your clients.
At the end of the day, managing scope creep will help your business run more smoothly and more profitably which is something any freelancer wants.
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