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Scope creep is great for your business—if you handle it like this

Table of ContentsUpdated Nov 18, 2019

Note: This article contains legal advice. We recommend you consult a lawyer before making legal decisions in your business.

I remember receiving some bad news earlier in my career from a client that I was doing some identity work for.

We’d finished the logo, moved on to the stationery, and were just about to wrap things up when my client found out he couldn’t use the logo we created because of some legal issues.

He was a lawyer, and there were some requirements around the name of the business he had to adhere to.

I can still feel the sinking feeling I got when he told me the news. We had done a ton of work and now had to trash it and redo most of it.

As I was telling my wife about it and how much of a pain it was going to be to have to redo the work.

I kept rambling on about how much it sucked when my wife said, “I don’t know what you are complaining about. This is more business for you. Just charge them for the extra work.”

Why we hate scope creep

Looking back on it now, it seems ridiculous to even think twice about charging for the extra work.

Yet, as freelancers, we hate it when scope creep comes along for one reason. It’s the same reason we might shy away from sending invoices or a price increase letter:

The “money” talk.

It’s difficult to tell the client something is out of scope, and we need to charge them for it.

Even in this situation, where I had nothing to do with the reason for the changes, I still hesitated to tell the client I would have to charge for it.

And that’s just silly.

I see it happen all of the time. Freelancers hate scope creep, but is it really such a bad thing? Or is it the way we deal with it that needs to change?

Design agencies cash in on scope creep (and you should too!)

Just to illustrate the point of how silly it is to think scope creep is always a bad thing for a freelancer, know that there are design agencies making a substantial amount of their profit from scope creep and other changes that happen during the project.

It’s actually a part of their business model. They make a ton of their profit on those changes.

The difference is they have that conversation with the client and charge for it.

Seth Godin mentions this in his Startup School podcast when talking about building Squidoo (now acquired) and mapping out a project, so there aren’t any surprises or cost overruns.

When they finished building the site and Seth paid them, the agency said, “That has never happened to us once in doing 150 websites. We were happy to work with you, but we didn’t make any money because you didn’t bother us.”

In other words, they were counting on generating revenue from the extra work that comes from scope creep and change orders.

And you should too.

Why doing nothing is bad (and what to do instead)

You never really know what the client is expecting, so we often feel like the client will get mad or angry with us for asking. Instead of asking, we get an attitude and come off as divas.

Often, the exact opposite is true. The client expects to pay more. Their concern is on getting the job done or dealing with whatever new situation has just popped and necessitated a change to the scope.

So you can imagine their disbelief when they get attitude instead of a friendly reassurance that you’ll do what they are asking—provided they pay the additional fee.

If you don’t bring it up, they aren’t going to say anything. Asking you for a bill and making sure you are paid is not their job, it’s your job.

On multiple occasions, I’ve heard clients say they would be happy to pay for the changes if the freelancer would bill them for it. They’ve actually used these exact words, “We’d be happy to pay him, but he never sends us the bill.”

Don’t be that freelancer! Notify the client. Get their approval and write up an invoice for the changes.

How to deal with scope creep when it pops up

Instead of being angry about the extra work, use these scripts to help you deal with scope creep in these common scenarios:

When your client asks for the work by tomorrow

Sometimes your client decides they need to compress the timeline and get the work back immediately. When that happens, use this script and they’ll either agree to it or back off entirely.

There is an additional 50% price increase for projects that have a turnaround of fewer than 48 hours. Let me know if you’d like to proceed and I’ll send an invoice for the rush fee. Or, if you’d like, we can stick to the original timeline.

Pro tip: Give them the option to stick to the original timeline or scope of work if they want to. Clients love options and giving them a choice lets them off the hook a bit and makes it a little less confrontational for everyone. This diffuses the tension and is a million times better than coping attitude with your client.

When revisions are going on forever

This one is easier to deal with when you’ve clearly stated in the contract how many rounds of revisions are included.

If you walk the client through the contract with you, so they understand what’s included and what constitutes a revision, you’ll probably not have an issue with this ever again.

But just to give yourself an out, always include the specific number of revisions that are included. When revisions start to get out of hand you can say:

I need to let you know that we have exhausted the allotted number of revisions for [insert project name]. If you would like me to work on additional options, those will be billed at [X amount] per revision.

The key points are to be straightforward, non-apologetic and not give an overly long explanation.

When a client asks for changes after design approval

Always get their approval before moving on to the next phase of the project. Make it clear in your contract that changes after approval will cost them.

Here’s a recent one I sent to my client.

Hi [Client],

Adding in the [insert changes asked for] would mean changing the design layout, and since we are beyond the design approval phase, there will be an additional fee of [X amount] to amend the layout.

I’m happy to make these changes for you and if you’d like to proceed, let me know, and I’ll send an invoice for the design layout change.

Or, if this layout change is not essential, we can stick to the original scope.

Once again, I like to give the client the option to stick with the original plan if they want. Always give them options! It will make your life so much easier and it helps your client avoid feeling like they are backed into a corner.

In most cases, my client writes back and approves it without any issues.

Or, if they change their mind, they can stick to the original scope and timeline and you don’t have to rearrange your schedule.

You win either way.

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Written by Ian Vadas

Staff at

Ian Vadas is a designer and the author of Work With Clients You Love. Get the eBook to learn how to select clients that pay well, treat you with respect and allow you to do your best work.

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Reviewed & edited by Preston Lee, Editor at Millo.

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  1. Dealing with this now. Thanks for the great read.

  2. I LOVE this article. I even created a special note in Evernote called “email scripts” and copied your tips there. I have just had my first paying client as I am just starting out as a freelancer and I’ve had problems with changing deadlines, work out of scope, never ending changes…I felt bad for charging them more. Now I won’t! Your scripts are polite, yet non apologetic and don’t give too much explanation which is good. Thank you so much it is soooo helpful! I have just downloaded your e-book, I’m sure I will love it.

    1. Thanks Alex! Glad you liked the scripts. The key is to be matter-of-fact and direct.

      Never be apologetic for doing out of scope work and don’t write novel-length emails making excuses and apologizing for having to charge them for it.

      Hope you enjoy the ebook!

  3. Vick Guberska says:

    Hey Ian, thanks for writing this. I’m a designer based in Dubai and here scope creep happens almost ‘by default’… I’ve always found it a bit awkward asking for more money when going beyond the original scope, but the points you make in your article make total sense. There’s nothing wrong with being straightforward with your client and if handled well, scope creep can actually be a positive thing. The scripts are also quite helpful. Will definitely give them a try! Cheers!

    1. Glad you liked it Vick. Cheers

  4. Prue Mitchell says:

    I’ve been a slow learner with the above advice but am happy to say, I mostly apply such advice these days. However, I recently experienced a curly situation that put me back in that ‘fearful’ space. The client in question politely rejected my first round of logo/brand designs, admitting that their request to include a specific font in the original brief, may have been limiting. I confirmed this and provided 3 options for moving forward. To date they haven’t responded and I am left wondering and assuming they’ve ditched me having put in an enormous amount of work into the original proposal and subsequent preliminary round of designs. My mistake was not charging enough for the deposit. I have attempted two follow ups but get no reply. What would you advise in this instance?

    1. That’s tough. It’s happened to me in the past. The first thing I would do would be to keep following up. As an example, a normal follow up sequence for most brands is 5-6 emails until moving on if you are unresponsive. Try it. Sign up for a service or SAAS product demo and don’t respond to any of their follow up emails. That will give you an idea of how persistent you need to be.

      Now if a company that has no existing relationship with you is willing to follow up that many times, it’s a given that you should continue to be persistent with this client that actually owes you feedback on the design (and money).

      The other thing to do is to anticipate this happening again in the future. And one way to guard against it is to include a kill fee in your contract and/or a “pause clause”.

      A kill fee means that if the client wants to kill the project mid-way through, they have to pay a certain amount to do so. (Kind of like when you want to get out of a phone contract, usually there is a fee to void the contract.)

      A “pause clause” is when you make it clear that if the client is unresponsive for a certain length of time or wants to suddenly put the project on hold, they will have to pay a fee to reinstate the project (if they want to continue) and it will be at the designer’s discretion when to fit it back into your schedule.

      Here’s more on that

      Again, as with most things, when you plan for it upfront, you usually avoid this scenarios because if the client knows they will have to pay to kill the project or the project will get put on hold indefinitely if they don;t stay engaged, they usually don;t act out like your client is doing now.

      1. Prue Mitchell says:

        Thanks Ian, that’s brilliant advice. I don’t fancy doing the follow up thing (because I’m a chicken) but I’ll be sure to include a kill fee and pause clause in future. Thanks so much for the extensive reply, I appreciate it big time.

  5. You make a few good points and the scripts are great.
    It’s funny how as freelance designers (or developers) we have such a flippant response to a simple added task, that we literally get flustered and scared to say ‘That will be extra’.
    The client (and you) have heard this THOUSANDS of times before, more work = more money, no matter the industry, service or product provided.

    You’re not bringing a new concept to the table and trying to cheat the client out of money, you are simply showing them that what they want is extra work and needs to be treated like it.

    Sure, some clients will kick up a fuss, and probably won’t go with the new changes, or will begrudgingly, but these are outliers and are generally the cheap client you can call out from the start (‘So-and-So from ABC Design said they could do it at [severely reduced price]).

    SO just remember, if the client is generally a well-composed and even partially happy person to work with, their expectations of asking for more work will incorporate more costs.

  6. Laura Lee Moreau says:

    Thanks a lot Ian for your insightful suggestions on how to respond to the clients! You’re right, as long as your terms are clear and stated upon starting the project, the client will most likely accept the extra fees if more work is needed

    1. Yes, the more you can do upfront to set expectations the better off you are during the project. The project always goes more smoothly that way. Thanks for the comment Laura!

    2. David van Ballegooijen says:

      Totally agree. Also, when (new) clients ask about your rates that is the moment I bring this up. I usually tell them I won’t charge overtime for spending one or two hours extra to perfect things, but that I will notify them on time when I see it getting out of hand. — Admittedly, actually notifying them can still be hard at times. Especially when it’s a non-commercial client.

      Another freelancing tip my dad taught me is rewarding your clients with 5% discount if they pay within 5 or 10 working days.

      Telling them this upfront will feel like nice bonus they see in control of and gives them time to make needed arrangements. The smartest part though is that you calculate this into you rates on forhand by increasing them by 5%. This way, when you have slow payers you get some compensation for it.

  7. Awesome! I read this site all the time and had no idea you contributed! Great advice for anyone who has ever encountered scope creep and was flustered by it. I think my wife and I had that same conversation once. ????

  8. Lindsey Anderson says:

    Such a great way to look at it! And thank you for including examples scripts, this will be super helpful in the future. Thanks for the great article!

    1. Thanks Lindsey! Let me know if you can think of any other scenarios where a script might be useful and I’ll see if I can dig up a script I’ve used with past clients.

  9. As you recommend in your article, I notify the client that a change or addition they request is outside of the project proposal and give them the option of revising the proposal to include the new charges, adding the charges to the existing proposal at my hourly rate (usually a more expensive option), or treating the changes/revisions as a separate project. If the reason for the cost increase is explained to the client, most clients understand and are willing to pay the increased cost.

    1. Thanks for the comment Paul. I agree, it’s all about giving them options and, like you said, when you explain it clearly to the client they usually understand and are willing to pay for what they are asking for.