Managing Scope Creep as a Freelance Entrepreneur

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Even if you don't yet have a lot of freelance clients, it's really important for you to be aware of and prepared for scope creep because you will inevitably encounter it at some point in your freelance career. In fact, I had to deal with it just yesterday.

Scope creep refers to a situation in which you and a client have agreed to the terms of working together and you've set a price that is based on your understanding of what you're responsible to do. But over time, the client starts to expect more. Essentially, the working relationship that you set up and thought you understood with the client has changed and now they're expecting you to do more for the same amount of money.

 

Ways to avoid scope creep

Clearly defined scope of work

The first thing you can do is to try to have a phone call with the client; or a really clear chain of emails about what is actually being ordered.

As an example - don't rely on the client saying, “I need a blog post.”

How long is the blog post? Are you choosing the titles or am I? Am I adding pictures? Am I adding meta tags?

Ask lots of follow up questions. It's not enough to just say that someone's hiring you to write a blog or to do internet research as a VA or to manage your freelance team as a project manager or to create a logo.

How many rounds of revisions are included?

Are there any strategy phone calls included in your rate?

Have a really clear revisions policy because it tells the client to get their stuff together and ask you for all revisions at once. I usually only include one round of revisions and to be honest with you, 95% of clients never even use that because they take what you submit and they're good. But that 5% can be a really troubling 5%, so be very clear.

I have had clients who would call or email me in the morning asking to jump on a quick call on the same day which I find is really disruptive to my workflow. So what I do is I ask them to schedule calls 1-2 weeks in advance. My VIP clients are extended some level of leniency but I typically say a 30-minute or a one-hour strategy call is included in my rate. Anything beyond that will be billed at a rate of $X per hour, $X per call, $X per revision.

The worst thing that could happen to you is that you're in this cycle where the client thinks it's totally cool that they're demanding that you be available all the time, that you revise things six and seven times and in between the revisions, they're changing their mind about what they want to be changed. They love the title, now they hate it, now they want it back. That's just too aggravating as a freelancer so be crystal clear. Get on the phone with the client and talk about their specific instructions? Are we on the same page about exactly what this does and does not include?

An airtight contract

The second way to avoid scope creep is to have a really clear contract.

It is not enough to have a verbal conversation about your scope of work. It's not even enough to have it in an email. It needs to be in your signed contract.

Now I recognize that if you're on Upwork, you're not going to have a signed contract. I would still put it in writing in the Upwork workroom or in your messages to the client.

“I'm ready to write two 800-word blog posts for you, guaranteed original, with a properly licensed image.” – saying something like this may be reiterating what the client already knows but it really helps you if a problem arises down the track.

Let's talk about what you might add to your contract:

  • I would stipulate exactly what is being provided - Is it work on an hourly basis to cover x, y, and z? Is it a specific work product? If so, what does this product look like?
  • A revision requests clause - This covers you with clients who come back weeks or months after the job is complete; wanting further revisions to be made. This is rare but super annoying when it happens, so include it in your contract. You can put language in there that says something to the effect of “after 15 or 30 days of no communication and the invoice is paid, work is assumed complete and no further revision requests will be accommodated.”
  • The phone or email support provided - I like to put in a generic line in my contract that says, "barring emergencies, all emails to be responded to within 24 hours". I do this because I have encountered clients who would email me constantly. Little things here and there which can be disruptive and I want to encourage them to consolidate all of their concerns in one weekly email.

How to deal with scope creep

If you're a freelancer and you're serious about this business, you're eventually going to encounter a situation where the client pushes their boundaries or engages in scope creep. Do everything you can to avoid it but recognize that even with the best contract and the most clearly defined scope of work, scope creep can (and does) still happen. So let's talk about how to deal with it when it does.

First of all, calm down and try to understand things from the client's perspective. Maybe there's been a misunderstanding. They aren’t necessarily doing this to you on purpose. So try to give them a chance.

Now that you're in the middle of this conversation with the client, the best thing you can do is reference your signed contract or past conversations because that is pulling it emotionally away from you. You can even say, “I'm looking at our contract now and it looks like we agreed to eight pieces of content for your website about 500 words long. So now that we're talking about two more, we need to go back and adjust the scope of work and the overall budget because that doesn't reflect what we originally agreed to.” This is a really good way to take your personal anger out of the situation and rely on a statement of facts.

One of the things that a client recently tried to do was to have me do work that involved graphic design. At the very beginning of this working relationship, I had told them that I am not a graphic designer. I suck at graphic design and so I would never go into a client project offering this as a service. When I pitched them and rewrote their proposal for the umpteenth time, I said, “Just so you know, I'm happy to lay out the flow of how I think this course should go and what I think should go on each slide as far as pictures, text and then the script to be read by the voice-over artist. But the custom design of PowerPoint slides is not in my skillset.” So when this came up, I said, “I don't know if you remember this conversation. It's been a while. We talked last April and May, but graphic design is just not my skill set.” So for me to do that is not only going to be best for the client, it's not really something I'm good at or confident with and I really want this course to be the best one possible on this subject in the marketplace. So by doing that, again, I was also reiterating that I actually want this to be a really good product for the client and so I'm not going to now step in on 1) what is scope creep and 2) something I'm not even good at.

Once you have referenced the contract and past conversations, we're now in the territory of negotiating with the client, whether they want this additional work done, if you even want to do it. One of the things I did was to give them options. Say: "You want additional revisions, here's what it's going to cost, here's what it's going to look like. My current turnaround time is two weeks. Do you want to go this route? Or do you want me to put you in touch with my designer? She's great. No, we'll just do it in-house." I gave the client a choice.

It takes two to tango

One thing that freelancers often forget when they are dealing with scope creep is that we often jump into service mode. How can I fix this situation? There is a problem with my client, I need to fix it. I am going to drop everything to fix it.

But you mustn’t forget to articulate what the client can do to support you. This is a two-way street. You need to recognize that the communication problem may have come about as a result of a courtesy that they failed to extend to youOn a related point - I cannot stand clients who offer unclear feedback, saying something like, “I just don’t like it… I can’t use it.” That is helpful to no one. Your college professor would not return a paper that has been graded an F and give you no feedback other than, "Just didn’t like it, you fail." There would be red marks, there would be a word syntax, there would be detailed comments from the professor about how you didn’t meet the milestones of the assignment and why you are getting the grade. The same thing goes for freelance projects. They need to give you specific and constructive feedback. So, the final component of dealing with scope creep is in clarifying what the client can do to support you going forward.

Conclusion

Being in a conversation about scope creep is a weird emotional place to be.

It's not the right time to be finalizing a new proposal or pitching a new price. Instead, I would use it as an opportunity to get clear about any additional support that is required. I would then recap the conversation in a follow up email or in a revised contract and scope of work document to say, "Just to recap, this is what we talked about, this is what it's going to look like going forward, this has changed the budget and timeline by these parameters, sign off if this is okay. If I've missed something, let me know."

Ultimately, you should also remember to come back to your underlying goal, which is to do right by the client. Not to bill them exorbitantly... not to turn in a bad product, but to give them the best possible experience with minimal challenges.

When you say anything about scope creep or changing the contract or what you need from them to be more effective in your role, bring it right back around. As an example, you could say, "I am saying this because my primary concern is your satisfaction. I want to ensure that we are on the same page to create something really incredible, and I can’t do that if I don’t have the right instructions, the right feedback from you, offered in a timely fashion." This will help to de-escalate those emotions.

And finally, if the scope of work has expanded so much or the client is unreasonable, and their expectations are getting crazy, you don’t have to stay and finish the project. You are a freelancer. You call the shots in your business. If the client is pushing the boundaries and you have tried to apply these strategies firmly but unsuccessfully, use your escape clause.