5 Steps to Preventing Scope Creep (and Still Keeping Your Clients Happy)

Networking Skills

Any freelancer or agency that has been in business for any length of time has experienced the monster that is scope creep.

It goes something like this: work with a new client starts off as well as you would expect, but over time the project seems to get bigger and bigger while your price remains the same. The client either (a) seems to think

that the “extra”work is within the scope of the original agreement, or (b) simply doesn’t realize that he or she is asking for more than was originally agreed. Either way, you’re losing money.

Scope creep is a slippery slope and can be difficult to recover from. Once you accept scope creep from one client you are setting a precedent for the rest, and although you may not have to physically hand over money as a result of scope creep, the effect is essentially the same. More time spent on a project than you anticipated puts you out of pocket.

In this article I want to establish the five step process that I recommend to prevent scope creep from taking over your business while keeping your clients happy. Believe it or not, the two go hand-in-hand.

What is Scope Creep?

Scope creep can mean many things depending upon context so it is probably best that I start by explaining my definition. For the purposes of this article, scope creep is the process by which a project grows beyond its originally anticipated size.

I’d be willing to bet that most people who read that sentence are likely to conjure up images of unscrupulous clients seeking to take advantage of well-meaning service providers, but scope creep is more often down to misunderstanding than anything else.

Scope creep should not be seen as a “cost of business.” You should be in control of your business which means that scope creep should be a negligible or non-existent factor. If you follow the process below the only backlash you will get is from poor quality clients (i.e. those who want a free meal), and you shouldn’t be working with them anyway. Meanwhile, the good clients (i.e. those that you do want to work with) will benefit from your focused and professional approach to project management and delivery. It truly is a win/win method.

Step 1: Understand the Outcome

You’re far less likely to fall victim to scope creep if you have a solid understanding of what the client wants to achieve. That may sound obvious but bear with me. I don’t mean this:

My client would like me to build them a new web site.

I mean this:

My client wants to increase online sales by 30% by creating a more user-friendly website design.

When working with a client your overruling focus must always be on the desired outcome in terms of business goals. Building a client a new website doesn’t hint towards any kind of real business benefit, but providing a service by which you aim to increase online sales by 30% creates a clear expectation. In turn, that leads to a far reduced likelihood of scope creep.

If you understand the outcome then you should have a relatively clear idea of what you will need to do in order to fulfill the client’s desires before you’ve even discussed specifics.

Step 2: Be Critical of Your Client’s Ideas

There are generally two types of service provision:

  1. Passive: the client tells the service provider what is expected of them.
  2. Dynamic: the service provider works with the client to establish what they need in order to achieve their goals.

If you understand your client’s desired outcome as per step one of this process then you should be a dynamic provider. If you allow the client to tell you what they think they want then you’re far more likely to meet scope creep at some point in the future when it becomes clear that their original scope of works will not fit the bill in terms of meeting desired outcomes. Instead you must collaborate with the client to produce a plan of action that is likely to meet with success.

I do not use the word “critical” in a negative sense — I do not intend for you to tell the client that their ideas are awful (because they’re probably not). But two minds are better than one and it is important that you bring your own perspective to the table and help shape your client’s plans to provide the best possible chance of success. Remember — you are the expert in the partnership, so act like it.

If you choose simply to do as the client asks then it is likely that at some point in the future they will adjust their plan in order to achieve the outcome that has not yet been reached. It is at this point that scope creep becomes a distinct possibility. Your involvement in the planning process reduces the likelihood of this drastically.

Step 3: Clearly Define the Scope of Works

Now let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of scope creep — more often than not it comes about as a result of a poorly defined scope of works.

For the most part, clients aren’t concerned about what is in your agreement — they are concerned about their business. If they believe that you are liable to carry out work they will ask you to do it. If they feel that something needs to be done in order for their outcomes to be met they may request it of you — in all innocence (or ignorance, depending upon how you look at it) — without a second thought to the scope of works.

That is why a clearly defined scope of works that is understood and agreed by both parties is so important. Not only should you ensure that the works to be carried out are clearly and unambiguously worded in your agreement, you must also ensure that the client has read the scope and is fully aware of what is and isn’t included. In terms of keeping the client happy, it is less about what is in the agreement and more about what they know is in the agreement. You do not want a client to go into a project with expectations of service delivery that are not matched by the particulars of the scope of works and it is your job to ensure that they are suitably informed.

Step 4: Price Right

Ultimately, scope creep comes down to an issue of price — if the resources expended on carrying out a project exceed the desired amount then you have failed to manage your business correctly. To avoid scope creep you must not only define the works but you must also have a crystal clear understanding of your material involvement in the project.

Obviously your pricing method will vary depending upon the nature of your business and the way in which you choose to approach the work but the key is in breaking down projects into their smallest constituent parts and ensuring that everything is accounted for. Then you can assign necessary resources to each individual portion of work and come out with a conservative costing.

I would also advise that you include a contingency within your pricing in the region of 15%. This isn’t to allow for scope creep — it is an insurance policy to account for potential discrepancies in your estimate. At not point should you allow for scope creep — it is something that you must endeavour to eradicate, not manage.

Step 5: Get It in Writing

Finally, with a clear scope of works and priced proposal, it is of course vitally important that the client reads, understands and signs off all necessary documentation.

I advise that your contract clearly states that any additional work not stated within the scope of the works is considered as extra and must be agreed in writing by client and provider. In order to discourage add-on work I recommend a predetermined premium rate for additional works. While the growth of a project during its lifespan is often unavoidable, you can encourage your client to prevent such an outcome by establishing repercussions (i.e. a higher price) if all elements of work to be carried out are not included within the scope of works.

Remember: you don’t just want a signature on paper; you want your client’s understanding. They must know what they are paying for (and of course what they are not paying for). You must ensure that your client is happy that the scope of works is likely to fully meet their desired business outcomes.

Conclusion

In a nutshell, the process for avoiding scope creep and keeping your clients happy is as follows:

  1. Understand what your client wants to achieve
  2. Collaborate with your client to produce a solution
  3. Define the scope of works that will provide that solution
  4. Price the solution in a manner that reduces the likelihood of overrun
  5. Agree the details of the service delivery in writing

If you follow these five steps you are far more likely to deliver to the client’s desired specifications and avoid any unnecessary wrangling over what was expected of you in terms of service delivery.

Scope creep is not something to be feared — it is something to be removed from the equation. Fortunately, the process by which you can be confident of avoiding scope creep also enables you to provide a top-quality service for the client in terms of assessing their needs and providing a solution that should deliver to a more than satisfactory standard.

What are your thoughts on scope creep? Do you have any stories of scope creep to share with us and if so, what did you learn from the experience? Let us know in the comments section!

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{ 11 comments }

Rahat @WeeklyDesignGrind.com

Thanks for some great advice Tom.

Here’s one thing I do that is almost guaranteed to solve this problem.

Client: Can you please also add an opt-in form into the website?

Me: Sure we can absolutely do this for $xx.

There are 3 things that typically happen after. Usually the client pays that extra money, say that they don’t want that feature or they ask if it wasn’t already in the agreement.

This is why you need a damn good contract. I’ve downloaded mine for free from Bidsketch and I haven’t had any problems yet.

Geoff McMahen

Tom,
Big thanks for such a great article. From my personal experience, scope creep has also ruined relationships.

I have since learned to manage this much better but unfortunately lost some clients during the learning process.

Geoff

M Weiss

Great article! I’ve learned the hard way that the best way to avoid scope creep is a very clearly defined contract. And, you are correct, a clients understanding of the contract, no just their signature is crucial. Keep up the good work!

Mauro

Thanks Tom for the article. I read it from top to bottom, in fact my partner and I are both going through a nightmarish process with two -let’s call them- clients , which has its roots in the first skype conversation. The failure of HAVE NOT recorded the audio, and to put that list of features in paper, has driven us to the difficult situation we’re now.
Great advice. And as some of these comments said, usually there are collateral casualties in the process.
But the idea is to learn once, not many. Isn’t it? Regards, M.

Monique

Scope creep always happens a little bit. I deal with it by 1) telling the client in the kickoff that while working on the project they’ll probably think of other functionality or features they can’t predict now, which leads to 2) creating a list of updates/changes for a phase two. The client feels like they’re being heard, they appreciate knowing that the project won’t be delayed by too many changes right away, and we all have the beginnings of a plan for the future.

I never much liked the idea of stifling smart ideas (and more business) with “Yeah, but it’ll cost you …” That gets obnoxious after a while.

Dallas

Great article on a topic which affects every freelancer.
There is another terrible outcome that can occur when a clearly structured design process is not in place – your whole design can go straight to hell! http://theoatmeal.com/comics/design_hell

Clara Mathews

I am glad I read this blog post today. I am in the process of writing 2 proposals for prospective clients. My current contract lists out every detail of what is included in the project and who is responsible for what. But it could always be improved.

Too many times I was only concerned about getting the gig, only to bitten in the rear by bidding too low and allowing scope creep on those low cost projects. In my limited experience, it is often the low paying clients who are expert scope creepers.

Rajiv Gandhi Titus

It’s a great article. Yes, it’s really useful one.

Most clients when they give initial scope they don’t have clear outcome of the project. After initiating the project they slowly add the features that they want, so it’s very difficult to finalize the scope initially.

Angelina Sereno

I particularly like #2 about Passive vs Dynamic project management. I think people in our industry need to consider themselves Consultants (since we do this everyday) and give more critical feedback without worrying about the client’s reaction. Of course, everything must be done with tact, but if they push for their ideas and you know they are wrong, it’s your responsibility to voice your opinion and sway them towards a better solution.

Part of this, of course, is selecting the right clients in the first place… Sometimes you can tell from the first call that a client is going to be a pain in the a**, either account for that by doubling the estimate or be prepared for a couple of uncomfortable conversations.

Regardless, I believe that clients hire us for a reason, for more than just design or programming skills, but for guidance and practical advice. We will continue to let them know what we think is best for them based on their stated goals taking a more Dynamic Approach to the process and would recommend more agencies take this approach.

tim chorlton

Here’s a question. What comes first, the pitch or the scope?

Tom Ewer

Hey Tim,

What came first — the chicken or the egg? ;-)

In all seriousness, I think that depends upon the nature of the job and your relationship with the client.

Cheers,

Tom

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