Scope creep: how to avoid it in your freelance business

by Rachel Smith
05 June 2020

I had a List member phone me this week to tell me about a job she took that was briefed as a ‘quick one-hour thing’. But one hour quickly grew into four hours, and when she tried to push back, the client manipulated her into completing the job for no extra money. Scope creep? You betcha.

Now, you may raise your eyebrows at this and think, ‘Well I just would’ve downed tools and told the client I was revising the quote – simple.’ But it’s not so simple if you a) are new to freelancing or b) have never even heard the term ‘scope creep’. In the beginning of my freelance career, I would’ve done exactly as this List member did – finished the job, felt resentful, and vowed never to work with that person again.

But there is another way, and being educated about scope creep and what you can do about it – prior to starting jobs AND during the job itself – is key.

What is scope creep?

Picture this: the client has given you a brief. You quoted on it. And the work began. Then, you hear the client say, ‘If you can just add one more case study to your pile that’d be great’ or ‘Actually we’re going to also need some social media teasers to go along with every content piece you file’.

That’s scope creep in a nutshell IF they don’t follow up with a comment like, ‘Please revise your quote or let me know how much more that’ll cost’.

Is all scope creep bad?

No, not necessarily. While some clients will always try to shoehorn extra tasks in under the original quote, a good client (or editor) will always recognise that asking you to do extra means paying you more. Often, scope creep is completely unintentional and can happen very subtly.

For example, you might be on a project with a lot of moving parts and things veer off in a different direction. Tasks are being added and the original parameters of what you quoted for change. You’re behind the scenes, freaking out and wondering if you’re going to get paid for all this other stuff. In other cases, the client might not know exactly what they want, but it becomes clear while you’re working on the project.

The important thing now is how you handle it.

To stop it happening… before the project

It’s basic, but necessary: lock down the parameters of the project before you start any work. So many times, we start a small job and it’s too easy to lose track of all those little tasks you’re asked to do along the way. Result? You’ve done a helluva lot more than you’re actually getting paid to do.

Locking down the parameters of the project involves getting a clear brief from the client on what’s involved, the deliverables and the deadlines. You then want to encapsulate them in a contract which both you and the client signs (shameless plug: we have a few in our templates section if you need one you can quickly modify).

A quick note: to set clear expectations, make sure you cover exactly what’s included in your contract / agreement / statement of work. If you’re offering two revisions as part of the fee, say so. If the agreement includes metadata, or 5 x images that you source and resize, add that in. You should also mention what the quote does NOT include so you have a leg to stand on if the client gives you any blowback.

What to do if it happens… during the project

It’s a lot more ‘ick’ dealing with scope creep during the project, but this is where you have to feel the fear and address it anyway.

If it’s a small thing and the client is respectful, pays well and gives you loads of work, you might agree to absorb the task by saying something like, ‘That’s an extra service I do offer, but I’m happy to include it in our existing agreement this time’ to save you drafting an entire new quote. And, to build a little good will with your client.

But if it’s more than that, you’ll need to renegotiate. We have a script in our ebook about dealing with scope creep which basically comes down to saying to the client, ‘Sure. I can easily add another case study along with the others. It’s beyond the scope of what I initially quoted you, and I’d estimate with the research, interview and transcribing time and writing, it’ll be another $500-600. Happy for me to pop through a revised quote?’

The great news is, once you start to send contracts to clients as a matter of course and address scope creep at soon as it crops up, you’ll find it’ll just become second nature and something you won’t think twice about – you’ll have systems in place to protect yourself before the project and strategies for dealing with it if it happens during the job.

Have you learned the hard way about scope creep? What do you do to ensure it doesn’t happy to you on freelance projects?

Rachel Smith

We'd love to hear your thoughts...