When The Scope Of Work Changes

Nearly every freelancer has been there: You’re working on a project for a client, and over time the client wants do so… something very different from what you originally signed for.

Yup, it’s “Scope Creep.” Or “Project Creep,” if you prefer, and it’s one of the most frustrating parts of the contractor-client relationship. If you’re self-employed and working with clients on projects, scope creep that’s likely to come up quite a few times in your career.

If handled wrong, scope creep can end up with freelancers and independent contractors badly underpaid or wrecking their relationship with their clients. But if handled right, freelancers can make sure they’re paid appropriately for the work they’re doing–and keep their clients from sabotaging themselves.

Always Have A Scope Of Work

If you’re self-employed and providing professional services to clients–and we’re talking anything from software engineering to photography to interior decorating–make sure you give your client a scope of work document before the project begins.

A scope of work document can be either part of your contract or a standalone document which lays out why your client is working with you.

I’m a big fan of Docracy, which offers some great examples of sample scopes of work.

Clearly list the following in your scope of work:

  • The deliverables you’re offering to your client
  • When the deliverables are due to your client
  • How many revisions you’re offering to your client
  • Your clients’ objectives for using your deliverables
  • Clear language explaining that you expect to be paid for your deliverables upon receipt
  • How much you charge for services above and beyond your deliverables

This serves two purposes. First off, it gives you leverage when your client’s internal considerations make the project differ from the one you were hired to do. Secondly, it (and this is important!) keeps your client on track about what they actually hired you to do.

Handling Scope Of Work Changes

Sometimes, things change with your client. Either they decide to retool existing projects or forget why they hired you in the first place. When this happens, your goal is to make sure you’re paid for the work you do. Preparing for scope of work changes makes this much easier.

Importantly, make sure the language of your contract and scope of work protect you if your client wants substantial revisions to your work. It’s standard to include a few revisions of your project in your scope of work, but you want wording that protects you if a client has second thoughts late in the project.

But it’s also important to be flexible. I’ve had occasions where clients hired me as a writer to work on content packages that depended on research the client was supplying. For different reasons, those clients weren’t able to supply the research they initially promised; I worked with them to find alternate content ideas which would take me approximately the same amount of time as ones we originally discussed.

That’s an example of an equitable relationship where the freelancer and the client benefits. You want to make sure that both of you are drawing value from your scope of work–everyone’s happy.

When The Client Wants More & More

Unfortunately, though, I’ve had client relationships where that wasn’t the case. When I work as a consultant with new clients, I create a scope of work document that lines up everything from how many hours I can spend in meetings to how quickly I respond to emails–the idea is to make sure my client has a clear understanding of the services I’m offering and how I can help.

Those more difficult clients, however, put me in a difficult spot. It could either be that your client has internal considerations which keep changing their project plans, or a client who expects their contractors be at their beck and call just like full-time employees.

If you’re being paid a large sum of money for a project, nightly 10pm phone calls to discuss non-urgent work considerations or being asked to revise a Powerpoint with two hours’ notice can be appropriate. But if your client is overstepping their boundaries, you need to put your foot down.

Be polite but firm. Remind your client that they hired you for specific services and that you’re happy to provide those services, but that you need to be paid separately for anything beyond the work they hired you to do. Make sure they understand that your time is precious, and you expect to be treated accordingly.

Most clients will understand and either scale back their scope creep or pay you extra for additional services. If the project changes, the scope of work changes.

The bad apples who try to extract as much unpaid work from you as they can? Politely put your foot down, do the work they hired you to do, make sure you’re paid, and then make sure you never work with them again. Life is too short to work with bad clients, kids.