Scope Creep: How To Stop Doing Extra Work For Free

Tired of giving away the farm and hurting your cash flow? Here's how to manage project scope creep while staying friendly with your clients.
Columnist, American Express OPEN
November 18, 2013

You’re a giver—you don’t mind giving your clients a little extra something here and there. You do it because you love your clients (and frankly, you need the work).

But … that’s called scope creep. It’s what happens when you outline a project or service and then the requests start coming in:

“I was wondering if you could ...”

“Hey, could you add the …”

“I was up at 4 a.m. this morning and had this idea. We could totally …”

None of those things was included in the original project—but you do them anyway. And you think you’re being nice by not saying no and just letting it slide.

But your response is a passive yes that can drive you—and your business—bankrupt, both emotionally and financially. You'll begin hating clients and your business, two things you loved until you let your inability to say no to things you never originally said yes to wreck you.

Let’s talk about how to keep scope creep from ruining your client relationships, your productivity and your business.

A Simple Tool for Prevention

A clear scope of work is the best defense you have against scope creep. Period. Hands-down. And right now, I’m betting you don’t have a scope of work template that you email to your clients for their signature. That’s why I’m going to help you draft one.

  • Project overview. This is a simple, short paragraph that explains the service or product you’ll be delivering to the client in exchange for their cold, hard cash. It can be as simple as “Company Bananalamadingdong will create a new website for Client Awesome, complete with e-commerce functionality.”
  • Project details. This section provides details of the project overview, offering specific deliverables that the client will receive in exchange for their cold, hard cash. Here’s where you’d tell a client that website development includes customization of a pre-agreed upon WordPress theme, graphic design for up to two header images and three sidebar images, design and testing for the contact form, social sharing plugins for the single post blog pages, cross-browser testing, and integration with Google Analytics. Details are what prevent scope creep. When a client asks for Web copy for their new website, it’s easy to refer back to the scope of work and see whether it was an included feature of the project.
  • Payment terms. For some reason, small-business owners hate talking about money. So silly. Fall in love with talking about money, and let your clients know, clearly and concisely, how you need to be paid for providing such awesome work for their business. Include deposit policies, payment methods and payment schedules. And yes, include late fees.
  • Signature. Make it official, and get things signed. My two favorite ways of doing this at present are Adobe EchoSign and Quote Roller. EchoSign (which starts at $14.95 per month and offers a free, 14-day trial at some levels) allows you to upload up to five documents per month and send them out for e-signature for free. They even send you a fully executed copy of the document in PDF format for your records. Quote Roller (which starts at $19.99 per month with a free, 14-day trial) is great for businesses with more detailed scopes of work. You can create templates for common project types as well as a library of services, and have the client accept the proposal—all digitally. No more messy PDFs.

How To Say Yes (Even Though You’re Saying No)

Most clients don’t even realize when they’re asking for something that goes beyond the agreed-upon scope of work. I like to give them the benefit of the doubt and not assume they're trying to get something for nothing to make up for those clients who consistently push the edge and try to get more for less.

When you find a client asking for something that isn’t in the project scope, here’s how to say yes—when you’re really saying no.

Hi Client Awesome,

Thanks so much for the ideas on adding X to our project. We’re glad you’re happy with our work so far and that you’re trusting us to get even more involved in your brand’s success.

We’d be happy to add <stuff not in scope of work> to the project scope. We’ll send over a revised scope of work for your approval. Once we have that, we’ll send you estimated delivery times and add the additional work to the project’s final billing installment.

You’ll receive that revised scope shortly.

Signed,

Company Bananalamadingdong

What you’ve done is say "yes, you can have that if you pay for it." You haven’t said no. It’s now up to your client to say no, because you’re ready to take their request on in a jiffy as long as there’s cash to back up the request.

Finding A Place For Random Acts Of Kindness

Do you always have to charge for additional work? I can’t think of anything worse than a client thinking I’m going to nickle and dime them to death—there’s always room for doing an extra something for a good client. But there has to be a reason you’re doing the extra something.

I have no qualms about adding in something extra when I’ve built a relationship with a client whom I love working with and they're the kind of client who makes me love my business even more. They understand it’s not the rule, and they’re always grateful for the exception. And on occasion, I’m the one sending them ideas and offering to just take care of the additional work at no charge.

The key word here is “relationship." Business relationships are built on give and take, and if you're giving your clients something for free every now and then, they'll probably appreciate you even more.

Scope creep can kill your business, interrupting production flow and leaving you playing a potential game of catch up or, worse, giveaway. Save your bottom line by learning to offer the gracious but firm "no but yes" outlined above. That way, you're not giving away the farm. Instead, you can afford to give here and there for the clients where the worth is clear.

Read more articles on cash flow.

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