Scope creep, also known as mission creep, happens to us all. You’ve agreed to a project for a rate you like, and you think your client is on the same page. Then, they ask for something that wasn’t part of the original deal. Maybe their circumstances or requirements have changed, or perhaps they’ve just remembered something that should have been divulged to you up front. Scope creep itself isn’t the end of the world, but how you respond to it can make or break your freelance career.
Out of desperation, many freelance writers are inclined to let scope creep slide, and they wind up doing a lot more work than they signed on for. If they accepted a project rate for the work in question, scope creep dilutes the average hourly rate and reduces their income potential. The psychological impact of ever-changing expectations is not usually positive, either.
There is no sure-fire method of avoiding scope creep when it comes to freelance projects. No matter how well you’ve evaluated a freelance project or how many details appear in your service agreement, it can still happen. While I like to think most clients aren’t trying to take advantage of freelancers by asking for more work than they agreed to, there are certainly some who would like to get more for less. Regardless of the reasons that scope creep occurs, there are a few strategies for pushing back and getting what you deserve.
- Identify it early. Don’t wait until the project has morphed into something entirely different than what you agreed to. At the first sign of scope creep, raise a white flag and discuss it with your client, even if your position is to say “This is slightly outside the original scope, but I feel comfortable taking it on without revising the project rate.”
- Measure scope creep carefully. If a new request outside the original scope of work constitutes a substantial amount of additional work, tell your client how much they need to pay you for that additional work. If that kind of confrontation makes you squeamish, think about the last time you took your car in for a repair. Often, there is an initial estimate for work needed, and you agree to it, and once the work has begun, more necessary repairs are discovered, leading to a revised (and typically higher) estimate for the repair work. This is exactly the same scope creep freelancers are familiar with, but when it’s packaged in the scenario of something we are all familiar with, it loses its scare factor. Keeping scope creep in check is merely part of doing business when you’re trading services for money.
- Know your limits. In the previous step, I pointed out that you need to measure when a ‘substantial amount of additional work’ is requested, but what that means is entirely up to you. For one writer, an additional hour of work might not be worth revising a contract for, especially if the project rate you negotiated in the beginning was a good one. Where you draw the line on scope creep depends on your individual situation, your financial goals, and your general feeling about future work from this client. No matter how you slice it, you have to know your tolerance level in order to enforce it with integrity.
- Be a reasonable person. In most cases, scope creep can be addressed calmly and rationally, as it truly is just part of doing business. When a client asks you to do more work, it’s not personal. Likewise, when you ask them to pay you more for that work, you’re not asking for a personal favor. In removing your emotions from the equation, you can focus on finding a solution that benefits both parties and serves the project as well.
- Just say no. It’s important to remember that saying no is always an option. If you agreed to a contract with a detailed scope, you’re literally not obligated to provide more than that. You’re a free agent, after all. While it’s true that some clients may balk at your unwillingness to bend over backwards to give them free work, try to keep things in perspective. If the original ask had included the new requests but under the original project rate, would you have accepted the project? Probably not. You would have negotiated a higher rate. A client who asks for substantially more work than an initial contract but isn’t willing to pay for it is not typically the kind of client you want on your roster anyway.
Scope creep is a very real part of business, and its negative impact on freelancers can choke your career and strangle your income potential. With the right approach, most instances can be resolved and your reputation as a professional with integrity will earn you far more work than you can ever risk losing by calling out scope creep. So, brush up on your negotiation skills and try to imagine how you’d deal with scope creep if you were an auto mechanic or a plumber. The professional services you offer may look different, but the core tenets of business are the same across the board. Keep that in mind the next time you’re asked to do more for less.