If you’ve been freelancing for more than a day or two, you’ve probably experienced scope creep (or at least attempted scope creep). It looks something like this:

[Phone rings; it’s your client]

You: Hello?
Client: Hey, Karen. I was up in the middle of the night thinking about the project we’re working on.
You: Gulp.
Client: I know we initially said we would forego the paragraphs about why fracking is so bad for the environment, but I’m really not sure the piece is going to work without it. So, can we add it back in?

At this point, you have a very critical decision to make. Some freelancers, afraid they might lose a good client and be faced to find work again, might choose this response:

You: Hey, Jerry. No problem. We can definitely add that in. I’ll work on it later today.

Smart, more seasoned freelancers know better than to give in quite so easily. Their response might look more like this:

You: Hey, Jerry. I completely see where you’re coming from on that. Can I ask you a few more questions about it?
[Asks relevant questions to further understand the situation.]
I see. That makes complete sense for the project. I can definitely tally up what that will add to the cost of the overall project and get back to you with a bid before I begin working on it. How does that sound?

There’s the key difference: a seasoned freelancer recognizes scope creep from a mile away and already has a plan when it strikes.

You can do the same.

What is scope creep?

Before we jump into why scope creep is such a bad thing, let’s talk about what I mean when I use the term “scope creep.”

If you’re a savvy freelancer, you most likely charge by the project. Better yet, I hope you charge by the value that you bring to a potential client. And when you work this way, there are bound to be change orders, when a client asks you to complete more work than you originally planned when you bid the project.

It happens all the time, in all kinds of businesses. It’s not inherently evil.

But what can happen, if you’re not careful, is an unofficial, lawless change order called “scope creep.”

In other industries (architecture and construction for example), when a client has a change, they’ll write up a change order, discuss it with all parties, review additional costs, and agree together on the best steps forward.

Scope creep, on the other hand, is less collaborative. It results primarily from over-anxious clients adding more ideas to the project—typically unchecked by any other parties.

And it’s this kind of unmanaged, unplanned, one-way communication that can literally kill your freelance business.

How scope creep kills your freelance business

Why is scope creep so deadly?  There are a lot of reasons every freelancer should avoid scope creep like the plague. Here are just a few:

1. It demolishes your profits

As a freelancer, you’re running a business, period, just like your customers. And any business that wants to stay in business, and doesn’t rely on million-dollar funding rounds, has to rely on profits to stay afloat.

The better your profit margin, the more you can reinvest into your company or save for a rainy day.

As projects get slightly bigger and more time-consuming, without matching budget, the extra time and effort you put in to meet the new demands eats right into your profit.

It’s something you simply can’t afford as a solopreneur.

2. It sets a pattern and a precedent

Suppose you let your client get away with it just this time. Then, that client refers you to a friend and brags about how flexible you are and how you are able to add in last-minute ideas.

Suddenly, you risk contaminating your entire client pool with clients who take advantage of you and eat up your profits. That’s a fast way to go out of business.

3. It opens a floodgate

Again, you might be asking why it would be such a big deal to add in one thing here or there with a client. The problem is this: where do you draw the line?

If you accept a “small change” this time, but can’t accept it the next time around, it can lead to frustration on your client’s part. If you do choose to accept scope creep once, make sure you are 100% clear about your intentions for the future.

A few tips for handling scope creep like a pro

Okay. You get it. Scope creep is bad. But knowing it’s bad for business doesn’t necessarily solve your problem.  Following are two actionable, real-world solutions to help you prevent scope creep in your freelance business:

Outline a project scope document

Before you begin any project, you should outline the scope of the entire project in a simple project scope document. This should be included as part of your freelance proposal document, if you so choose.  Include language that addresses how you’ll be handling additional work, including how you are to be compensated for it.

While this added document may seem like a lot of extra work, the hours you’ll invest in this document will save you loads of headache and hours of extra work during the course of the project itself.

Which increases your profit margin.

Have your client review the document and sign it. You may need it later.

Have a professional response ready when you see scope creep coming

In addition to using a project scope document, you should be prepared to handle scope creep when you see it coming.

That means you (or your team project manager) have to:

  1. Be intimately familiar with the details of the project scope document
  2. Be unafraid to address early signs of scope creep with your client

If (probably when) you receive a scope creep email from your client, you’ll want to:

  1. Acknowledge you heard them clearly
  2. Remind them of the project scope document
  3. Offer alternatives

It’s important to remember that most clients don’t intentionally try to scam more work or more hours. Many clients have something come up they genuinely didn’t foresee and decide to add it in during the project.

Avoid getting defensive, rude or short with your clients, just because they’re requesting extra work. Take it as an opportunity to increase your total revenue and delight your client.

Here’s an example of a professional response to a client who may be adding scope to a project:

Hi, Mary.

Thanks for your email. From what I can see, you’d like us to:

  • Add the extra “our story” page with images and text about your company
  • Turn the static image on the homepage into a rotating carousel

Is that right?

We can definitely do that kind of work and we’d be happy to. Since it falls outside the original scope of the project, it’ll require extra resources including a larger budget.

Would you like me to send you a new proposal outlining what those additions will cost? Or would you like to remove something from the original project in order to fit these in?

Thanks!

Remain calm and dignified, but stand your ground. Often times, clients don’t realize what extra resources will be required in terms of time and money such changes will require.

If they are consistently asking for more work than was promised, you may want to consider raising your rates. This price increase letter template ought to help.

It’s going to happen … but you can handle it

The sad truth is, scope creep is going to happen. It’s almost impossible to avoid.

You’re a smart freelancer and you can handle it like a pro. Just remember: you’re protecting yourself and your business while building a foundation of respect and transparency with your clients.

At the end of the day, managing scope creep will help your business run more smoothly and more profitably, which is something every freelancer wants.


Preston Lee is the founder of Millo, where he and his team have been helping people find quality freelance jobs or start a blog to make money for over 10 years. To make quick progress on your freelance business, consider downloading their one-page business plan template.