Creative Freelancer Q&A: What Do You Do About Scope Creep?

Creative Freelancer Q&A: What Do You Do About Scope Creep?

What do you do about scope creep? Should you avoid it? Should you agree to it?

The affect of scope creep — when a scope of work is increased or otherwise altered after you have started a job — on your bottom line is either positive or negative, depending on what you decide to do, and when you decide to do it.

Here is a real-life scope creep scenario. What would you have done if you were the freelancer?

I did a job that started out as a 12-page booklet. My client had tight deadline, and I told him I could only accept the job if there were no changes to the copy. I also told him that if I didn’t have to handle the printing it would save him some time. He said he had a printer all lined up.

Right after I started the project, he added 4 pages, but informed me he was authorized only for the initial $1,050 fee. He had also made changes to the copy 3 times. I had assumed he would understand that, by adding 4 pages, my fee would increase. He didn’t agree.
I could have stopped the work but I felt this was too harsh. He was one of my biggest customers.
So I finished the project and sent him the final art file. He then came back with more copy changes and also informed me that I needed to handle the printing.
Although he claimed several times that he could pay only $1,050 for this project, should I charge him the actual amount anyway? 

You should charge him the actual amount. But you may not be able to because of the decisions you made along the way, and what you allowed to happen.

How you do business and how you value  your work and experience have a direct affect on your profitability and on your reputation. Scope creep is very common, and uninformed freelancers often panic and fear losing the client when more work is requested. Don’t be one of those. Instead, establish policies and put systems in place that enable you to respond well and create a mutually beneficial outcome. In this case, the mutual benefit is that the client receives a quality finished work and you are compensated appropriately for doing the work. That’s good business.

Never assume anything! Ever!

Communicate with your client immediately when they change the project. Pick up the phone if  you need to, and then follow up in writing. Tell him or her that you certainly can and will do the add-on work, and it will cost this much in addition to the initially agreed-upon amount, and it will impact the production schedule by adding this number of days.

I embrace scope creep, because it means more income for me! When a client adds things to the project, I do a happy dance. I communicate the details of the additions and the additions fees and time in a written change order. I do nothing until the change order is approved. In fact, I stop all work on the project until the change order is approved. This gives me breathing room, and expedites the client’s response. I inform the client that I will not be able to move forward with any aspect of the project until the change order is signed.

Sometimes, the client will re-think the additional work, because he truly doesn’t have the budget for it. But generally, clients will find the money.

I learned this the hard way. It took me a couple of very sorry experiences similar to the one described above to realize that I needed to change my business policies, and actually have policies in place. The benefit to you as a freelancer is that you have decided, in advance, how you will respond to certain types of requests. This makes it easier to not react emotionally and make stupid decisions.

What to include in your project scope and contract

Never begin work on a project until you have a written agreement with the client — signed by the client — that includes, at minimum:

Specific parts, pieces, items and expectations described in detail. Here also you need to be explicit about what the client actually receives: printed items, a press-ready PDF, a jpg file, etc. Clients do not own your working files, or any right to use what you create except as you specify.

Creative fees for the initial scope of work — either as a project total or by item;

Project management fees (these cover all the non-creative time and effort you put into a project);

Expenses (the total you show should include your markup percentage and applicable sales taxes or VAT). Be sure to include anything you need to rent, purchase specifically for the project, ship, deliver, print, build, etc.)

Production schedule — listed by milestone (first review of concept, second review, approval, to print date, launch date, for example);

Rights being transferred to the client and at what point they transfer (upon payment in full) and when they revert (after 48 months, 2 years, for example); and

Payment terms. At what point is a payment considered late? Will you charge a late fee? At what milestones do you bill the client? Will you charge a service fee for credit card payments?

When scope creep happens, send the client a change order which describes the new deliverables and includes the additional fees and how the design schedule will be impacted. Do not start the new work until the client approves the change order.

I have learned to not start work without getting paid up front. With few exceptions, I require a downpayment from the client and then bill at various milestones (rather than dates) during a project. Billing at project milestones means I’m always paid up front. I describe what that looks like in this article.

It goes like this: I outline the initial scope of work, include number of reviews and changes (usually no more than 2 reviews), number of pages. I include a statement that additions and changes require change orders and additional fees.

When a client claims there is no more in his budget, hold the line. He’ll find the money if he needs the work done.

Don’t let your emotions drive you.

Holding the line with a client is not being harsh. It’s good business. Do not make business decisions based on emotions or a desire to be easy or liked. In thinking of yourself as harsh when you need to be firm with a client who’s all over the place, you are undermining your own livelihood and positioning yourself as a pushover with poor business skills. Do you want that kind of reputation, or do you want to be respected?

You do not have a business until you treat it like a business.

Further Reading: 

Do Business, Not Favors

How To Get Clients To Pay You: 10 Tactics for Invoicing Success

Your Turn: How do you handle scope creep? Share your experiences and insights in the comments.

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and design director at Alvalyn Creative, an independent practice near Thousand Oaks, California. She creates visual branding, publications and books for business, entrepreneurs and authors. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business roadmap program for creative freelancers. Contact her for your visual branding, graphic and digital design needs. Join her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and subscribe to her free monthly newsletter.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Hey Alvalyn,

    Great article & helped me quite a bit. I’m actually creating a software to solve this problem & include provisions such as Change orders. Would love to talk more about it with you as this is a problem i faced alot as a freelance illustrator (why i created a software solution; for myself & others that face these issues.)

    appreciate your time & this article,

    Haseeb Ahmed

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