Laura Petrolino

How to Create Scope Creep Free Client Relationships

By: Laura Petrolino | August 21, 2017 | 
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How To Create Scope Creep Free Client RelationshipsHave you ever dealt with scope creep?

Everyone should be raising your hands right now.

You and you and you and you.

And if you aren’t raising your hand and you sincerely have never dealt with scope creep….ever…then you can just enjoy these cat videos.

Godspeed, friend.

You are a unicorn among zebras. 

Now for the rest of us: Save the cat videos for later because we are going to spend the rest of this article having a heart-to-heart about scope creep and the importance of a proactive approach to prevent it.

What is Scope Creep?

“So I creep, yeaaaah just creeping on.”

These famous words from well-known business mentors TLC speak to the way your client scope just keeps creeping past the original agreement.

You know, the one they’re paying you to do.

oh ah, oh ah, oh ah yeaaaah

Let me be the first to say I am 310 percent guilty of this.

Guilty. Guilty. Very, very guilty.

It’s our nature to want to support our clients when they need us.

We want to do things for them that will help them be successful.

We want to be part of that success.

And all of that is awesome if they pay us for it.

We cannot be successful for anyone if we are doing a bunch of things we’re not paid to do.

We will burn out, go out of business, or not be able to prioritize the right things.

(Oh, we also might have to buy expensive software we don’t need because we promised a client we’d do something we shouldn’t do…not that I have experience with that personally, just speaking on behalf of a friend…)

Start with Contract Negotiations

Eliminating scope creep begins with contract negotiations (it doesn’t end there, but it sets you up to be successful). 

At the beginning of the relationship is when you and the client decide on priorities and put them in writing (called a contract).

When you outline goals and priorities at the contract phase, you avoid scope creep that could come from not having an agreement on results.

My friend Nick Armstrong recently put together an excellent course for Skillshare: A Freelancer’s Guide to Negotiation and Conflict Management.

Although the audience is freelancers, it is useful for anyone who works in new business or handles contract negotiations.

As Nick reminds us, when you don’t establish clear goals and priorities in the contract, you inevitably set yourself up for scope creep in the relationship.

Scope creep happens as a result of a variety of missteps:

  • You focus too much on tactics and not enough on goals
  • You don’t understand what success looks like for the client
  • All decision makers are not on the same page
  • You don’t outline agreed upon priorities and timelines

Ask Questions to Avoid Scope Creep

Why do these things happen?

Usually, it’s because we don’t ask the right questions and listen to the answers.

Sounds simple, right?

I mean we are communicators, right?

But too often in our contract negotiations, we get so focused on OUR goal (getting a signed contract), we don’t focus enough on clarifying THEIR goals.

Remember, this time is crucial to a successful relationship. It’s a time for both sides to make sure the other is the right fit.

Gini Dietrich put together a great list of questions to ask prospects (which I have in front of me for EVERY new business meeting), and Nick includes many corresponding ones in his course, including:

  • What are you looking to get out of this project?
  • What is your end goal?
  • Describe what success look like for you?
  • How would you rank your priorities?
  • What speed bumps have gotten in your way in the past or anticipate in the future?
  • What is your timeline?
  • Tell me the key deliverables for this project?

Use these two guides to make a list of your own before any new business meeting.

Focused Strategy Prevents Scope Creep

Your goal is to understand not just what they say they want, but their greater needs.

As Nick says, “What’s the big why?”

And, in turn, the related business goals it drives.

If you want your client to hire another firm, you can just check boxes off their task list.

If your communications plan speaks to business goals, a long-term relationship is on the horizon.

Not tactics which accomplish tasks.

Likewise, a focused, goal-centric strategy makes it easier to prevent scope creep.

When you just accomplish tasks, the client sees no reason not just to provide additional random tasks for you to do, just as they would an intern or junior-level associate.

A strategy focused on agreed upon goals makes it much easier to tell a client no.

AS TLC would say, “Don’t go chasing waterfalls.

Stick to the agreed upon strategy and goals.

How to Respond to Scope Creep

It’s easy for me to say no to a client who asks us to do something that doesn’t align with agreed upon goals.

Where it gets trickier is when they ask us something that is completely aligned with our goals and strategy, but NOT in our scope of work.

We want to help our clients, to help make them successful, and not have to say no.

We want to do it all.

WHY CAN’T WE JUST CONTROL THE WHOLE WORLD?? WHHHY? WHHHY?

Because we aren’t paid to do so.

I’m sure you’ve felt the frustration of wanting so desperately to help a client do something that would make them more successful and even make your work for them more successful.

And you can.

But clients need to pay for it.

If there is a temporary or permanent change in priorities or deliverables, have a conversation:

We can do X, but that means we will need to put less focus on Y or put Y on a back burner.

Or they need to pay you more:

We would love to help you with X, let me write up a proposal for how much that would add to your monthly retainer (or a project fee if more applicable).

Which direction you go depends on the ask and the particular client.

The most important thing is always to make it very clear (both verbally and in writing) what any change means to deliverables, timeline, and expectations.

Say Goodbye to Scope Creep

We are working hard to reduce scope creep in our client relationships drastically. It isn’t easy, and it takes consistent effort and awareness by EVERY TEAM MEMBER who works on the project..

Will you join us?

And if you want to see Nick’s entire course on contract negotiations on Skillshare (which you absolutely should), you can do so (and get two free months of access to all the Skillshare courses) through this link (which says welcome from me and gives you a handy tutorial—yay!).

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks.

  • This is great. And really important. I’ve also been guilty of allowing (heck, even propagating) scope creep, until a group I was working with implemented a policy that each and every project, action… basically anything that required effort/hours on our part, was something that could be checked off of an SOW. If that hasn’t been signed off, no work gets done. Obviously that can be difficult if you have a client asking for something last minute and pleasepleaseplease can we just start work on it while we push the SOW through? And sure, this can happen, but ultimately some kind of “paper” trail needs to address the fact that the work was asked for and approved, and all that entails.

    • Yes, definitely. Scope sometimes needs to be flexible for the success of the project, but setting expectation and clearly making sure all sides acknowledge and aware of EXCHANGE in hours or scope focus, is crucial

    • I have a “damn the torpedoes full speed ahead rate” listed in my contract for those kinds of issues. 99% of what we do is covered under the contract, for that last 1%, it’s the hourly rate which is prefaced by “Please be seated and not eating or drinking before you proceed.”

  • Bill Dorman

    I’m sorry, that’s not my job……

    My largest client pays me on a fee for services basis instead of commission and we start each year w/ a newly executed agreement and reconfirm expectations as well. However, they are a growing entity w/ nationwide scope and getting into new parts of their business as well so when they call, we jump. The good news is, they are fair and we re-access at the end of each year.

    I had a sales manager at one time who’s motto was ‘someone will have to pay me for my time’ and to remember that when you agree to attend a meeting, or ‘work’ for someone.

    Also, when they ‘pay’ you they value your work much more.

    • Yes, 100 percent to that last sentence. It’s easy to forget the work that goes into things when you give it away for free.

    • Any time I hear “pick your brain” or “coffee meeting” or “quick phone call” it makes me want to whip out my Square.

      • I’ve said to people before, “if you had a friend who owned a clothing store, would you feel like you could just walk in and take clothes, without paying for them, anytime you’d like? That’s essentially what you do to me when you ‘pick my brain.'”

  • Liz Reusswig

    OMG…TLC’s “waterfalls” in a blog on scope creep! You’re a genius! 🙂

    • Thank you! Working 90’s musical hits into blog posts is something I really don’t do often enough. LOL!

    • Other words come to mind… all good ones, but others nonetheless.

  • Laura, thanks so much for the mention! It’s such an important topic and I see so many of my freelancer friends struggling with it. Having toolkits and buddies to commiserate with is critical, but more than that – actionable activities to get out of the bad habits and bad clients that lead to scope creep.

    • You nailed it, it’s a habit. And like any bad habit you have to replace it with a good one.

  • First I wanted to go see the cats videos. I stopped myself at the very last second and continued reading. Then I got to the TLC part and you reminded me of my wild youth. 😝

    Seriously now, it’s hard. Yes, you need to have a contract signed, a SOW, and all, and it will still happen. But asking questions in the beginning is key. I very much like this, “How would you rank your priorities?” It stops them in their tracks and it makes them think.

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