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.


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!).

Laura Petrolino

Laura Petrolino is chief marketing officer for Spin Sucks, an integrated marketing communications firm that provides strategic counsel and professional development for in-house and agency communications teams. She is a weekly contributor for their award-winning blog of the same name. Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

View all posts by Laura Petrolino