If you provide project-based work to clients, you’ve no doubt encountered scope creep. Scope creep is the tiny request your client asks you to do once, outside your agreed-upon contract, that can balloon into many requests for which you aren’t compensated.
Scope creep happens in every industry — agencies, technology, consulting, construction. And the extra requests can strain client relationships. The elephant in the room is always this: Do you provide the extra work or just say no?
We asked services and contract veterans how they handle, reduce, and eliminate scope creep. Here is what they said.
Reduce scope creep before you start work
1. Start with a SOW — Kathleen Smith, Content Marketer, The Content Canvas | Media
A statement of work (SOW) clearly defines your project parameters. When a project starts to look creepy, we remind our clients about the SOW parameters. We offer them options on what's possible — should they want to extend the scope of their project. Nearly 99 percent of the time, clients who have seen the “hourly rate for project extension” clause in our SOWs are great about sticking to the agreed-upon scope.
2. Use a project management system — Jeremy Knauff, CEO, Spartan Media | Media
A project management system helps your teams identify scope creep. The system documents your project process, so your employees can instantly spot any requests that fall outside scope. The key is having your employees understand both
1. Your project management system
2. Your internal processes
This lets a junior employee know to check with a supervisor before performing "this one quick task" the client has requested. Because “one quick task” never ends with just one quick task, you are helping your employees learn how you handle scope creep, which in turn reflects what your clients expect.
3. Revise your terms of service — Angela Bradbury, Founder and CEO, Chime Advisors | Consulting
Your terms of service should address variables you can expect, such as timeline extensions and discretionary charges. You can ask peers for issues they’ve encountered and work these into your terms. Then, as you deliver work, every time you experience a scope creep problem that wasn't prevented or solved by your terms of service, go back and revise your terms. That prevents the same issues from arising again.
4. Bake “credits” into your contract — Mark Dalton, Auto Deploy | Software Services
Add this line into your contract: "We'll credit you (insert random number of hours here.)"
These "credits" have already been baked into the numbers. If I have a $10M project, for instance, and I credit you $100k, you are going to feel like a valued customer. As a consulting firm, this crediting is just business as usual. It has not materially impacted my margins. This is one of the oldest plays in the consulting book.
5. Use meetings — Jordan Brannon, Director of Digital Strategy, Coalition Technologies | SEO and Web Design
We hold a 30-45 minute meeting to make sure the client understands the scope, before anyone signs on or commits to anything. This meeting is followed by a Q&A to get client buy-in to the SOW. We record the meetings, post the notes, and link to them from our project management software. Any new team members who get onboarded have the benefit of that information, because it’s all been documented. So we stay on the same page with what we are expected to deliver to the client. This documentation helps us avoid the typical, “We talked about this with XYZ at your company, and they said that we could” type of conversation.
Once scope creep occurs
6. Refer back to the SOW — Jeremy Knauff, CEO, Spartan Media | Media
The best way to address scope creep is to review the written agreement together. Say, "That's a great suggestion, and I look forward to doing that for you. But based on the agreement for this project, that falls outside the scope. We can either add it on to this project for an investment of X dollars, or we can make a note and incorporate it into the next project—which would work better for you?" This shows them that you want to satisfy them, but won't work without being appropriately compensated for your time and skills.
7. Be honest yet professional — Sherrilynne Starkie, Executive Vice President, Thornley Fallis Communications | Analytics and PR
Once our client signs off on a detailed statement of work, we can easily point to the document and say, “I'm afraid this is out of scope.” We’ll offer them a solution that benefits us both: “Would you like me to prepare a quote for this extra work?” This often results in new billable work for us, and the client gets what they want. With some clients, using this approach helps them understand the value of our time and talents. Often they stop requesting work outside of scope.
8. Look out for key phrases — Tom Ortega, Principal, Omega Ortega / Vertical Play | Mobile App Development
We hold weekly builds to show our progress. When we demo, we listen for key scope creep phrases:
- “Oh that’s great, but you know what would be better …”
- “Now that I see this, I’ve got a better idea on how we can …”
- “You’ve just given me an idea for …”
When those phrases make their appearance, we don’t cut them off! We listen. We write down what we hear and then repeat back what was spoken. We’ll even engage in the conversation and get to the final result of what the client wants. However, at the end, when the dust settles, we say, “This is all great and we can’t wait to do it, but it will have to be AFTER we’re done with our current project scope. If you want it before hand, let’s fill out a change request and we can make that a part of our current scope.” Typically, once clients realize scope creep will cost additional funds, it’s easier for them to subdue their excitement. Sometimes though, the added cost will be worth it to them, and so both sides are happy: They get the new, exciting stuff and we get more work!
9. Use these 7 magic words — Karl Sakas, President, Sakas & Company | Agency Growth Services
Use these seven “magic words” to kill scope creep:
"Would you like an estimate for that?"
It calls out that the request isn't in the scope. It also lets clients decide whether they want to pursue the new ideas further. Of course, you may occasionally choose to deliver out-of-scope work for a high-value client or to make good on an earlier issue. When you do, recognize that you are giving something free to your clients. "Strategically free” is OK, but “secretly free” is not.
10. Allow small requests to go through — Mark Draper PE, PMP, Independent Consultant | Mechanical Engineering
If the request is trivial, I may allow a few changes without the formal request. If the increase in scope is significant, I let the client know that the increase in scope wasn’t planned for or budgeted. I ask them to submit a formal request for an increased scope and explain I’ll revise the schedule and budget accordingly. This stops most clients from going forward with the request.
11. Distinguish between feedback and creep — Tom Ortega, Principal, Omega Ortega / Vertical Play | Mobile App Development
It’s okay to change a color because a client doesn’t like it, but it’s not okay to go back and give two or three new color schemes so they can pick the one they want. It’s also okay to move a button around a screen, but it’s not okay to add a button which does something you weren’t planning to build. As the developer/contractor/builder/designer, it’s up to you to realize which is which and help the clients realize it too.
12. Let them know you did them a favor — Jordan Brannon, Director of Digital Strategy, Coalition Technologies | Web Design
We make sure that if they've already received the benefit of scope creep, they understand we've done them a favor. We indicate the extra work was something special — beyond the norm — and that it’s not something we can regularly offer. At the very least, we'll get their appreciation for it.
13. Finally, don’t invite creep — Robert N. Moore, Founder and CEO, Footprint Digital, LLC | Branding
I always want to go above and beyond, which becomes a slippery slope. Many times I find myself wanting to offer more than the client is paying. I have to remind myself not to constantly exceed my SOW, however. Doing this will make it harder to push back on the client when they make a BIG request later on. Internal discipline is key here.