Freelance Creatives: How to Tame Scope-Creeping Clients

May 12, 2016


Scope-creep is a phenomenon that can sneak up on unsuspecting freelancers of all levels of expertise. Imagine you’re a freelance web developer and a client hires you to create a simple WordPress website. Then a few weeks into the project, the client demands a much more complex site that includes an online shopping cart, videos and social media integration. Or you’re a freelance illustrator who’s contracted to design a series of birthday cards and the client now wants additional designs for baby shower and wedding cards.

If you bill your clients by the hour, then tacking on additional work may not bother you as long as the client agrees to pay for those extra hours. But if you bill a flat rate per project or per month or based on some other metric, then scope-creep can really cut into your bottom line, especially when it prevents you from taking on additional work for other clients.

Sometimes clients genuinely don’t understand the negative impact of scope-creep on the freelance creatives they hire. If they’re salaried, they may wonder “what’s the big deal about creating a few extra designs or adding another video?” (But remember, salaried workers also get benefits that contractors don’t!)

Other times, they’re trying to squeeze as much work out of their creatives for as little money as possible. Or maybe they’re getting squeezed by upper management when priorities and expectations change.



Here’s how to handle this pesky problem to ensure that you’re earning what you’re worth and not getting exploited.

How to Avoid Scope-Creep

Your best line of defense against scope-creep is setting clear expectations before the project gets underway.

Your best line of defense against scope-creep is setting clear expectations before the project gets underway. A signed contract and statement of work should clearly spell out expectations about timelines, deliverables, pay schedule and any revision process.

While the details may vary depending on the nature of your work, here’s a checklist of items you probably want to iron out in advance:

  • What exactly are you being paid to do? Write an instructional article of approximately 900 words? Photograph an event and deliver at least a hundred high-resolution retouched images on USB? Design business cards and letterhead for a new business and five of its employees? What file format is expected?
  • What do you need from the client in order to do this? Access to company executives who will be quoted in the article? A press pass to attend the event? Names and contact details for employees whose business cards you’re designing? Who will be in charge of getting what you need and what happens if you don’t get it on time?
  • When will you deliver the project? If you’re delayed in hearing from company executives or getting a press pass, will that postpone the delivery deadline?
  • What is the agreed upon revision process? Will revision requests flow through one person or will a committee send individual feedback? (Ideally, it’s the former.) How many rounds of revisions are included in the fee? If additional revisions are added, will you bill the extra time on an hourly basis?
  • When will you be paid? Are you getting an upfront deposit or milestone payments when certain parts of the project are completed? Is there a late fee if the client fails to pay within the agreed upon timeframe?

Putting all these details in writing protects you and your client from misunderstandings, so if the client is reluctant to sign an agreement, remind them of this. Now you’ll both have a document you can refer back to in case of disagreements, but more likely, it’s a useful exercise for getting on the same page. When you understand the client’s process and needs, you can also quote a project fee that reflects the time and effort needed (and hopefully also the value you bring to the project).



 What to Do When Scope-Creep Occurs

Scope-creep happens to the best of us, even when you think you’ve done a good job of defining the project upfront. Here’s how to revisit expectations with your client.

Refer back to your original agreement

When a web design client shares grandiose ideas about extra customizations that weren’t in the original statement of work, remind him of what you originally agreed upon. When a copywriting client decides that although they contracted you to write short email campaigns, they actually need a series of much more detailed sales letters, speak up! Focus on the facts (“this is what we originally agreed upon, but we can revisit the fee if you’d like to amend the scope of work”) and gently remind the client of the original project specs. Sometimes this is all that’s needed to prompt them to scale back the vision to match their budget.

Discuss fees for additional work

If the client insists that they need those website customizations or sales letters, it’s time to renegotiate the fee. It’s best to do this soon after they ask for additional work and certainly before you actually do the work. The last thing you want to do is forge ahead with extra work that the client assumes will be covered by the project fee, then surprise them with a larger invoice. Depending on the nature of your work, you might agree to perform additional work at your standard hourly rate. Or you might agree to a larger project fee. If the client balks at paying an additional fee, you could offer suggestions on adjusting the project’s scope to include the new work and reducing other elements that are less important (for instance, if you’re writing a 900-word article and the client wants an extra 150-word sidebar, perhaps the article could be scaled down to 750 words). Or maybe you can find another way to accomplish the result that they want without a ton of extra work.

Decide what extras you’re willing to do

For a long-time client or someone you enjoy working with, you may decide that you’re OK with giving them a few extras that don’t require a lot of extra time and effort. This can help engender goodwill, but track your time and make sure you’re not spending the majority of your workday performing free favors for clients (some may exploit your generosity if you’re not careful).

When a client makes a bigger ask (“We figured you’re already writing all the website copy, so why not throw in an extra case study for fun?” “Gee, thanks, dear client! That does sound like fun … for you.”), be prepared to ask for more money as soon as it comes up. If you’ve tracked your time, you could share that you’ve already spent X hours on extra tasks as a courtesy to that client, but you’ll need to discuss additional compensation for additional work since that case study will take you at least ten hours.

The more experience you gain working with clients, the more confident you’ll feel asserting yourself and warding off scope-creep.

The more experience you gain working with clients, the more confident you’ll feel asserting yourself and warding off scope-creep. Don’t assume that your clients know your project fee only includes one round of revisions or that writing a case study takes several hours. Have these conversations on the back end and you’ll have fewer disagreements later on. But if you do experience mismatched expectations, keep the conversation professional and matter-of-fact to maintain that relationship.


about the author

Freelance Contributor Freelance journalist Susan Johnston Taylor covers entrepreneurship, small business and lifestyle for publications including The Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur and FastCompany.com. Follow her on Twitter.