How to Manage Scope Creep in Your Freelance Business
By Jena Kroeker
Have you ever stopped in the middle of a freelance or virtual assistant task and thought, “What am I doing, and how did I get here?” Maybe a project is taking longer than you thought, or you’re doing extra work outside your original agreement, completely unrelated to your niche. If so, you need to learn how to manage scope creep.
A Scope Creep Story
Years ago, I agreed to do freelance administration work for an organization. The tasks would include basic admin and calendar management. I also offered to do content services like writing and editing. But as time went on, I also agreed to deposit cheques, submit expense reports, process donations and payments, and update financial spreadsheets.
When I ended that contract to pursue other writing and editing work, the clients gave me a thank-you card full of kind words including thanks for my excellent bookkeeping services.
“Bookkeeping services?” I thought. “I didn’t know I was considered a bookkeeper.” Frankly, I didn’t know what bookkeeping was. The clients even offered me a referral to another organization looking for a bookkeeper, and although I was flattered, I was not interested in pursuing that niche.
So, what happened? Through a series of small yeses and a desire to be helpful to the client, my workload had blossomed in a direction outside of what I had agreed to. And it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It showed that the client trusted and needed me. But it was far outside my passion and skill set, and it showed my failure to set healthy boundaries and expectations.
As Kate Hamill says in her article, “How to Fight Scope-Creep (Politely),”
“It would be a mistake to think that scope-creep is necessarily a symptom of Big Bad Greedy Clients trying to squeeze every drop of work from you – although that does happen. Sometimes overloaded project managers will push for more work in desperation; sometimes clients are genuinely ignorant about what the amount of effort they’re asking for, and sometimes they’re just blithely testing your limits. But clients’ reasons for scope-creep are moot; let me repeat that again – their motives are moot. This is about YOU, not them – and your right to a happy, lucrative freelance career.”
The Problem with Scope Creep
As scope creep adds to your workload, it subtracts. In some cases, you may lose money by doing extra tasks without appropriate compensation. You may also experience loss in these areas:
• As freelancers and virtual assistants, we’re encouraged to organize our time among multiple clients and enjoy the freedom of a flexible schedule. Scope creep steals your time when one client starts to take up more of your day than you expected or intended.
• When scope creep starts to reach outside your niche, you start to feel like a fish out of water, learning a skill set you never intended to. Or maybe you’re doing tasks you were trying to move away from. Your identity and passion for your work wanes as your role hurtles out of your control.
• The freedom you thought you had dissolves in the face of scope creep. You start to dread messages from your client, not knowing what to expect. Instead of feeling a sense of peace and confidence in your offerings, you feel unbalanced and unsure of what you’re doing.
• Your relationship with your clients and colleagues becomes strained. You have difficulty balancing your workload, and you start to resent the client for asking you to increase the scope of your work.
• You find yourself saying no to new opportunities because your current client is taking more time than you expected. If it’s a client you otherwise enjoy working with, it’s difficult to leave in pursuit of other work.
How to Manage Scope Creep
In a previous FreeU blog post titled “Eight Ways to Thrive While Working at Home,” we encourage freelancers and virtual assistants to “be kind and have boundaries” with their friends and family so they can get work done. Saying no is a kindness to yourself and others because it frees up essential time and energy.
The same goes for your clients. You need to develop healthy boundaries and expectations that surround your workload and prevent it from overflowing. It’s like building a structure near a river to prevent it from spilling over its banks and direct it in the appropriate direction.
With that in mind, here’s how to manage scope creep using five strategies:
1. Stop it before it starts.
You may have heard the old adage, “The best offence is a good defence.” When it comes to scope creep, the best way to manage it is to prevent it from happening in the first place.
In our “Protecting Your Freelance Business” workshop, FreeU co-founder and instructor Craig Cannings recommends including a clear and specific description of services in your Freelance Service Agreement. In the Terms and Conditions, you can also include a bulleted list of what you’re agreeing to provide to the client and the date when the project will be delivered or included.
Craig advises us to be crystal clear about the expectations, and if the client wants us to complete other work, they’ll need to amend the existing contract or set up a new one.
2. Track your time.
Although ideally we want to avoid charging by the hour, it’s still important to monitor how much time we’re spending on tasks. If you use a Pomodoro timer like the one on Toggl to manage productivity, save the information for your records. FreshBooks also has a convenient timer that can be used to create a timesheet for your own information or to attach to your invoice.
Tracking your time is especially important when you charge a retainer rate because it gauges whether you’re staying within the bounds of your agreement. Sometimes a retainer can get out of control if the role isn’t defined clearly or if the client sees it as an opportunity to add on miscellaneous tasks loosely related to your niche.
3. Beware the miscellaneous.
In keeping with the above strategies, beware the seemingly innocent little tasks that creep into a project. Sometimes, even after signing a contract and outlining the deliverables, clients may start talking about “miscellaneous” tasks. On one hand, it’s a positive thing because it means they trust you and want to expand your role. But on the other hand, unchecked miscellaneous tasks can send the scope hurtling into space.
Clients may also ask for endless revisions that keep you tied to a particular project without adequate compensation. In this case, you need to know how to manage scope creep in a way that benefits both you and your client. In his article titled “Don’t make these freelance contract mistakes,” Mark Quadros recommends defining the number of revisions and concepts for creative work and assigning additional costs for add-on services. You can use those add-on services as an upsell. That way, you’re being upfront with your client and offering them reasonable options.
4. Communicate your boundaries.
It’s one thing to have boundaries. It’s another to communicate them. And the way you communicate them is often by saying no. Easier said than done, right? We don’t want to offend good clients or lose them. But, as we’ve said before, boundaries are a kindness to yourself and others. They help you maintain honest, open relationships with good clients and sift out bad clients who won’t respect your boundaries.
Diana Myers stresses the importance of saying no in her article, “How to avoid scope creep in freelance projects (7 tactics).” She says, “When you’re learning how to avoid scope creep, sometimes all it takes is the magic word.” You need to evaluate changes in scope and determine whether or not they’re reasonable. Myers explains, “While you’re likely a rockstar freelancer, you’re only human.”
5. Use project management tools.
Online tools and apps can also help you manage scope creep using various features. As a FreeU team, we’ve benefited from using Asana and Trello for projects:
• Asana is a robust tool that allows you to map out the steps for your projects and visualize each stage. You can also use a feature called “Timeline” to help you see how deadlines and tasks connect and modify your plan if anything changes. That way, you can monitor for any scope creep that’s taking away from the progression of your project.
• Trello is another project management tool with a simple layout that lets you prioritize and organize projects using cards, lists, and boards. You can create tasks and move them across lists to show what’s in progress and what’s completed. You can also add due dates and checklists to cards to show all the details involved in a project. Documenting your tasks in this way and collaborating with clients and team members helps you keep your workload in check.
Learning how to manage scope creep is an essential skill all freelancers and virtual assistants need to learn in order to embrace the freedom of working virtually. I hope this article has empowered you to set healthy boundaries and expectations with your clients. Although it may feel awkward at first, saying no to scope creep will ultimately lead to meaningful work and long-lasting client relationships.
And now we’d love to hear from you! Have you experienced scope creep in your online business? Please share your thoughts and advice in the comments below.
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