Creative Freelancer Q&A: What Do You Do About Scope Creep?

What do you do about scope creep? Avoid it? Agree to it? Stress out about it?

Scope creep is when the amount of work  originally agreed to is increased or otherwise altered after you have started a project. The effect of scope creep on your bottom line is positive, neutral, or negative, depending on what you decide to do, and when you decide to do it.

Here is a real-life scope creep scenario offered up by a fellow freelancer who asked for anonymity. What would you have done in this situation?

“I did a job that started out as a 12-page booklet. My client had tight deadline, and I told him I could only accept the job if there were no changes to the copy. I also told him that if I didn’t have to handle the printing it would save him some time. He said he had a printer all lined up.

“Right after I started the project, he added four pages, but informed me he was authorized only for the initial $1,050 fee. He had also made changes to the copy four times. I had assumed he would understand that, by adding four pages, my fee would increase. He didn’t agree.

“I could have stopped the work but I felt this was too harsh. He was one of my biggest customers. So I finished the project and sent him the final art file. He then came back with more copy changes and also informed me that I needed to handle the printing.

“Although he claimed several times that he could pay only $1,050 for this project, should I charge him the actual amount anyway?”


Ideally the freelancer should charge him the actual amount. But they may not be able to because of decisions they made along the way, and what they allowed to take place. In other words, the freelancer failed to manage expectations before beginning the work.

Now, I might be sounding harsh, but let me get into it.

How you do business, and how you value your work and expertise, have a direct affect on your profitability and reputation (brand).

Scope creep is a common occurrence, and uninformed, unprepared freelancers can panic and fear losing the client when more work is requested. Don’t be one of those.

Instead, establish policies and put systems in place that enable you to respond well and create a mutually beneficial outcome. In this case, the mutual benefit is that the client receives an effective and high-quality finished work, and you are compensated appropriately for creating the work. That’s good business.


Never assume anything! Ever!

Part of project and client management is discussing the reality of alterations to the project deliverables, and how you will handle add-on requests.

Communicate with your client immediately when they want to change the project scope. Pick up the phone if  you need to, and then follow up in writing. Tell them that you certainly can and will do the add-on work, and it will cost this much in addition to the initially agreed-upon amount, and it will impact the production schedule by adding this number of days.


Why you should embrace scope creep.

I embrace scope creep, because it means more income for me. When a client adds things to the project, I communicate the details of the additions, itemize the additional fees, and estimate the additional time time in a written change order. I provide an invoice for the changes. Then I do nothing until the change order is approved — signed by the client and the invoice is paid.

I stop all work on the project until the changes are approved. This gives me breathing room, and expedites the client’s response. I inform the client that I will not be able to move forward with any aspect of the project until the change order is signed and I receive the additional deposit money.

Sometimes, the client will re-think the additional work, because he truly doesn’t have the budget for it. But generally, clients are able to find the money.

I learned this the hard way. It took me a few very sorry experiences similar to the one described above to realize that I needed to change my business policies, and to actually put policies in place.

Dealing with scope creep should be part of your business policies.

The benefit to you as a freelancer is that you have decided in advance how you will respond to certain types of requests. This makes it easier to not react emotionally and make stupid decisions.


What to include in your project scope and contract

One way to cut down on change requests is to not begin work on a project until you have a written agreement with the client — signed by the client — that includes, at minimum:

Specific parts, pieces, items and expectations described in detail. Here also you need to be explicit about what the client actually receives: printed items, a press-ready PDF, a jpg file, etc. Clients do not own your working files, or any right to use what you create except as you specify.

Creative fees for the initial scope of work — either as a project total or by item;

Project management fees (these cover all the non-creative time and effort you put into a project);

Expenses (the total you show should include your markup percentage and applicable sales taxes or VAT). Be sure to include anything you need to rent, purchase specifically for the project, ship, deliver, print, build, etc.)

Production schedule — listed by milestone (first review of concept, second review, approval, to print date, launch date, for example);

Rights being transferred to the client and at what point they transfer (upon payment in full) and when they revert (after 48 months, 2 years, for example); and

Payment terms. At what point is a payment considered late? Will you charge a late fee? At what milestones do you bill the client? Will you charge a service fee for credit card payments?

Terms of service (TOS). This is where you confirm in writing what your business policies are, including how changes are handled.

When scope creep happens, send the client a change order describing the new deliverables and include the additional fees and delivery schedule. Do not start the new work until the client approves the change order and pays the invoice for the changes.

I’ve learned to not start work without getting paid up front. With few exceptions, I require a downpayment from the client and then bill at various milestones (rather than dates) during a project. Billing at project milestones means I’m always paid up front. I describe what that looks like in this article.

It goes like this: I outline the initial scope of work, include number of reviews and changes (usually no more than 2 reviews), number of pages. I include a statement that additions and changes require change orders and additional fees.

When a client claims there is no more in their budget, hold the line. Either they’ll find the money, or agree to less changes or the original scope of work.


Don’t let your emotions drive you.

Holding the line with a client is not being harsh. It’s good business. Do not make business decisions based on emotions or a desire to be kind or likable. By thinking of yourself as harsh when you need to be firm with a client who’s all over the place, you are undermining your own livelihood and positioning yourself as a pushover with poor business skills. Do you want that kind of reputation, or do you want to be respected?

You do not have a business until you treat it like a business.

© Alvalyn Lundgren. All international rights reserved.


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One Response

  1. Hey Alvalyn,

    Great article & helped me quite a bit. I’m actually creating a software to solve this problem & include provisions such as Change orders. Would love to talk more about it with you as this is a problem i faced alot as a freelance illustrator (why i created a software solution; for myself & others that face these issues.)

    appreciate your time & this article,

    Haseeb Ahmed