How Do You Handle Scope Creep?

Posted on by Chris Lema | Updated:
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Whether you’re a small digital agency, a freelancer, or a large professional services organization, you’ve been faced with a customer who changes their mind mid-project.

Sometimes it’s a new feature on a project because of factors out of their control – changes in context outside of their business. Other times it’s in relation to what they’ve seen on the project so far – creating a new idea or a desire to skip an older idea.

Regardless, the reason it happens is less important than how you deal with it – from an expectations management, cost, or profit margin perspective.

Scope creep is a good thing!

The best part of a scope creep request is that it can be a sign of confidence that a customer wants more of your help, not less of it.

Too many people get frustrated or angry that a customer is changing things up on them. But in a fast-paced and constantly-changing world, a scope change is almost unavoidable.

The real issue is how you think about it and what you do when it comes up. If you think of it as a good thing, then you’re ready to embrace the request and figure out what makes the most sense in terms of next steps.

You can always punt to the change order

One thing I see folks do a lot – as an instinct rather than a thought-out strategy – is to punt to the change order. This is where an agency or freelancer says, “Sure we can get you an estimate on that. Let me get you a change order.”

Customers can hear that as, “I’m unable to do anything without taking more of your money.”

Let’s be clear – this is always a step you can take.

But you also should have other tricks up your sleeve.

Have you considered making a trade?

One of the constant truths about the software world is that things that are easy sometimes look really hard, and more importantly, things that look easy often are really tough to do.

I once had a client that “just” wanted to add some eCommerce features onto their site. They had no idea that this would be a lot of work.

I’ve also had clients who fretted over asking if they could add some sort of commenting system at the bottom of their articles. They worried about all the extra work it would be.

Sometimes, when a client has a new request, there is a potential to remove something that is technically hard to do from the project, and replace it with their new request (which may be easy to add).

This can be a win-win.

Have you saved some money for a rainy day?

Another strategy that you might consider, when it comes to customers and their late introductions of new ideas, is something that you need to plan for during your initial contract work.

The way this works is that either during the contract preparation or as you’re collaborating on the Statement of Work (SOW).

You agree with the customer that they’re likely going to want to add something or change their mind mid-project. You don’t know how big or small it will be. So you make a suggestion.

It goes something like this, “Why don’t we allocate a budget for some custom work that won’t have specifics assigned to it? We know you’ll spend it. We just won’t allocate it to anything except ‘custom.’ And when we hit those out-of-scope requests, we can determine if we want to fund it from our ‘custom bucket.’”

This works when projects are 5 and 6 figure deals and everyone knows that the project will last long enough for the scope requests to come in. It’s a fact no one will dispute even though no one knows when or where it will happen.

I’ve used this approach on several large projects and once we get the line item budgeted, everyone relaxes and embraces the new scope requests.

It’s your job to make a project profitable

Regardless of how you handle scope changes – whether it’s a change order, a swap, or with a “rainy day” fund – the reality is that preparing your team for how you communicate about these requests is the most important thing.

Your job is to make sure the project is profitable. If you don’t manage expectations and new scope requests, you won’t be profitable. But if you treat every conversation with a client as a potential scope creep situation, you’ll likely lose the project and the client.

To that end, here are five things to remind yourself or your team of:

1. Your customer has no idea if their request is small or large
When a customer starts talking about a new request they have no idea if they’re bringing up something that will take you 2 minutes or 200 hours. Stay calm and patient and educate them.

2. Your customer is brainstorming, not re-negotiating
When someone starts saying things like, “wouldn’t it be cool if…” that is a brainstorming idea or discussion point. It’s not an attempt to re-negotiate with you. There is no reason to escalate the situation and call in lawyers. Learn to co-create alongside your customer by having these kinds of discussions.

3. Your customer considers you a partner and is acting like it
Everything that is happening is a sign of trust. You should consider it as such and thank your customer for even bringing it up. It’s a statement of confidence that they’d like to keep working with you. Embrace it.

4. If you’ve created a customized solution, it’s harder to leave you
It won’t be lost on you that every time you create something that was the brainchild of your client, you’ve not only helped deliver a custom solution tailored to them, but you’ve also created a tighter dependency on your business – as the creators of the customization. That’s a good thing!

5. Late-stage customizations can be very profitable
Take this as you will, but over the years I’ve noticed that the change orders that hit mid-project tend to be some of the most profitable work ever done. Partially it’s because it sits on the other code you’ve already created (lowering its costs), and partially it’s because you know more and that means your estimates may be far better than at the project start.

Scope creep can be fantastic

If you can manage it well, and you manage the communication with the customer, then scope requests that come in after your project has started don’t have to be things that frighten your project manager or stress your team out.

Embrace the opportunity to work more closely with your customer and consider the three strategies outlined above to help you navigate the next steps.

Tagged with: agency, Freelancer
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About the Author

Chris Lema

Chris Lema is Liquid Web's Vice President of Products and General Manager at LearnDash. A well-known blogger and public speaker, Chris led our product teams to develop and launch our Managed WordPress and Managed WooCommerce product lines.

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