How To Set Boundaries With Your Clients, Part One: Agreeing On Scope

Client Line, Do Not CrossLast week we talked about the importance of setting boundaries with your clients. If you aren’t clear on your availability, response time and process for adding “just one more thing” into an established project from the very beginning, then you’re leaving yourself wide open for your clients to walk all over you. Whether they do it intentionally or not, clients will add more and more onto your plate if you let them –- so you’ve got to take preemptive action to make sure that doesn’t happen.

But if the thought of taking a hard line makes you cringe, rest easy – you don’t have to be a jerk to save yourself from becoming a doormat. This post is the beginning of a series that will walk you through how to have more peace of mind with every project (while keeping your client more than satisfied). Class is in session — let’s begin.

How To Establish Project Scope

When clients look for freelancers, they usually have a general goal in mind, such as getting a “blog theme,” or a “new logo,” or a “custom web application.” More often than not, they don’t know exactly what goes into creating these kinds of things, so they don’t do a very good job of defining what will be (and won’t be) included. They also frequently assume they can just bounce it back and forth with you until “it all gets sorted out.”

You never want to let this happen, so it’s up to you to set the scope. Fortunately, you’re an expert at whatever it is you do, so you’re intimately familiar with what it takes to get a certain kind of project out the door. So before you even talk to a client about a new project, you need to specifically define how you want to do business, and what you want to offer. Here are some questions (based on 12 years of dealing with contracts and “scope creep”) to help you unearth the down-and-dirty details of your services.

  1. When you do a project of this type, what do you usually deliver? In other words, if you’re a blog designer, do you just design the theme and deliver the files, or do you install it?  Do you provide any documentation or training, or is that to be considered something extra?  Create a “parts list” for your clients detailing what’s included in each package/service you deliver so your client won’t assume a single thing.
  2. What extra services / add-ons are you willing to provide, and how much do they cost? Back to the blog design example, extra services could include plug-ins, Feedburner setup or even web hosting itself.  If you’re willing to add them to the package, let your clients know that they can have these things – but there will be an added cost.  Remember, your client may have seen a similar project elsewhere and will assume your package has all the same features – but you don’t want to leave anything to chance.
  3. What are the milestones/checkpoints for the project, and how are they scheduled? For example, how many review periods will you have, and how long will they last?  How many days does the client have to give feedback?  How will they give their feedback?  The back-and-forth of constant revisions can be a real scope killer, so make it clear up front.  If you have 2 review periods of 3 days each, say so, and stick to it.  Tell the client that this is how you keep things on time and on budget.
  4. Who are the decision makers for the project? If you don’t define this up front you may find that someone else in your client’s camp comes in at the last minute and says “things need to change.”  Establish the decision makers up front and agree with the client that if someone new takes over their side of the project after big decisions are made, they can’t just change everything that was previously agreed on.
  5. What’s the process for changing scope? It’s a fact of life that in many projects, scope will change.  The client’s needs may change, or a technology issue may force you in a different direction.  The key is to establish how change orders are pushed through – and how you are compensated for them.  Let your client know that you’re willing to change the scope, but something’s got to give as a result, whether it’s a time extension, swapping out an agreed on feature for a new one, or billing additional charges.  Let the client know up front the process for talking these things through and life will be easier for everyone.

You’ve Got Experience — Come On And Share It!

You’ve been on projects before where “scope creep” caused all kinds of headaches and client-freelancer tension.  How did you deal with it, and what lessons did you learn?  Pull up a comment and add your experience to the conversation.


  1. says

    This is an excellent, excellent post, Dave. Well done, seriously. We’ve found that many people expect clients to just *know* all this stuff and then get upset when they don’t. Clients come to us saying, “We’re clueless. Help.”

    And we do. It’s not treating clients poorly to be clear with them and tell them exactly what you’re delivering. It’s top service, plain and simple.

    You should go frame this one, Dave. Seriously.

  2. says

    Dave, this is the best post I’ve read in a while. :-)

    I agree that it’s important to make things clear. There are times when someone will come to me needing something I don’t do, and I’ll refer them away even if it means losing the paycheck. The things I do, I do well. But I don’t get into coding or design, for example, so if a potential client comes to me and says “Can you take a look at my blog/website and let me know what you would do to make it better,” there are times when I tell them I can do A and B then recommend a designer. Other times, I just have to be completely honest and tell them I’m not the right person for the job and recommend someone who could be a better fit.

    When a client is a good fit, and they don’t have specifics in mind, I tell them point by point what my approach would be, and how I would get them there. We discuss it and formulate a plan from there, sometimes tweaking things as things go along. But clients always know what they’re going to get and approve it before I go ahead. I want things to be very clear so that no one is unhappy in the end.

    Well done with this one, Rockin’ Dave. :-)

  3. says

    @James –
    This post has my project manager side coming through … I do this all the time in my day job, but it hit me that freelancers don’t necessarily take this into consideration.

    PS – I’ll go get a frame :-)

    @Amy –
    Thanks for the very kind words – it’s funny how it works … I try to write something eloquent, and it’s received mildly … but when I just bang out a few tips I know from experience, people like it more. Go figure :-)

  4. says

    Great post. As Amy said, being clear really leads to greater client satisfaction – they know what to expect and are happier because the service is delivered exactly as specified.

    I have come to see that a lot of the tasks that make us ‘cringe’, like discussing payment schedules and scope, and following up with slow-to-respond clients, can actually be turned around and viewed as a valuable service from the client’s perspective.

    Clients appreciate when I make the process as transparent and specific as possible. They feel more informed and in control, and it helps them with their planning and budgeting just as much as it helps me.


  5. says

    Great post. This comes at a time when I am having to reassess my communication, process and relationship with my clients; having learned the hard way that they don’t always understand what you say and or write in a proposal, Statement of Work or Contract that they “read” and sign.

    For me as a designer my biggest challenge is to get my clients to understand that websites don’t happen at the snap of a finger there are so many things that go into designing and developing one. For example, it’s so frustrating when the timeliness of delivery is dependent on a deliverable from the client and despite making it clear that time is going and you will have no choice but to enforce the agreement they do not deliver and before you know it your deadline has come and gone and your are not paid!

    It’s such a fine line between setting boundaries, enforcing them and maintaining a good relationship with them. I am currently working on creative ways to communicate with clients in order to reduce the stress (My years in customer service have become very useful).

  6. says

    @Rebecca –
    Right on. If you can frame those cringe-worthy issues as tasks that need to be resolved to protect getting done on time and on budget, the client will feel a lot more comfortable.

    @Karen –
    Customer service experience comes in handy – I’m glad I did my time in CS years ago :-)

  7. says

    WOW! flashback, it has happened to me. And believe me not pretty. I m kind of person who cannot say no and more than often i tend to get myself into some very tricky and time consuming positions. Wonder when I will learn.


  8. says

    Scope creep… One of the beautiful things about hourly rate work – extra request equals extra money automatically, no debates.

    Also, outlining all extra services you can provide and prices for them is always a good idea as you suggest.

  9. says

    This is a great article. Definitely something that I’ve been working on since I started freelancing full-time a year ago. I’ve always had a problem telling a client “that’s going to cost more”.

  10. says

    I agree with a lot that has been said. I’ve had projects without set expectations that have continually changed…not a good experience. The clients love you because you keep doing more for them, but you end up losing out on time and money. It’s best to set the expectations up front and let the clients know if they want to add on more that it will cost extra. That way both parties should feel satisfied in the end.

  11. says

    The issue of scope creep is much more prominent in the software industry than any other industry, and the reason for this is that, IMO, the software industry has not matured yet.

    You said it well: More often than not, they don’t know exactly what goes into creating these kinds of things, so they don’t do a very good job of defining what will be (and won’t be) included. They also frequently assume they can just bounce it back and forth with you until “it all gets sorted out.”

    Some people think that Agile is the solution of scope creep, as we iterate until client satisfaction is accomplished, but where’s the limit?

    Again, IMO, unless the client loves you and trusts you, then the chance of experiencing a scope creep, especially when you’re a freelancer, is pretty high.

    PS: I did publish a long series on scope creep (total of 9 articles) a while ago, check it, it might help…


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