Handling scope creep

Scope creep, the phrase that strikes fear in the heart of every consultant…

We have all had that experience, where we carefully plan out every aspect of a project, estimating the necessary time and resources and even adding in a safety margin, only to have our client ask for “just a little more” work or “just this little addition” to our deliverable halfway through the project. All of a sudden the expected work load has doubled, for no additional income.

It’s easy to react defensively when this happens — to feel that your client doesn’t respect your time or that he’s trying to get you to work at a significantly reduced fee. And it’s tempting to react angrily, to resent that the client is trying to change the agreement. (I am reminded of the immortal line in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in which Darth Vader snarls, “I am altering the deal; pray I don’t alter it any further.”)

Instead, reiterate your commitment to supporting your client, find something you can say yes to and then explain where you have to say no. If your client asks for analysis or conclusions you are not comfortable making, offer to highlight the perspectives of established experts your client can rely on instead. If your client’s new request means you will spend far more hours than you had anticipated, briefly explain that this would exceed the scope of the project and offer either to do just a portion of the extra work or to write up a supplemental agreement to cover the project expansion.

While these conversations often feel stressful to solopreneurs, we are actually providing a service to our clients—helping them understand how much time, judgment and expertise is involved in what we do. A friend and colleague recently told me about the response she got from a client whose request would have required far more work than she had negotiated. After she explained the situation and offered some alternatives, her client responded with a gratifying email:

I fully understood and that is fair. You have been very generous and we can see that you have already put more time into the work than we had agreed. Anything that you may be able to get back to us that can address any of the issues we discussed would be great. Whatever you can or can’t find will be fine.

Because of my friend’s ability to calmly and politely respond to the possibility of scope creep, she continues to have a client who values her work, her time and her commitment to his concerns. He knows that her budget is honest and realistic, and that additional work involves additional commitment. She turned what could have been an unpleasant discussion into an opportunity to strengthen her relationship with her client.

Resumé or dog whistle?

dog1What’s one of the first things you do when you launch a business? Get a domain name and set up a web site on a platform like WordPress. You pick one of the popular templates, write up descriptions of your services, grab a few stock photos and you’re good to go. No-brainer, right?

The problem with this approach is that you wind up creating an online presence that often just looks like a glorified resumé. Most business web site templates encourage you to create lists of things — what your services are, what your background and credentials are, frequently-asked questions and so on. If you are writing your own marketing content instead of using a branding professional, it’s easy to get sucked into thinking that all you have to do is write up a description of yourself and your services, and the clients will come. This approach forces everyone who comes to your site to figure out for themselves why they should care about what you do. You’re making your prospective clients do all the work.

Instead, create content that speaks directly to your ideal clients. Don’t tell them what you do; talk about what amazing things happen to your clients when you’re done. Focus on outcomes, not activity. For example:

  • A temporary staffing agency could say We make sure you’re always ready when your customers need you.
  • An eldercare consultant could say I help you be there even when you can’t.
  • A graphic designer could say We help you show your clients who you really are.

How do you figure out what those outcomes look like? What is it that your clients value the most about you? Why would they work with you instead of any of the other people who offer similar services? HINT: it’s not your background or extensive experience in the field. It’s because you are focused on what your clients care about. By talking about why your clients use you instead of what you do, you turn your web site from a resumé to a dog whistle that directly calls to your ideal clients.

If you want to find that priceless description of the magic that happens when you work with a client, you have to ask them. And what they tell you will undoubtedly not be what you expect. A hedge-fund consultant who helps investors avoid the next Bernie Madoff found out her clients value her flexibility with changing investment priorities more than they care about the specialized resources she uses or her professional certifications. So on her web site she emphasizes her ability to shift based on changing market priorities rather than her extensive background. She knows what matters more to her specific clients.

One easy approach to learning what your clients really value is to ask them how they would describe you to a colleague. Most clients will respond not with a recitation of the kinds of work you do but with a story of why they need you. I’ve heard answers like “We call Mary Ellen when we don’t know how to reach out to our customers” or “I use Mary Ellen when I’m starting a project and don’t even know what I don’t know.” Priceless!

And what if you don’t have any clients yet, or if you want to expand into a new market where you don’t know your clients’ biggest concerns? It’s time to roll up your sleeves and do a half-dozen reality-check interviews. These conversations are invaluable tools for finding out what your potential clients really care about and what words they use to describe their biggest concerns. When your web site addresses the issues that resonate most with your market, they come to you already sold on your value to them right now. Yes, it takes time to conduct this type of primary research, and the reward is a web presence that speaks to the people you want to hear you.