Ask A Freelancer #4: Dealing with Scope Creep

From time to time I get emails asking for advice about freelance matters. I hope that by publishing these inquiries and my response I can do a better service to my blog readers than just responding one email at a time. Plus, those of you who may have input on the matter that I didn’t think of can chime in with a comment!

I’d like to make this a regular part of the blog — so if there’s a question you have or a subject you’d like to get an opinion on, please contact me!



I recently had a web project whose scope creeped from a 4-5 page website with basic shopping component, to 2 websites: one community/blog based, and one fully customized online shop.

It happened so slowly… I thought, maybe I should look at what I originally quoted on. Sure enough, I had really only budgeted for a 4-5 page website with a basic shop component.

My question is, how do you approach a client to ask for more money mid-project? Who bites the bullet when the project scope creeps out of hand? I hated sending the email, but realistically, I realized that my workload had more then doubled from what was initially quoted, and agreed upon. Obviously I don’t want to sour the relationship, but I also need to get paid for the hours that are being put into the project!

I don’t mind going over my budgeted hours on occasion, especially if I enjoy the project. But this one got so out of hand I don’t even know how it happened or why I didn’t speak up sooner…? I’d love to hear yours and others experience with this.

– Creeped Out


Hello Creeped Out,

Scope Creep is an issue we have all dealt with! It is always best to nip it in the bud sooner than later, but I understand how these situations can sometimes sneak up on you.

First, lets go over some things that you should have had in place, and will be sure to do NEXT time, right? ;)

Spell it Out

A standard part of all your project contracts (yes, you should have a contract!) is a detailed outline of the “Scope of Work.” This details the work you are agreeing to complete for the client and is a protection for BOTH of you by working as a guideline that clearly points to the work you will be doing for your client.

This section of your contract can be in a simple list format and should be as descriptive as possible. Be sure to spell out what is included as well as what may NOT be included. For example, a recent edition to my standard development agreement states that support for Internet Explorer 6 is an additional hourly fee.

Speak Up

Now that you have a clear agreement of the work included in your price that both you and your client have read, understood and signed — here’s the real important part – you have to stick to it!

Now I’m not saying you have to turn into some sort of design ogre, it’s OK to sometimes throw in a little extra for a client! It’s part of good customer service and as a freelancer, especially, we develop close relationships with a lot of our clients and become invested in seeing their business look its best — so we sometimes want to put in a little extra, even if it wasn’t part of the original scope! The important part here is letting your client know about it, before the work is done. Once anything extra is required or requested, it’s time to alert your client… immediately!

Chill Out

Too many freelancers don’t feel comfortable when it comes to talking about money, but if you want to get paid — you have to let this hang up go! Scope Creep happens and it doesn’t have to be any big deal, approach your client calmly, confidently and with an air of nonchalance and make them aware of the situation, “after reviewing our project agreement I see that we have added these elements (yadda, yadda, yadda), I will be in contact later today with a quote on this additional work and a revised project agreement.”

Simple. Don’t ask if they would mind paying you more or apologize that you can’t do the extra work for free. You are a professional providing a service, remember? They are professionals too and will most likely not bat an eye at this, it’s expected! More work = more cost. If your client does put up resistance at this point, you will have your signed contract to refer back to.

Is it too Late?

Now, your email was a little unclear on whether you had already completed this extra work or not. If you already banged out the 20 page website and never mentioned to your client that the extra work isn’t part of what you originally signed on for – this is a tough call… and each freelancer may have a different take on this situation, personally If I was in the midst of the now inflated project, I may contact the client and bring the situation to their attention forgoing the hours I may have put in up till then but charging now for all work I need to put in to complete what’s been asked.

What’s your advice?

If you don’t mention to the client the work your doing will incur extra costs,  is it fair to assume they will understand when you give them the final bill? If you don’t speak up soon enough, is it now your punishment to eat the loss?

Am I missing something? Do you have experience with a similar situation and would like to share how you handled things? Leave a comment and tell us about it!

Click. Work. Collect


  1. I agree, most of those things can be (should be) stated on your contract, it’ll save you lots of time.

    Hope is not too late to sit down and speak clear about the proyect, how is it done and how much would it cost so it can be a fair exchange for everyone.

    Great post Liz!


  2. This comment deals more with avoiding scope creep rather than dealing with it, but some may still find it useful and relevant.

    When dealing with more interactive websites, such as those that have their own membership/user systems/networking, etc., I’ve found that taking the time to actually make low-level, basic wireframes of each screen (step) helps both you and the client know exactly how the project is going to work.

    Unless your client is in the web business themselves, it’s best to assume that their knowledge of UI and user flow are largely based on their day-to-day use of popular sites like Facebook. As such, they may expect certain features (sign-ups, messaging, pagination, etc.) to behave similarly to these other sites. This can creep up on you when, upon delivering a beta, the client expects a lot of AJAX functionality when in fact you never had any intention on doing so because of time/budget constraints.

    With that said, it’s always best to discuss not just design, but interaction as well when working with a client on larger, more involved websites. It’s definitely worth the extra time and helps you satisfy your client even more.

  3. I too need to draft a basic contract for my projects.

    I’m doing my first project that I will place into my portfolio and I’ve been on it for a while. While I don’t mind this because I want to make an impact with my projects, you really need to have a contract to keep things brief and in check. I’d much rather have a brief contract than something long and drawn out, most likely a few bullet lists for the client to look over and agree to.

    If you’re doing work online, do you send the client your contract and ask them to sign it or how do you go about signatures (I’m assuming you get clients to sign all the contracts)?

  4. Interesting idea to put in additional fee for Internet 6 support. I should consider that. So, if they don’t want to pay this extra fee, and the site just looks busted in IE6, that’s the way it goes? I hate IE6 with all my heart, and have just resorted to installing the google frame script that says either install this, or too bad so sad. It’s an easy “fix” and I’m concerned that if I just left a site looking wacko in IE6, someone might think I don’t know what I’m doing…

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