About Scope Creep and Creepy Clients
post # 28 — March 12, 2006 — a Client Relations post
I received the following from a guy named Jeff. He asked – One major challenge we have is managing ‘scope creep.’ Clients are always changing, enhancing, modifying, backtracking, re-hashing, deliverables and we seem less than great at controlling the associated costs. And the client does not want to pay. What do you do? Is it up front education? A formal contract, detailing the change-order process? We want to be easy to do business with, but we don’t want to lose money either.
Well, Jeff, we certainly all know what this feels like. You try to be nice, and the other person just takes advantage of you, never reciprocating the niceness.
I invite you to think about how you would handle it if this were an employee, or a family member, or a friend or acquaintance. How do you deal with this in other walks of life?
You’ll find that the key point is that it’s all in the timing. If you were mad at your spouse, the time to raise an issue would not be when you were so desperate to solve the issue that you would lose your temper, or be under immediate pressure to get your way. Done then, you are almost certain to get it wrong.
But you also wouldn’t raise the issue the first time it happened – you would try to be supportive. What you would probably do, if this were a friend or a spouse, is to say that you don’t want to fight about what has just happened, but only want to work out how you want to work together tomorrow.
You would say something like ‘I wonder if we could just go for a walk and talk about some things. Everything’s really good now, but it would really help if we could work out some issues that are bothering me. Can we talk about the future?’ Talking about the future rather than the immediate events really helps defuse the emotions, and allows a more sensible conversation.
In the world of clients, as in personal life, you can’t take extreme positions.
On the one hand, you do have to try and be helpful and flexible and be willing to try and accommodate your clients’ needs. But you can’t keep on just being nice, because then you’ll just keep getting exploited.
If you do, it’s easy to predict that you’ll get madder and madder, stop enjoying the work and then, one day, you are going to explode with fury, really telling that person what you think of them. (That’s what happens in bad marriages where people can’t raise criticisms about each other without giving offense.)
The answer, Jeff, doesn’t lie in systems. It lies in the verbal and interpersonal ability to raise a criticism, while still being committed to the relationship.
Yes, it’s wise to get agreements down in writing at the beginning of a business relationship, and also to agree (with as much non-legalistic language as you can) what would constitute a change of scope.
I think it wise to draft a chatty letter to clients saying the following – (this is language I actually do use) – ‘just to make sure we are both thinking about the project in the same way, I want to be clear that I will be happy to engage in additional activities such as (telephone calls and preparatory reading) up to XX hours. This represents my investment in our relationship. However, if what you ask me to do exceeds that amount of time, I will contact you to ensure that you still want me to do the extra work, and agree an appropriate fee for it.’
This doesn’t stop clients being demanding, but when they are, I then call to discuss things, using the following language (also a real example) – ‘I hope you are happy with my work and that you think I am being helpful and client-centric. If you wish me to invest more time in this project, perhaps we can discuss whether or not it would be appropriate me to bill you for more investment time.’
The choice is then theirs. Now, I don’t want to pretend that this approach works in 100 percent of all circumstances. There are still going to be clients who will keep trying to get something for nothing, even though I have explained that I have ‘reached the limit of my ability to invest in the relationship.’ (Exactly the language I use.) If they still want additional work for no additional fee, I do walk away.
Everyone deserves a fair chance to work out a relationship, but I am not so desperate that I continue to work with people I know to be unfair and unjust. Not only is life too short, but I would rather accept the extra stress of developing other new business than be forced into accepting abuse and exploitation.
As always, I invite other people’s experience and contributions. Is there more advice out there to help Jeff?