Fifty Three.

How to deal with project creep.

This week Frankie Tortora and Steve Folland have a chat in response to a question from content creator Becky Coote. She says:

“Project creep. We’ve all experienced it, but how do you deal with it in a way that doesn’t piss off your client?

I’m working with someone who is ever so slowly, one email at a time pushing the boundaries further and further away from what we agreed. The problem is each individual email isn’t enough for me to go “WOAH, hold your horses!” but when you look at the big picture, the amount of time I’m spending on this project is dragging my hourly rate right down, taking me away from other client work and generally winding me up.

How do you set the limits from the start and then police it during the project?”

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Take note dear listener! We might swear a bit. This one’s for the parents. To be enjoyed at your desk or once the kiddos are in bed.

Here’s what was said in this episode:

Comments on the previous episode:

[00:01:27] – Frankie
Hello, you’re listening to the Doing It For The Kids podcast where we swear a bit too much and talk a bit too fast about freelance life with kids in the mix. I’m Frankie and this is Steve.

[00:01:37] – Steve
Hello! Yes, each week we take a question from the Doing It For The Kids community. Do our best to answer it, but of course we start each episode by looking back at the last episode. Last episode we were talking about…

[00:01:49] – Frankie
Riding the roller coaster of freelance madness. The highs, the lows, the really low lows.

[00:01:55] – Steve
Ingrid’s been in touch. Ingrid Fernandez, hey Ingrid.

Ingrid says:

“I’ve been thinking about this rollercoaster lately and for some of us who have been employed prior to going freelance it’s easy to think that we didn’t have a rollercoaster when we were employed. Obviously the rollercoaster as a freelancer has more dramatic highs and lows. But something that has helped me is to remember that being employed didn’t insulate me from all the peaks and dips.

There were still lots of very impactful rollercoaster moments. And one of the amazing benefits of being freelance is that after a dip I can take some time to reflect, recalibrate myself and change things going forward which I might not have been able to do in employment.”

[00:02:36] – Frankie
It’s a really good point. It’s really easy to forget that actually. Yeah, there’s a lot of… there’s a lot of shit with being employed as well!

Our answer to this week's question:

[00:06:05] – Steve
This week’s question comes from Becky Coote, who is a content creator at

Becky says:

“Project creep. We’ve all experienced it, but how do you deal with it in a way that doesn’t piss off your client? I’m working with someone who is ever so slowly, one email at a time, pushing the boundaries further and further away from what we agreed.

The problem is, each individual email isn’t enough for me to go, ‘Whoa, hold your horses’. But when you look at the big picture, the amount of time I’m spending on this project is dragging my hourly rate right down, taking me away from other client work and generally winding me up. How do you set the limits from the start and then police it during the project?

Thanks, Becky.”

Such a good question.

[00:06:58] – Frankie
Hard, hard relate.

[00:07:02] – Steve
We’ve all been there.

[00:07:03] – Frankie

[00:07:05] – Steve
I tell you what, I could start with a story. Are you sitting comfortably?

[00:07:09] – Frankie
Oh, lovely. Yes, please.

[00:07:11] – Steve
So we hired a builder. The end invoice that we got was considerably more than the quote. However, there were two bits in there. One that I was expecting, one that I wasn’t, and that’s because when we asked, “oh, are you able to tile it while the project was going on?” they were like, “yeah, that’ll cost extra because it’s tile”. And we said, “oh yeah that’s fine”.

However, there was another element of the job where I thought, had something gone wrong in the project? And they didn’t warn me about the cost and they just bunged it onto the bill anyway.

So half of that they handled well. Half of it was abysmal. And we can learn from both, because one was they were like, “yeah, sure, you want that thing extra done. It will take extra time, it will cost extra money”. Communicated brilliantly. I’ve got not a leg to stand on in terms of complaining about it, but on top of that, I feel in control of the costs. I know what I’m getting-,

[00:08:02] – Frankie
… you know what to expect!

[00:08:03] – Steve
The other bit was a nasty surprise. I end up feeling annoyed with them. I’m not going to give them a good referral to other people. The whole thing has ended badly. So yeah, communication is key.

[00:08:15] – Frankie
Absolutely. Key in parenting, key in relationships, key in client management. I totally agree with that, but it does sound like it’s not as black and white as, “You want this thing — we need to order some tiles. That’s going to cost you X”. It sounds like it’s been creeping very slowly and gradually where maybe the things haven’t been as tangible. The shift in the project has only become obvious over time, kind of thing.

[00:08:42] – Steve
Ah interesting, so maybe we should have discussed between us exactly how it was meant to look and try to guess some of those scope creep things at the beginning. Is that what you’re thinking?

[00:08:53] – Frankie
You mean with your builder?

[00:08:54] – Steve
Yes. If we’d have really sat there and thought about it, we could have got tiling and painting and whatever down right at the beginning. We can try and preempt some of the problems.

[00:09:04] – Frankie
I also think though Becky, it’s worth saying that even if the shift is slow and gradual and not obvious, when it does come to like… you’re still very much within your right to say, “look, this has now changed, this is going to cost you X or I can offer you an alternative, whatever that is, solution that might cost you less”, I don’t know.

But do that as soon as you identify that it’s a problem, ideally, not right at the end where you’re writing your invoice, but when it becomes obvious. It can be a problem having that conversation, and not being afraid to have it even though it feels like the shift has been slow and a bit messy and grey.

It also massively depends, right, on how you quote for jobs. I don’t know how you do that process because there’s the whole hourly rate versus fixed fee set up. Obviously, if you quote a fixed fee, that makes your life quite difficult. If they slowly shift, like, where’s the line between what you had agreed and what…

[00:10:01] – Steve
Well, yeah, but that’s it, isn’t it? What you have agreed?

[00:10:05] – Frankie
If you write your quote properly and you have strong terms and conditions and all that jazz, you can protect yourself against getting into issues with having those conversations. So essentially being really clear and breaking down the cost as to what they are getting.

So in my job, I’m a graphic designer, I’ll break down what they’re literally getting. So what the assets are like a new logo and new this, that, and the other. What those things are. But also within that, I’m going to say how many rounds of amends and changes they get within the cost. And it’s very clearly like, “you get two sets of amends. Once we get to version three, you start paying me at an hourly rate of X”.

Yeah, so it’s a combination of choosing the way you’re going to invoice, is it just like, “my rate is X and we’ll go with the flow”, which is dangerous for everybody. If it’s going to be a fixed fee, being really clear on what that is. Or I would argue, like, somewhere in between where you agree on certain deliverables and how many changes and really specific conditions. So then if it goes beyond that, you can say no — now we start charging.

[00:11:11] – Frankie
Writing quotations often actually requires a lot of work on the part of the client because they have to be really clear on what it is that they need, because there’s nothing worse than getting, like, a vague brief from your client and then kind of fudging a quote and then actually, in reality, it turns out to be something different. And then having to have that conversation later on. It just creates all sorts of stress.

So if I’m really unclear on what the project is, or they haven’t really thought through what it is they want, I’ll push back on that a bit and maybe arrange another call or have another conversation to really iron out what it is they need from me. So I can make that as clear as possible price wise. And that’s better for everybody in the long run as well. It feels like more work initially for both sides, but it’s definitely worth it.

[00:12:00] – Steve
One thing you can also do before you start the actual project — and this has only come to me after quite a few years of making people’s videos — is asking the question, like, “who ultimately needs to approve this?”

[00:12:12] – Frankie
My God. Yes! Such a good question.

I know where this is going. I know where this is going!

[00:12:20] – Steve
When you’re working with just a solo person, it’s very obvious, it’s probably the person sitting opposite you. But when you’re working with a company, sometimes somebody makes the decision. You presume that that person has the power to make that decision, but actually, above them there might be somebody else, and above that person, somebody else…

[00:12:39] – Frankie
Actually, it goes to a board of 30 people!

But also if you’re dealing with that kind of larger company structure and the person you’re speaking to hasn’t necessarily done this kind of project before or is relatively junior, they might not know that that’s likely to happen. So, like saying, “look, I know this is really rough and it’s a first draft and whatever, but if your manager or someone else needs to see this, I reckon we should try and do that now”. Sometimes you have to hold their hand a bit.

[00:13:10] – Steve
And then sanitise very clearly afterwards.

As an extension to that, is that sometimes you get lots of people sticking their oars in, like lots of cooks and you want to try and stress at that point, “look, who is going to have the ultimate say?” Like, who is going to condense any feedback so that I only get one person’s feedback? And that is the decision as to what is going to happen.

[00:13:37] – Frankie
There’s nothing worse than getting like 20 emails from 20 different people and they haven’t read each other’s emails.

[00:13:42] – Steve
Urghhh. Do you know, we once had a guest on the Being Freelance Podcast. I think his name is Paul, The Code Guy. He had this phrase, the ‘can you just’ fee.

[00:13:52] – Frankie
Oh, my God, yes. I want that on a t-shirt.

[00:13:57] – Steve
For when the clients come to you and say, ‘can you just’ because there is no such thing as a ‘can you just’. You want to avoid doing ‘can you justs’ from the beginning because it sets a bad precedent

[00:14:09] – Frankie

[00:14:09] – Steve
As to what is and isn’t okay… even if you say to them, “look, just to let you know, this would normally cost x but I’m going to do it this time because I’ve just had a donut. I’m in a good mood”. But just so that you know — while those kind of goodwill gestures can go down a treat, they can also backfire if you don’t make them aware that it was a goodwill gesture.

[00:14:31] – Frankie

[00:14:32] – Steve
Some people would even say that you should put those on your invoice, say what it would have cost and then write it off.

[00:14:38] – Frankie
If I was going to pay an agency to ‘can you just’ something for me on some design work they’d done there would be an hourly rate — standard. Not even think about it. Yeah. I do think there’s a balance between building a relationship with the client and being seen to be helpful and whatever.

[00:14:54] – Steve
*Loud noise*

Oh, it’s the ‘can you just’ alarm that I had installed.

[00:14:59] – Frankie
You’re right in that like you want to be useful and you want them to hire you again. You want to be seen to be accommodating, but equally, you’re setting yourself up for potential, like… taking the piss-dom. Because it’s quite difficult to draw the line between when you’re happy to do that ‘can you just’ thing and where you no longer are.

[00:15:18] – Steve
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Because Becky is talking about how these things that they’re asking for… none of them are enough for her to go, “Whoa, hold your horses”. But it’s a bit like with pocket money with your kids where you teach them to look after your pennies and the pennies become pounds etc.

You start doing jobs that are pennies and before you know it’s cost you pounds. It’s the same thing, except that maybe it’s pounds that just cost you hundreds of pounds!

[00:15:47] – Steve
I think an element of this, Becky, is about being confident enough to hit reply and say, “look, I can do this for you. And I know it only looks like a small thing but…”

And here’s the thing that I’ve sometimes done as well. If you can see lots of small things coming in, it can be worth saying to a client, “look, if possible, it’s better for you to give me a load of things all at once. So instead of sending me your feedback as you think of it, hold on to it, because that way you get better value for your money”.

It’s like you said, holding hands with your client. It’s them to have the good feedback habit.

[00:16:29] – Frankie
Yeah, definitely. And like I say, a lot of the time, I do feel like I’m educating people a lot on how I would like to be communicated with, because people don’t know if they’ve never worked with a designer before — or whatever the freelancer, whatever the business is — they likely haven’t done that kind of project before.

So there’s no issue, obviously, in the nicest possible way, of telling them how the process might work, how you’d like to be communicated with, compiling feedback into one email, blah, blah, blah. Like, you can outline all that stuff. You could even outline that stuff at the beginning as part of your quote.

[00:17:04] – Steve
I’ve seen some freelancers do that where it’s actually on their website. “Here is my process”.

[00:17:09] – Frankie
Right, nice.

[00:17:09] – Steve
“Here’s how it works”. And so it’s there for people to see before they’ve even hired the freelancer. But equally, it’s there for the freelancer simply to send a link and say hey, here’s my process.

[00:17:18] – Frankie
Something to refer back to, yeah.

I’ve also got some clients where they only want to give me changes and feedback over the phone, which is really frustrating for obvious reasons.

[00:17:27] – Steve
Jesus, who’s phoning you, Frankie? How did they get your phone number? How did you let that happen?

[00:17:33] – Frankie
It’s true.

[00:17:35] – Steve
And depending on the sort of thing you’re working on, you can provide a feedback form so there’s already a template.

[00:17:42] – Frankie
Ooooh, that’s a nice idea.

[00:17:45] – Steve
Or use tools like… In video production, there are tools now where you send them a video link and they can click on the video player itself.

[00:17:54] – Frankie
Oh, yeah. And add comments.

[00:17:55] – Steve
Right. With comments.

You can do that for PDFs and images and audio and all sorts. Even within Dropbox and things now, like — use those tools to help you consolidate feedback as well.

We’re kind of straying off piste, but it really works!

What would your advice be?

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