How to deal with service creep

Do you have a freelance client who has a habit of adding extra work to a job, or asks you to do a favour for free? Find out how to confidently deal with service creep. 

You may not have heard the term ‘service creep’ before but, if you’re a freelancer or small business, we’re betting that you’ve probably come across it.

Basically service creep (also called ‘scope creep’) is when you agree a price for a project or job, but you end up doing more work than you expected or agreed. How does this work? Here are some examples:

  • You agree to write a single sided flyer that ends up becoming a two-page leaflet.
  • You quote to design a simple logo that turns into a year long project.
  • You’ve agreed the terms of a job, but the client asks you to help them with something extra ‘as a favour’.
  • You start work on a project you quoted for a while ago, and the scope has changed since.
  • A client asks you to visit their offices for a meeting you haven’t budgeted into your costs. (Remember your time and travel aren’t free…)

How to deal with a service creep freelance client

It can be difficult to say no to service creep, especially if you like, and have a good relationship with, the client. Or if you’re grateful to land the job, and hope to turn it into a long term relationship.

Sometimes you don’t even notice that a client has slipped in extra work; they just brief you for a larger job or add in extra work, than you had agreed on, without pointing out that it’s extra.

But if you don’t stop service creep, not only will you lose money on this project, but you risk establishing a relationship that is distinctly one-sided – and gaining a reputation with this client as a pushover. And while you might earn a client’s profuse gratitude in that moment, what you won’t gain is their respect.

So how can you prevent service creep? Here are some tips to help you.

1) Clearly outline the scope of work

When I started out as a freelance copywriter I’d often give clients a project price – a quote that included all rounds of amends. And I didn’t cap the amount of amends a client could ask for.

All went well until one particular client. They wanted a number of emails written, and (as I discovered during the painful process) didn’t really know what they wanted. So we went to 17 rounds of amends in attempting to get right right.

Yes that’s 17. And on more than one occasion the amends reverted back to a previous, already-rejected version.

After this experience I instigated a cap of two rounds of amends. From experience I knew this was enough to get the job done to the client’s satisfaction. It also helped the client to be more decisive about what they wanted (which was a win-win for us both).

So whatever kind of project you’re quoting for, be very clear what it includes. And clearly define any caps on feedback or revision. Make sure the client has this scope in writing, and agrees to it when agreeing to the quote.

2) Politely refer back to the scope if needed

It a client does attempt service creep, then politely remind them of the original scope of work you had quoted for. Then let them know how much you’d charge for the extra work.

There’s no need to be shy about telling them this; they agreed the quote and should be aware of it. So if they ask they’re either being cheeky or unprofessional. And neither are your responsibility.

We generally recommend you have any awkward conversations around money over email. Not only is it easier to say when you’re not looking directly into the client’s eyes, but you’ll have a record of what was agreed. So if the client asks you for more work, let them know you need to check the scope and get back to them. Then send them an email that goes a bit like this:

Thank you for the request to do X. Our agreed quote was to do Y. I’ll be very happy to do X for you, at a cost of Z. If you’d like me to proceed please let me know. 

That’s it! Short, polite and to the point. And once you’d sent it, don’t allow yourself to be talked around (see the next tip!).

3) Don’t allow yourself to be blackmailed

Not all clients are polite enough to respect your boundaries, and may engage in a little blackmail to get their work done for free. This can take the form of:

  • Simply being nice/playing the ‘friend’ card: “I’m sure you’re happy to do me a quick favour by…”
  • Pretending it’s so tiny that of course you’ll do it: “It’s such a tiny change I thought you could just add it into the job this time.”
  • Dangling the more-work-coming-your-way carrot: “We’ve got lots of exciting work coming up next year. I’d love you to…”
  • The direct approach (hoping you won’t be assertive enough to say no): “I know it’s not in the quote, but I’m sure you’re happy to help.”

Please don’t fall for these or any other attempts to get you to do work for free. If you need to, ask yourself whether they’d work for free?

Would they, for example, travel down to see you on their day off for a meeting? Or, if their employer asked them to work extra days outside their contract for free, would they?

Probably not. So why should they expect you to? Remember this when they make their pitch to you, and stick to your boundaries and say no.

4) Refer a service creep client to another freelancer

If your client is particularly insistent that the work needs to be done and that that cannot pay your costs for it, then simply offer to refer them to someone else who may be able to help.

The message you want to convey is clear: your time and skills are valuable, and you won’t work for free or lower prices. But you also want to be helpful.

Don’t be worried that you may be losing a client. If they’re so disrespectful that they expect you to do extra or free work for them. And if you won’t, so disloyal they’ll happily go elsewhere, do you really want to keep working for them?

5) Don’t be apologetic

While it’s important to be polite when handing service creep, please never apologise. Remember, you’re not expecting anything extraordinary that you need to be grateful for; you’re simply holding your client to your agreed terms.

When you say “I’m sorry but…” you change the weight of responsibility. Rather than the client asking you for a favour that they should be grateful for, you make it sound like you are disappointing them. That it’s quite reasonable they should ask you to work for free.

Apologising for not taking on extra work for free, makes it feel like you’re in the wrong, not the client. And can leave them with the impression that you’re not accommodating. Instead, you need to politely and assertively reinforce your boundaries and remind the client of what they’re paying you to do.

See tip one for a guide on tone/how handle a service creep request politely but firmly. There’s no need to upset your client, but you do need to respect yourself.

6) Make it clear why you’re doing the work (and what you’re doing)

If you do decide to do the extra work on this occasion, make it very clear why and how much you will do – and again put this down in an email (even if you agree verbally) so everyone is clear.

Why is this important? Because in future, the client may come to expect the extras you’re doing on this occasion as the norm – and demand them again. You need to make them very aware they’re getting something for free as a one-off favour or for exceptional circumstances.

You also don’t want service creep to happen to your service creep! So if you agree to do something extra or for free for them, you don’t want them to abuse your generosity by adding even more work to that. After all, it’s clearly something they’re used to doing.

And if you do extra work for them, add this into your invoice with the amount you would have charged them for it. You can then zero it off in the total.

The point of this is to show them the value of your work, and get them used to seeing it as a paid service. They can also see how much you value your work and time.

Don’t let your freelance clients pull service creep on you

If you have unwittingly been allowing a client to pull device creep on you, then please use this article as a wake up call and put a stop to it now! It may feel difficult at first, especially if your client is used to you doing whatever they ask.

But if you handle it properly and they’re a decent person, they’ll happily stop. And if they don’t stop? Then (as above) is this a client you really want to keep?

And if you get a new client who tries to service creep, you know exactly how to stop it!

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Photo by Nick Arnot