Avoiding brief creep

Have you ever had an unreasonable client? Most companies have, and will reel off numerous examples!

Many people mistakenly believe that contracts are only useful in the event of a dispute, but this is not true. A good contract can save you time, money, stress, and even improve your sales opportunities and your brand image.

Oftentimes, employers are branded as “unreasonable” because the employee felt obliged to spend unplanned time on the job that they could not bill for.

Some common reasons for this extra unscoped work are:

  • The client changed her mind about the project requirements
  • The client extended the scope of the project beyond the brief
  • The client asked for a “tweak” without understanding the ramifications
  • The client expected services that the freelancer had not originally intended to provide
  • The client has not provided the required information needed to complete something
  • The client has been slow in approving drafts despite impending deadlines
  • The client asked for something to be finished earlier than the original deadline
  • Disputes and spending unplanned (and, thus, unbillable) time working for “unreasonable clients” result in lost profit, having less time to spend on getting new work (e.g., opportunity costs), and stress.

Amazingly, even when you have bent over backwards to avoid a dispute — and despite all that extra effort — your business and reputation can also be damaged because, in the minds of the client, you’re the one being unreasonable!

In these circumstances — from a commercial perspective, at least — it makes sense to view both disputes and unreasonable clients in the same way: do our best to avoid them.

So, how do we do that?

Managing the expectations of our clients up-front and giving the client clear options to extend the scope of the work — by agreement and subject to appropriate changes in the price and agreed timelines — are the keys to avoiding disputes and doing unpaid work.

This can be done most easily with a bespoke and well-written set of contract documents. Accordingly, a contract is not something which is only useful in the event of a dispute. Rather, it is an invaluable weapon in your fight to eliminate (or at least minimize) time-and-profit-stealers such as unscoped work.

To reduce the risk of misunderstandings and to reduce the opportunity for the client to develop unrealistic expectations, your contact must clearly state:

  • What you will do for a client
  • What they must do for you
  • What is included and excluded from the project
  • How much additional work outside of the scope will cost
  • Many web designers already produce detailed price quotes and yet still spend a great deal of time doing large amounts of unpaid work for unreasonable clients.


Firstly, because they know their company inside out and upside down, it sometimes simply doesn’t occur to them that a client might have a different viewpoint.

Indeed, our view of what it is reasonable for us to be expected to provide and what falls outside the scope of the original agreement may be significantly different from that of the client’s.

For example, a web designer may be expecting to produce a couple of design mockups for his client to choose from. The designer may expect the client to register the domain name, provide a suitable logo for the web design, and submit all copy and photos to be used for the final product.

However, the client’s expectations may be far removed from that, and may think the project will include copywriting, marketing, SEO, and so forth.

This conflict of expectations between both parties is what leads to problematic projects.

Many employers have no comprehension of the time it takes to create a good website. A simple “tweak” in their mind might seriously put the project’s budget and timelines in jeopardy.

Secondly, whilst many price quotes state what is included in the project’s fees, they often fail to indicate how changes to the original brief will be dealt with, or how delays caused by the client (e.g., failing to approve drafts or provide information) will impact timelines and costs.

And thirdly, documentation is often written in a technical, convoluted and confusing style which may not be understood by the client. The contract may sometimes even be “borrowed” from another organization, and, as a result, may not even reflect the actual working practices of the business using it.

When the expectations of both parties have not been properly managed, they begin to drift apart. And when the client demands more of the designer than she expected to give, there are only two likely outcomes: Either the designer accommodates the client — and makes much less profit than originally planned — or the parties fall out and the client tells everyone he knows how “difficult” his web designer was.

Wouldn’t it be better, therefore, for the web designer to be in a position where he could say to his client, “Of course, I’m more than happy to do that additional work for you, and the charge for that will be [insert fee here], as set out in our contract”?

We all want to provide a good service to our clients, and there are times when we will be happy to do additional work without charge. However, clients and web designers benefit from thoroughly understanding the process they are embarking on, and setting clear ground rules for situations requiring a deviation from the original plan.

As well as providing additional sales opportunities, planning for these things up front also gives you the security and confidence you need to be assertive where appropriate.

The extra precautions at the start of a project means fewer “unreasonable” clients, more profit and less stress. What’s not to like?

Originally taken from Margaret Burrell’s excellent article on Six Revisions.