“Could you also just…”
Are there any words more chilling, in the English language? Every freelancer dreads a phrase like this, because it inevitably means extra work. But very rarely extra pay.
Not so long ago, I wrote an in-depth profile of an actor for a magazine. The actor had been open and interesting in our interview, and very generous with her time. She took me out to eat at her favourite restaurant, and showed me around her neighbourhood afterwards.
The editor sent it back, saying he loved it. There was just one thing.
Could I also just add in a few supporting quotes from a couple of equally A-list co-stars, plus a major director or two? And maybe get something from the prominent fashion designer who had recently declared that this actor was his new muse?
I pointed out that getting these people on phone was no five-minute job. Indeed, it would probably take me ‘just’ another couple of weeks, numerous calls and emails to PRs and personal assistants, lots of waiting in for missed calls — and even then, no guarantee of success.
“I understand,” came the reply. “But couldn’t you just try?”
I have a friend who is a web designer.
She offers a budget package to new businesses who want to get started online, setting them up with a basic brochure-style website. She had hoped it would give her a steady trickle of income while she chased the fancier, much more bespoke sites she really enjoys building.
What she found, instead, was she’d deliver the budget website, then get a call saying, “It’s great! But could you also just design a logo/add an online store/tweak my About page/add new pages/somehow make my awful profile picture look more professional…”
Another friend is a brilliant scriptwriter. Which is why he was asked to rework the first episode of a six-part TV drama. He made it clear that he had another big project immediately after, and that this was all he would be able to do. Then he worked his magic, turning wooden characters into real people, creating a stronger story arc, and bringing the series to life.
He has a great agent, who issued a watertight contract. None of which stopped the producer calling my friend at home. “We’ll never get the rest of it as good as this,” she said. “So could you also just sketch out what you’d do with the other five episodes?”
There’s a name for this: scope creep.
And it’s becoming epidemic.
Partly it’s that many clients really don’t understand the extent of the extra work they’re asking you to do.
So it’s up to you to educate them.
Partly, it’s that clients have begun to take freelancers for granted. We are always there, 24/7, ready and willing to serve their wants and needs.
Except we all need to sleep, sometimes. Or have a life.
Mainly, it’s that we are afraid to set firm boundaries, to risk losing clients.
Yet that’s what we need to do.
How to stop scope creep
1. Always agree the work in detail, before you begin
I ask for an email outlining the brief, before starting on any big writing project. So with the actor profile, I was able to point out that no secondary interviews were mentioned in the initial brief for the feature.
The web-site designer now issues a detailed list of what she includes in her starter website package — and what she does not. It includes one round of corrections/alterations. In clear, bold type, her contract also states that any extra work will incur additional charges. This doesn’t stop clients trying to scope creep. But it does stop her feeling she has to do the extra work for free.
For the scriptwriter, it was simply a case of calmly restating that he’d made it clear that he had other commitments, and there was no extra time to work on this. If they could wait, he said, he’d be happy to pick it up again next year. And the producer could call his agent to schedule that in — and negotiate the fee.
“I used to feel guilty if I couldn’t do everything people wanted,” he says. “But I’ve come to realise that I just can’t work the hours I was, and produce work to a standard I am happy with. Something had to give — and I decided it wouldn’t be me.”
2. Ask for payment upfront, when possible
And if not, at least half. We often end up doing extra unpaid work, because we’re worried that saying no will mean we don’t get paid for any of it.
Clear contracts also help enormously. If you’re just starting out, at least confirm the fee and the scope of the work in writing. You can also often find templates for basic contracts in your field, online.
Once you’re more established, or start taking on jobs that entail a big outlay of time or money — get legal help. It’s one of the best investments you’ll make.
3. If you want to do the extra work, negotiate a fee
It doesn’t have to be difficult: “Yes, I’d love to do that for you! Would you like me to send a quote?”
You’ll be surprised how often the client simply says yes.
4. Or, push the work back to them
I agreed to do the new interviews, for a small extra fee. But only if the magazine’s staff actually organised it all for me. Weirdly, it turned out that big Hollywood names and world-class fashion designers aren’t available to hop on the phone with 24 hours notice.
Surprisingly, however, they did get one person on their list to talk to me. We chatted for 15 minutes. I got a great anecdote to add to the profile. And £150 extra on my fee.
The website designer now sends new clients a list of things they need to get together before she starts work, including a logo, all of the copy and some photographs that the client feels they can live with for a while.
She gives clear deadlines for everything, and warns that if she doesn’t have all of the elements or relevant feedback on time, the project might be delayed, without the option of a refund. This stopped her having to chase the client for every single component of the website, reducing her workload considerably.
5. Set clear boundaries
Make it clear that you only respond to emails or accept work calls during set hours. Train your clients to understand that you have other clients, and a schedule of your own; when they miss deadlines or add extra work, it is likely to affect the completion date of the work.
Do this calmly, without apology, guilt or drama.
If you’ve been endlessly available in the past, it’s absolutely fine to say, for example: “Now that I’m more busy, I’m reassessing how I work. Moving forward, I’m no longer taking work calls after 5pm, or over the weekend.”
Most clients will respect that. Those that won’t? Maybe they’re no longer the kind of people you want to work with.
6. Get comfortable with losing clients
No one likes to lose a customer. But if they won’t accept that asking for extra work means paying more for your time, the scope creep will quickly turn into a scope stampede.
Soon you’ll be dreading their calls or their emails, and staying up late into the night doing extra, unpaid work on every single job they give you.
Or — you could invest that time connecting with people and creating new clients who respect your work, and your boundaries.
And then spend your evenings doing whatever you like. Because freedom is part of the reason you went freelance in the first place, no?