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What to do when you realize you’ve underscoped a freelance project

You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize that a project is very quickly starting to go off the rails?

It's that sinking feeling that you are in way over your head in terms of what the client and project are going to require from you in relation to the dollar figure that you've quoted to the client.

That is what we call underscoping.

Underscoping can happen because you weren't clear on what the client was looking for -or- because the client has changed their mind after you've already kicked off your project.

When you realize that you've underscoped your freelance project, you're left with three options for how to proceed.

Option 1: The Ostrich

You can follow the client and the project further down the underscoping rabbit hole... and simply hope that what's needed to successfully complete the project from that point forward isn't TOO far off of what you estimated in your project quote or contract. For the record, my freelancer friends, this is the absolute worst option you can pick.

You have a business to run and income you rely on. If a project drags on and on or goes way off the rails, you're veering into dangerous territory as the value of your time falls off the cliff.

Suddenly, you can find yourself doing SIGNIFICANTLY more work for the same fee – and that time spent doing all that extra work has a high opportunity cost. You can't spend time on other client projects while you're working on this one and you can't spend time on sales to search for new clients, either.

Now you can see how much this hurts your business and why just staying mum and trucking along into "way out of scope" territory is not a good option for you.

Now, if you don't have a clear enough statement of work (SOW) or contract that stipulates what the project scope includes then it's harder to explain to a client that the project is heading out-of-scope because you've not done a good job in establishing the boundaries of the project scope, to begin with.

In that case, you've now learned a painful-but-valuable lesson about why the scope is so, so, so important for running a profitable freelance business and you can bite the bullet and skip ahead to option three.

Let's talk about option two, which is the ideal option.

Option 2: The U-Turn

The second option is to pump the brakes on the project and exercise your right to rescope the project.

As I mentioned above, it's only an option if you have a written scope (either in a proposal, quote/estimate, statement of work, or even just informally as an email) AND the client has, in some way, indicated they agree to the terms and scope as communicated). Otherwise, how can you tell someone that they're out-of-bounds when you haven't indicated the boundaries (and had them formally agree to those boundaries) at the beginning of the project?

So, assuming that you have that documented scope and approval by the client, option two ("The U-Turn") exercises your right to pause the project so that you can rescope and have the client re-approve that new scope before doing any further work.

You can do this by saying something like this: "Hey Client, as you may have guessed, we are starting to get pretty far away from the original specifications of this project. I understand things change so I'd be happy to realign with the new direction but I'll need to adjust the scope and have you approve that before I can continue down that road. Let me know if that's how you'd like to proceed and I'll get back to you by _____ with a revised scope and terms for your review."

Easy peasy – you've removed the emotion, set the expectation of what happens next, and made it easy for the client to say "YES!" – which is what we want, of course.

At this point, you can rework the scope, terms, and pricing, and submit it back to your client for approval. Don't forget to include the work completed to date in the scope since it's still part of the project and you still need to get paid for it. You're adjusting the scope of everything that happens going forward, without neglecting to cover what's already happened as it relates to payment.

If the client approves, it's like you're restarting the project based on that new scope. If they don't approve the new scope for whatever reason, you can invoice them for the work already completed and part ways.

In my experience, the latter rarely happens if you handle the communication delicately and make sure they understand why you need to rescope and that it's based on their desire to take the project in a new direction that requires more investment from you.

That said, make sure you have a rescoping clause in your client agreement that explains this type of scenario so that a) you're covered by your contract and b) you've set the expectation that the client needs to stick to the agreed-upon scope or you'll have to rescope.

Option 3: The Client Wrangler

Option three is that you try to direct the client back to the initial scope and explain why you can't deviate from it.

You may need to go with this option if you are at capacity in terms of how much extra work you can do in that time and you simply don't have the bandwidth to accommodate a new direction for the project.

Or, if the client balks at rescoping (from option two, above) then by default, you have to go with this option.

It's not as bad as it sounds, I promise.

When you have the conversation about sticking to the agreed-upon scope, stick to the facts, don't allow emotion into the conversation, and truly listen to the client and what's driving them to change directions. HELP the client by reminding them of the original goals and why the original scope was designed the way it was.

Do they need to see another version of a design?

Is the new request going to result in a meaningful impact on the project's outcomes?

Is the new idea a distraction from the initial goal of the project?

Clients are people, too, and sometimes being a freelancer means you need to put on your coaching hat for your clients.

When a client starts to deviate from the initial scope of the project, it can be an indicator that they're confused or distracted and just need some gentle guidance and a reminder of the original mission for the project.

These types of situations may feel a little sticky (totally valid – no one ENJOYS having to push back or redirect a client) but ultimately, they present an opportunity for you to show your value as more than a technician but as someone who has an eye on the big picture and can provide guidance when it's needed.