Avoiding Unscoped Work from Unreasonable Clients

Avoiding Unscoped Work from Unreasonable Clients

Have you ever had a dispute with a client? Most freelancers and contractors will answer this question with a resounding "no" because we tend to think of disputes as something which results in court proceedings, or at least, the intervention of lawyers.

However, ask them to tell you how many unreasonable clients they have had, and most businesses 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:

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:

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?

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About the Author

Margaret Burrell is the owner of Annesley Business Consulting Ltd. A former solicitor, she has spent over 30 years writing contracts for businesses, from start-ups to blue-chip companies. She focuses on creating clear and user-friendly documentation written in plain English. Connect with her on Twitter @contractclarity or @margaretburrell.

This was published on Apr 17, 2011


Madison Zyluk Apr 17 2011

Great post! Very thought out! Thanks for sharing.

Francine Pickering Apr 17 2011

As a marketing consultant I’d wholeheartedly endorse Margaret Burrell’s article. From a client’s point of view, it’s not necessarily what you do that makes the difference to them but how you do it.

Blinding prospects with technical talk isn’t the way to get them to buy. Having a reputation for being easy to do business with most definitely is. Setting clear expectations from the outset helps a client to choose a provider, especially where they are inexperienced in buying web services and therefore more likely to slip into “unreasonable” behaviour.

In a market where differentiating yourself can be tough, your style of working can be a great point on which to achieve this.

Do you have any recommendations on how to make a good contract that covers all the necessary requirements for independent web designers?

Michael Apr 17 2011

Excellent article Margaret!

I’m still shocked by the number of web companies that do not comprehend these simple things and then wonder why every project goes way over budget.

I’ve consulted for many web companies as a project manager where they just had no idea why every project was delivered late and why they lost thousands of dollars on each one. It was always the same thing – their proposal, contract and scope of work (I use that term loosely in this instant) stated the bare minimum (ie: “We will build you a website for $x”). For the most part, I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been able to go in, point out the weak points, provide an example of how each document should work, and then train their existing staff on what they need to do moving forward.

Unfortunately, there were many that always said the same thing: “We can’t afford to invest that much time upfront”. I’ve always left boggled by that mindset.

But great, great article. Should be required reading for every company!

This is a great read. So often I see freelancers in forums and twitter conversations asking for advice after getting caught up in scope-creep. I have dealt with it personally both professionally and in my freelance career. I think it is human nature to try to get more and more – I avoid this now by baking in extra hours to my project estimate so that when the creep comes, I can delight the client a little by agreeing to do SOME of the extra work.

Margaret Burrell Apr 18 2011

Thank you all for your commetns so far.

Tri – you ask about recommendations to make a good contract that covers all necessary requirements for freelance web designers.

As Francine rightly points out, service is what differentiates us from our competitors, and as a result, no two web-designers will have exactly the same to offer their clients. This means that there is no ‘one size fits all’ document or set of rules that I can give you. However, I can give you some pointers in the right direction.

Template terms – the type you buy off of web-sites or (dare I say it) from some lawyers – tend to be designed to protect you when something goes wrong and you are threatened with legal proceedings by a client. These have their value but do not, for example, address the subject matter of this article. Further, by the time that situation arises, the business relationship is ruined and your reptutation damaged.

5 recommendations for you might therefore be:

Firstly, after checking through your existing terms and conditions yourselg, give them to your Mum or a friend who is not involved in web design. Do they understand them? If not, are you satisfied that all of your clients will?

Secondly, think of all the times you have had a ‘near miss’ with a client – an occasion when you would have had a dispute had you not gone out of your way to sort it. What caused that and how could you have described what you offer (or what you don’t offer, and what they need to do) differently to have prevented that situation arising. This is the information that needs to be carefully drafted and incorporated into your future contracts.

Thirdly, ensure that your terms and conditions are incorporated into your contracts – there is no point in having terms if they do not form part of the contracts you enter into.

Fourthly, decide which information sits best in your quotes and which would be better in your terms and conditions. Clients tend to read quotes all the way through. So, things like additional services you can offer at additional cost – i.e. how you will deal with unscoped work – might be better in your quote.

Fifthly, once the contract is in place, deal with any potential issues at the first sign of them arising. This will keep the client on-side and keep your stress levels low. It will also enable you to determine whether you need to revise the wording of your contracts to avoid the same issue arising in the future.

I hope this helps!

As a final point, Michael talks about the investment costs. In my experience this is more of a fear than a reality. The cost of getting a good contract drafted need not be significant and represents good value for money – especially when compared to the cost of the time spent doing unscoped work!

Kindest regards,


John Holland Apr 18 2011

Having good project managers has helped our company avoid doing too much work outside the original project scope. They have been very good at translating the tech language from the developers to the clients and explaining what the clients want to to the developers. By understanding EXACTLY what everyone wants, you can avoid any surprises in scope.

Kim Percy Apr 18 2011

Since we have been creating more detailed proposals, we have had fewer projects over budget and more importantly, happier clients! As a boutique design company in a small regional town outside of Melbourne, Australia, it is vital to ensure that we uphold the highest customer service and maintain a transparent operation. Soured relationships can easily break not just a professional recommendation but a personal one, too. We have learned through experience, that if we give our clients a detailed project outline, costs and how many rounds of changes the quote covers, we are unlikely to run into issues later down the track.
Thanks for your article.

Matthew Apr 21 2011

Margaret, I totally agree with everything you said and this is a perfect cribsheet for anyone providing services be they design marketing or website development.

It never ceases to amaze me how clients even argue and refuse to pay even when its in black and white -especially in these difficult economic times.

Thanks for sharing


Ramprasad Srinivasan Aug 13 2011

A very good article.

These issues are however not only true for a freelancer but also small organisations that provide such services. Many a times, there is a total disconnect between the design/ development team and the sales team, the sales team willingly offering and bending over with such “small” tweaks to keep a customer, not realising the ramifications including additional time and effort. Project Management in such places becomes of very low importance.

Scope creep is such cases results in a situation from which it is almost impossible to get out. I have been in situations where this has adversely affected the cash flow to the organisation including employee salaries; whereas the customers expectations has grown extra ordinarily.

Pre-sales and Project Management are two vital areas that cannot be ignored today at all.

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