How to Rid Your Agency of Scope Creep & Prevent It In the Future

Written By Danielle Fauteaux

Project managers are usually driven by a desire to satisfy clients and to produce the highest quality of work possible. Along with that, though, comes the challenge of setting boundaries and taking steps to prevent projects from spiraling out of control.

After all, boundary setting conversations are among the toughest to hold. 

Scope creep is a common concern for marketing agencies and development shops, and it can happen at various stages of a project. Scope creep is often given more lee-way during economic downturns, as well, and many agencies struggle to return to equilibrium after over-servicing clients in an attempt not to lose their business during tighter times. 

However, this approach is not sustainable for marketing agencies and individual account managers. It’s important to define clear parameters during the sales process and take measures throughout the project delivery process to prevent scope creep and the loss of time, energy, and team morale. Plus, you’d hate to leave money on the table by assuming a client isn’t willing to pay for what they are asking for.

How to Handle Scope Creep in Project Management

Scope creep generally refers to clients asking for changes to a project that push it beyond what was originally agreed upon. It can be a costly challenge, not to mention putting undue stress on your account managers and implementation teams.

When you have separate people working on sales versus project delivery, then it requires extra precautions to ensure the scope of the project remains the same as it passes through the team and meets expectations set during the sales process when delivered into the client’s hands.

Addressing Existing Scope Creep

Let’s start with tactics to deploy when scope creep has become a big problem at your agency. Most of these tactics require changes in behavior, which means that you’re action item is to directly train on and passively model the behaviors you want to see.

1. Train Client Facing Team Members

Train client facing team members in how to respond to client requests that are out of scope. Make it clear what is considered a moment for “client delight” versus a much larger imposition that needs to be managed.

I discuss this tactic further here, but in short, your account managers need to understand their role is to help clients just as much as it is to protect the delivery team’s time, resources, and expertise.

Even if an account manager has this mindset, it’s hard to know what to say in the face of a client asking for more. “No,” is difficult!

I propose these options to ward off scope creep at the outset:

  1. Ask for more information from the client first. The homeowner they have to do usually doesn’t get done and their request becomes a non-issue.
  2. Tell them you’ll prepare a proposal for them to expand the scope of work. For example, “Yes, Bill, running a Google Ads campaign could definitely be another way to increase leads from your website. By Thursday I can send over a proposal for our team to configure a Google Ads campaign and then manage it monthly so you achieve maximum ROI on your ad spend.”
  3. Substitute their request for other items already in their scope of work. Regularly, the overhead cost involved in preparing scope of work changes is not a profitable use of time. But you need clients to understand the value of your services, so sometimes the best thing for the client and the agency is to do a simple swap.

2. Train Implementation Teams

Because marketing and development is an ever evolving profession, the tools of the trade and the way work is done constantly change too. That’s why this industry is so prone to scope creep.

Train your implementation teams on what IS and IS NOT included as part of the Statement of Work. This way, your teams are held accountable to the same standard and all clients know what to expect from your services (very important if your main stream of new business is referrals based!)

One situation comes to mind where a client manager was upset about how much work they had to do. Come to find out, they were massively overdelivering for the client, by a factor of 4x, and were unwilling to learn how to say no. In that situation, further action was taken to place the team member on a PIP.

3. Set the Tone

Sometimes, your account managers and delivery teams just need to see that they have permission to set boundaries. Especially if they came from an agency where practically zero boundaries existed, they may need to get accustomed to a new environment where the client-agency relationship is a collaborative partnership rather than an external micro-manager.

Set expectations for how soon clients can expect to hear back from you. One way you can do this is through your email signature. Here is an example that the VP at a PR Agency uses:

If your team sees you putting these expectations in your email signature, and hears you talking about the positive impact of structuring communications this way, they may follow suit. You could even go so far as to make it an agency wide standard in email signatures.

These are remedies as you’re working to rid your agency of client induced scope creep right now. The change won’t be overnight, but if you are dedicated to making these changes, you should see a noticeable difference in client interactions and your bottom line within 3-6 months from now.

Preventing Scope Creep to Begin With

Even better than ridding your agency of existing scope creep would be to prevent it from arising in the first place.

While you can’t oversee all the projects being worked on by account managers, you can provide them with guidance on how to deal with client scope creep and using tangible measures to prevent it from occurring.

Here are a few ways to prevent scope creep after the sales to delivery handoff at your marketing agency:

1. Use Consistency When Defining Scope Statements

As part of a contract, you define a statement of work for each client. This may take several meetings and discussions to come to an agreement that works for the marketing agency and the client. While each project is unique, your team should be using a somewhat standardized format for developing statements of work and documenting the onboarding and delivery process. This ensures that account managers and implementation teams are not left trying to interpret what exactly it was that a client was sold in the first place. 

You want to keep your SOW short and sweet for clients, but there’s no rule that says you cannot have a simplified version that clients see and an in-depth version that implementation teams work off of.

The more details are outlined by the salesperson to the implementation team, the better the overall client handoff will be, because there is less chance for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. 

Ensure enough detail is included to help the client understand how they will be working with your team. Some details to include are:

  • Who is the main point of contact?
  • Who is responsible for each action item?
  • Communication standards
  • What is the process for requesting/managing changes to the project? What additional fees may be applied?
  • Any built in fee escalation clauses based on tenure, inflation, etc.

2. Get Buy-in from the Delivery Team Before Pitching a Custom Offering

A statement of work should include a timeline of deliverables and any requirements that go along with them. If a client makes special requests during the sales process, make sure your sales representatives get input from the person who’ll be working on the project and delivering it to the client. In fact, all key stakeholders should approve of the final contract that contains the scope statement. 

Having this type of clear communication between team members from the start keeps everyone on the same page. Project managers will be aware of what special requests or unique scope requirements were originally approved, so they aren’t caught off guard at any point. They are also in a better position to identify and respond to new requests from the client.

 3. Be Prepared for Changes—Within Reason

Creative processes inherently go through numerous iterations and you can’t plan for everything in the sales process. Prospects often fail to mention key information during the sales process that proves consequential once they are a client.

That’s why it’s normal for there to be back and forth between your project manager and the client during the project delivery phase. However, both parties should refer to your agency’s in-house procedures for requesting, making and tracking changes to the project. There also should be clear guidelines for what is considered a new project request, rather than an expansion of work, or something that can be substituted, to aid your project manager’s decision-making. 

Create a collaborative environment where account and project managers have access to the sales reps who led the initial conversations so that any confusion can be fielded internally first, rather than giving clients the impression that your team isn’t listening.

Additionally, you can work a small buffer into the project’s budget to help cover cost discrepancies or even increased costs that come with change requests. For example, a 10-20% budgeting cushion can potentially compensate for extra resources spent working to accommodate aspects of the client needs that they failed to mention earlier and keep the client happy with the end results—creating more wiggle room for your team members to make reasonable accommodations.

In general, you can prevent scope creep by being extremely realistic upfront about what a project will take and then valuing it accordingly. Sometimes creative agencies and professionals struggle with underselling their services, which leads to tension later down the line when the true cost differs from the client’s expectation. It’s okay to ask for what you’re worth from the start. It’s often worse to be delivering for an unprofitable client than it is to just say it’s not a good fit from the start.

4. Communicate the Potential for Scope Creep

If the nature of your agency’s offerings have the potential for high levels of scope creep, encourage and empower your account managers to speak up when the signs start to emerge. Using the internal resources that they’re equipped with—including the original scope statement, your template for change requests, and your new request guidelines—they can explain how and why the request is not feasible within the agreed upon cost and timeline. 

It may also be effective to implement additional fees to process change requests that go beyond the project scope. Most clients will be deterred from making unreasonable requests. Just make sure your account managers are using consistency across projects so as to prevent negative word-of-mouth between existing and prospective clients.

Working Toward Resiliency as a Marketing Agency

Companies sometimes struggle with the impression that pleasing clients is the end-all, be-all of turning a profit. However, when accommodating needy clients continually leads to scope creep, it can actually undermine the long-term financial health of your marketing agency. 

My goal is to help you empower and equip your team members to serve clients while protecting the overall success, sustainability and solvency of your agency. That way, your agency is actually a blessing to you, not a burden. 

Building a successful marketing agency takes grit, a focus on your value, and sometimes a *loving* kick in the pants.

Needing an ally as you achieve your long-term goals?

I’d be happy to help.

Danielle Fauteaux, Agency Coach

Danielle Fauteaux

Hi! I’m Danielle. I’m passionate about helping creatives recognize their value and place in this world, passionate about helping leaders regain control over their responsibilities, passionate about encouraging others to live more meaningful lives; and passionate about doing more with less. I guide creative firms through the Momentum Framework to achieve their revenue and profit goals while falling back in love with the mission they originally set out with.