4 Ways to Navigate Project Scope Disagreements

What’s on the iPod: Sleep Like a Baby Tonight by U2

What a week. I started by spending what I thought would be ten minutes looking for a hotel room for the upcoming conference at the end of April. That turned into two days of hunting. No luck. I can get a hotel close to the convention center ($1,019 a night) or two miles away ($300 a night) or across a highway and not easy to get to from there ($189 a night).

Or I could stay home.

It’s my big push for new client work, this conference. And judging by the number of sold-out hotels, it’s going to be well attended. So I’ll find a way. Even the B&Bs are sold out. It could be I’ll be staying miles away and taking taxis.

Beyond that, I’m working on a number of projects for new/existing clients. I’m getting plenty of interest in my pitches and via referrals, so I’ll spend time today and tomorrow trying to get commitment from some of the prospects.

In a client interaction recently, I realized the expectations they had of what I’d be doing weren’t just a little off — they were worlds different. So I had to reiterate what I knew to be the terms of our arrangement and do so in a gentle way.

That’s a big deal when you and your writing client aren’t on the same page or even in the same book. You agreed to (and priced for) X. They thought they were getting Y.

Time to introduce Z.

Navigating these sticky situations isn’t tough, especially if you’ve left a paper trail. Still, it’s one thing to know you’re right and wholly another to point that out tactfully to the client who is wrong. Here’s how I manage it:

1. Apologize for the confusion. I never assume someone is trying to pull a fast one on me. In most cases, it really is just a misunderstanding. Your client hires a proofreader, yet sends over a ton of unedited work. It could be as simple as they don’t understand the difference between the two functions (most likely) or they don’t know what they really need. Either way, apologize that there’s confusion. Don’t take the blame, but do say something like “I’m sorry there’s some confusion here. Do you have time for a quick conversation?”

2. Repeat back the terms agreed upon. I’ve had to say “I must be confused – I thought you needed this….Are you saying you need that….?” No need to do a copy-and-paste of the evidence just yet, but I do refer to specific emails or contract sections in conversation.

3. Offer to revise the terms to include the change in work. I offer this up with a “Happy to take on that part, as well. Let me rework the price estimate and get back to you this afternoon/tomorrow morning.” There’s no reason why we can’t come to terms that are agreeable to us both.

4. Give evidence when there’s push-back. I did this once in my career (the client was changing the contract terms in her head), but it isn’t something that’s usually necessary. I don’t like to wave evidence in front of clients. Instead, I give them the chance to save face first (and remember their agreement). If it does come down to someone adamant about what is expected, I would say something like “I looked at the agreement, and here’s where I’m seeing our disconnect.” (I didn’t in that one case because that client was attempting to avoid payment.)

Writers, have you had to clear up any project misunderstandings?
What’s your process?

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  • Cathy Miller February 25, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    Ah, let me count the ways. 😉

    The key to the whole thing (IMHO) is having a tight Statement of Work/contract/whatever you call it. Mine keeps evolving as I come across some new twist on interpretation.

    I do pretty much what you do, Lori. Apologize for the misunderstanding, restate the terms, and then offer to revise the terms and advise them of the additional cost.

    The other trick is not allowing clients to pull you into an emotional discussion. This is business after all.

  • Lori Widmer February 25, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    And yet they do try with the emotions, don't they? 🙂

    Great point regarding strong contract terms. In this most recent case, it was spelled out in great detail — by the client. It wasn't hard for me to remind them what I was hired for (and offer to do the rest for an additional cost).

  • Paula February 25, 2015 at 5:20 pm

    The situation I ran into was an editor who assigned me to write first-person piece involving three how-to holiday gift projects. I'd included a few examples of gifts I'd made or received, and she said two of the three would work, the other one was too complicated for the average reader. I understood, and sent her a few alternate ideas. She said she was fine with whatever I chose.

    It was my first assignment from her, so I wrote it and turned it well ahead of time in case she wanted changes. A month later she finally replied telling me she didn't like it in first person only wanted projects that could be made in less than 30 minutes.

    I politely reminded her that most baked goods take longer than that. She upped the time limit to an hour. So I found three different ideas. Rewrote the entire thing – all along letting her know my goal was to get the copy as close to what she wanted as possible.

    Flash forward a couple months. The issue comes out. The intro was totally re-written (badly, IMO) and only one of the examples I'd provided were used. It's so horrible I have never used it as a clip. The fault wasn't mine. Every step of the way I'd done precisely what the editor had requested. She kept changing her mind. I can't say I was sorry when I saw she'd left the company.

  • Lori Widmer February 25, 2015 at 9:45 pm

    That's an awful experience, Paula! It sucks when you're stuck with a client (in this case, an editor) who insists on changing something — anything. Marking their territory, as if they need to when it's their territory to begin with. Maybe it's insecurity about their own abilities?

    Did you get paid?

  • Damaria Senne February 26, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    Aw Lori, I'm in slippery scope hell. The job brief was clear, and we had deadlines we agreed on. The problem is that systems that should have been in place to allow me to do my job are not there. For example, I needed a logo for the website and so I asked for that. Turns out they haven't done their branding yet. So she asked, could you quote me for that. And I did the whole branding thing, then moved on to the website. Only I'm finding out I have to develop content from scratch, when my understanding was that they did have the content ( information for static pages, photos and edited videos). Urgh! I just want it to be over. They pay quickly, no hassles, but doing the job it's hard going…

  • Lori Widmer February 26, 2015 at 1:33 pm

    Damaria, did you go back to them and explain that the scope of the project wasn't clearly conveyed to you? I sure would. It doesn't have to be confrontational, but I would certainly tell them you were expecting the content they promised.

  • Paula February 26, 2015 at 5:01 pm

    I was paid in full, and quickly. I was actually paid long before the butchered piece was published.

    I don't think it was the editor's ego or a need to put her stamp on it as much as her inability to clearly articulate what she wanted coupled with her indecisiveness.

  • Lori Widmer February 26, 2015 at 5:54 pm

    Oh, that's worse, Paula. There's no helping her if she's not able to articulate anything!

  • Damaria Senne February 26, 2015 at 6:17 pm

    Yes Lori I did. We have a project implementation plan, in addition to the our contract, which clearly states our tasks and by when they should happen. My client has a selective memory. Thankfully it's a short-term project based contract, so for now I just want to be able to finish it and get out.

    There was to be some additional work to discuss after this contract but I doubt that will happen, as she's increasing beginning to see me as unhelpful as I try to navigate between work I'm contracted to do and what she wants me to do.

  • Lori Widmer February 26, 2015 at 8:28 pm

    Damaria, that may be a relief, no? I think if she finds you unhelpful it's because she's becoming a little too demanding.

    Glad it's almost over?

  • Damaria Senne March 4, 2015 at 7:49 am

    Yesterday we had a chat and called it quits.

    We haven't ironed out all the details of the end of our association, but we both agreed it's not working.

    We ended up going to lunch afterwards and I'm glad I didn't leave behind a bridge in flames. Not that I have any plans to cross that bridge again, ever 🙂

    Anyhoo, today it's my first day with that project off my table. What a relief!!

  • Lori Widmer March 4, 2015 at 1:11 pm

    That sounds like a positive outcome for you both. Very admirable, Damaria!