Your Client Doesn't Understand Your Scope

You’re wrapping up development on a client site. They’ve been happy with the process so far. You deliver a preview link to them for approval. Suddenly, a call. They’re confused and upset. And panicked. Where is this feature? And that feature? They expected to have those features. You never planned to include them.

It eventually happens to everyone who does client work. If you’ve done your due diligence in scoping the project from the outset, you’ll have a list of things to be included. If you’re a developer, then the list is probably technical and highly specific. It’s meant to cover your ass when this inevitable phone call happens. But at this stage of the process, if you have to throw the scope at your client to justify not meeting their expectations, then you’ve already failed at communicating with them. You might get out of doing the work, but you’re going to look like an asshole, and they aren’t going to work with you again. This is how client relationships fall apart. So how did we get here?

Let’s rewind to the beginning of the project.

You’re about to meet with the client for the first time. When you schedule that meeting, it’s critical that you ask up front who all of the stakeholders are, and whether they can be at that meeting. You don’t want to have one contact for the duration of the project, only to find out that they’ve been making decisions on behalf of multiple stakeholders, most of which will probably hate the final product. They weren’t there for the scoping. They didn’t sign off on the design. How likely is the finished project to compare favorably with what they imagined they’d be getting? If stakeholders can’t attend, reschedule the meeting. Don’t compromise on this. You’ll pay for it later in one way or another.

Now that the client is on board and you’ve met with the stakeholders, it’s time to craft that scope. But wait! Pause at this stage and make sure you fully understand what you’re scoping. If the client has an existing site, you need to inventory every feature. Can his users log into the site? Ask them for login info so you can see what all those users can do. Or better yet, have the client walk you through the site. This is just one example, but the idea here is to avoid finding out at the end of a project that a large, complex, and critical feature is hidden in some obscure corner of the site.

So–you get it. You understand the client’s needs, goals, and expectations You’ve dived into the features they want and expect, and you’re ready to create a scope. You list everything out, add time estimates for each feature or page, multiply by your hourly rate. Or if you’re value pricing, maybe you estimate how much value the site will add to the client’s business. In either case, you have a cost for the site. Say it’s $10,000. And then you remember that in your first meeting with the client you asked about budget. They can’t spend more than $5,500. What do you do?

I don’t have a definitive answer. But I have learned a few lessons from projects where I’ve been put in a similar position. For example, it’s tempting to cut corners to meet the budget. Say that they need an event signup. No problem - you’re building in WordPress, so just add a Gravity Form to a static event page. All of the event information comes from the page’s WYSIWYG editor. Done and done. That’ll just take a few hours, and the price won’t scare away the client.

What will scare them though is logging in for the first time and realizing how little the “events” you built for them can actually do. Where is the list of people attending? How do they limit the number of participants? How do they send out email notifications? How do people sign up for recurring events? That scope compromise you made to get it within their budget? They won’t be happy with it later, and you’ll have to explain that you sold them a suboptimal solution because it was all that they could afford.

Another hypothetical: the client can’t afford the features they want. But wait! You can skirt this problem by shuffling some of the site’s features into a “phase two”, which will save the client money up front and hopefully land you more business in the future. Everyone wins, right? Be careful though. If a feature is important to a client, especially if it’s on their old site, it’s likely that they won’t understand the implications of your “phase two” plan and will want the feature anyway. By splitting critical features into “do now” and “do later”, you’re risking a breakdown of client relations and the possibility of needing to do some out-of-scope work to keep them happy. “Phase two” is certainly useful given the right circumstances, particularly when the features being pushed back are not critical to the site’s short term success. What you want to avoid are mismatched expectations, and that requires clear communication with the client.

So you have a scope completed. You’ve taken care to balance their budget against their needs. Should you send it over via an email and hope to get the sale? Let me tell you a not-so-secret secret: client’s don’t read scopes. And if they do read them, they don’t understand them. Writing scopes that a client can understand is an under-appreciated art form, especially if your client is a small business owner who doesn’t have time to update their site. If you’re working in WordPress, you might scope based on templates. That’s one way to think about the makeup of a custom WordPress theme, but a client has no idea what that means. Maybe you organize your scope by pages, or features, or in any number of ways. How well that works for organizing the scope for your consumption isn’t going to matter if the client doesn’t read or understand it.

As a general rule of thumb, always walk a client through the scope in person whenever possible. You will want to be there to answer questions and get a sense of how comfortable they are with it. If you can’t be there in person, try for a video call. A lot of communication is nonverbal, and phone calls or emails rob you of that key visual information.

If the client has an existing site, they will probably assume that every feature it had is carried over. If that’s not true, now is the time to make sure they understand what they’re losing and why. It’s usually a good idea to tell the client what they’re not getting, as much as what they are. It’s better to have that conversation now rather than down the road when they’re reviewing your work before you launch.

In my experience, folks who take on client work–freelance or otherwise–love to vent about clients without considering whether they are partially to blame. When a project goes south, empathizing with your clients is critical before you start assigning blame. Clients have a million things to worry about besides the website or marketing campaign. That’s why they hired you. One of the most valuable services you can offer is peace of mind. If you communicate early and often with clients, and are incredibly clear with them throughout the process, they’re much more likely to be happy with the outcome, and come back to you with more work in the future.