Scope creep: How to stop it before it starts

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I’ve always wondered if others see me as a bit of a “yes person.” I work hard, and I’m proud that the individuals and teams I work with consider me a team player. But always being on deck to help has not always served me well.

I’ll be the first to admit that my can-do attitude has put me in some pretty awkward situations. But if you are like me, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and forget to set clear boundaries in any situation.

It's hard to say no, especially to clients who just want to pick your brain and get advice, but it's a slippery slope. For so many bookkeepers and accountants, the fear of losing a client is often stronger than the will to renegotiate the terms of a fixed fee pricing agreement.

Fixed fee pricing works well—especially if you consider your value. But it’s important that you don’t set your flat fee and then hurry off to do every one-off task you’re asked to do thereafter (I’m definitely guilty of this). Once you open the door to working beyond your bandwidth, there’s usually no polite way to communicate what is and isn’t beyond the scope of the agreement. Before you know it, you’re working much longer hours than you originally agreed to.

It’s called scope creep, and it’s an all too common pitfall in the fixed fee world, which is why I’m so excited to talk about it! I understand what a huge issue scope creep is in our field. And unfortunately, if you allow scope creep to, well, creep in, it’s hard to renegotiate the next contract because all of those small one-off tasks seem like a part of the engagement. You agreed to a one-off task, so you created the trend and made it normal practice.

Fixed Pricing Changes, but Doesn’t Discount Your Value

If you’re in a small- to midsize firm, you might have already experienced scope creep. But changing the way you think about your value can help you become more confident and, in turn, more successful.

Remember, your value isn’t as dependent on your hours worked anymore; rather it’s more tied to the knowledge you bring to the table. Though, time tracking for the accounting profession is recommended by practitioners to understand your personal time commitments and adjust as you see fit to activities that add value, not busywork.

In this way, the moment someone believes they can ask you to do anything without having to pay for it, they’re not valuing your services. The goal is to make sure your clients truly value your expertise.

As technology makes our lives easier, our hours worked can decrease. Fixed fee billing puts more time in our hands, but you have to shift your mindset. Consider pricing your knowledge as well as your time. This means writing your engagement letters explaining in detail the entire package: Here's’ what you’ll get in terms of services. This is the set list of activities.

If the thought of fixed fee billing your entire practice makes you nervous, you’re not alone. It can be really intimidating to move to fixed pricing. But in this age of automation, you have to consider moving in that direction or risk getting left behind.

The automation and the business intelligence that software brings will significantly decrease your hours per client. Moving to fixed fee and charging for your knowledge and expertise will help you keep your value to a client. Being aware of scope creep is the first step in setting yourself up for success from the very beginning.

What I’ve learned from talking to people in the accounting profession is they’re worried about losing clients when they say no to clients’ requests. If you’re dependent on every client and if you’re not marketing or doing sales, it’s important to feel like you’re going above and beyond.

But at the same time, accounting professionals are burning themselves out. What’s crazy is that not only are they not making enough to hire someone else to help, they’re working more hours because they don’t want to say no.

Setting clear boundaries is challenging, just like talking about price increases is challenging—it’s an awkward conversation to have. But the more comfortable you can get, the better you’ll do, and it’s just part of a conversation you need to continue practicing.

3 Ways to Stop Scope Creep before It Begins

1. Detail your scope of work from the get-go.

When meeting the client for the first time, be prepared to have an in-depth conversation about their business, their goals, what’s working for them and what’s not. In order to determine the entire project vision, you have to do a little detective work, as clients don’t always know what they need, so it’s for you to figure out.

You need to determine the basis for accounting needs, payroll, AP/AR end of month reconciliation, etc. The pieces that tend to creep in are how many hours you are going to spend on education, technology or consultation. All of this work will be within the fixed fee price you give each client, in a detailed outline that you walk them through.

Also, with regard to scope, include a sentence or two in the agreement that makes it clear the client will need to submit new change requests for extra tasks, services, or conversations they might need. It can read something like, “If duties are outside the agreement, a change-in-request notice will need to be submitted,” and then describe the process. You determine if you have the bandwidth and/or time to take on the additional work. And, of course, it comes at an additional cost.

2. Learn to negotiate and never go over agreed-upon time frames.

Now, this is another tough one. What happens if and when someone asks you to do something outside of your agreed-upon scope? Here’s some language to help you with that negotiation.

When they ask for the work, return the question, “Is this something you’d like me to manage? If so, I’d be happy to add it to the agreement with a change request so we can ensure it’s a part of my overall services to you.” Tackle those lines in the beginning and have a set fixed fee price for the added work.

As soon as the outside-of-the-scope request happens, ask your client again if the task is something they’d like you to add to the original agreement. Do this from day one because your time is worth it and your knowledge is invaluable. Plus, this will help you understand the scope for next year’s engagement letter.

3. Practice your lines.

Something that was really helpful for me was role-playing the negotiation. I met with a coach who literally helped me role-play several contract agreements. He also helped me talk about my personal value and worth based on my knowledge, my experience and my past successes with the clients. This helped me find the courage to truly charge not on my hours but on my expertise I was bringing to the table.

Having somebody to practice the conversation with beforehand was really useful, and it paid off for me. I highly recommend that you say negotiating phrases aloud so when you say them to your client, you sound more natural asking for what you need.

It’s possible to use fixed fee pricing to earn more and work less. Be detailed, negotiate, stay strong, and practice how you talk to your clients. Take it from me, a “yes person” who would rather work (and work and work) than tell someone the job is far beyond my bandwidth.

You’ve got this! If I can do it, so can you.

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