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[Scope Creep, Responsibility Dodging] How to Set and Keep Better Boundaries with Your Consulting Firm’s Clients

Consulting firm clients occasionally (or frequently) don’t live up to their obligations on a project—mid-project approvals come late, or not at all, critical information is missing, etc. Sometimes, clients ask your consulting firm to take on extra work that was outside of scope. Both of these client behaviors present a challenge for your consulting firm.

Your consulting firm can set better boundaries with your clients from the start, without being negative or upside down. Let’s discuss how.

The Situation

Here’s the scenario: Your consulting firm happily took on a project with SFC (Southern Fried Chocolates). Two months in, the project has fallen way behind as you’ve waited for information on capsaicin levels from SFC’s Mole team.

To avoid a heated conversation with the Mole group, you turn to Coronel Lijadora, the head honcho at SFC. He explains that the Mole team is extremely busy and pleasantly suggests your consulting firm conduct the capsaicin level testing in order to put the project back on track.

You’re now facing two client problems common to every consulting firm:

Responsibility Dodging – Your client isn’t executing their share of the work that’s required for your project to deliver an excellent outcome.

Scope Creep – Your client is asking you to take on work that is beyond the bounds of the original agreement.

The Implications

Responsibility Dodging and Scope Creep create reputational and financial risk for your consulting firm.

Scope Creep also presents strategic challenges. The tasks you’re being asked (or compelled) to take on may not be work you want to do, enjoy doing, can excel at, or want to be known for.

As a quick aside, Scope Creep and Responsibility Dodging are not always bad. When multiple clients struggle with the same responsibilities or request the same additions to scope, you may have surfaced an opportunity for a new consulting offering.

Nevertheless, could you have avoided the SFC situation from the start, or at least made your responses to Coronel Lijadora easier to manage? Yes.

Plus, you can set boundaries without relying on negative, upside down language such as, “We don’t conduct spice level testing” or “This contract excludes capsaicin measuring and any information related to nibs.”

In fact, you probably already have the necessary tools.

A Solution

Hiding at the end of the Perfect Proposal Template, which you’ve likely stored on your hard drive since it’s a free download, are two sections: one titled Responsibilities and one called Dependencies.

For many clients and projects, these sections can be boilerplate or left out entirely; however, if your consulting firm is consistently facing Scope Creep or Responsibility Dodging, you may want to revisit, beef up and customize these sections of your proposal.

Highlight the responsibilities and dependencies in your proposal’s cover letter and discuss them with your client as you review the proposal.

For particularly troublesome clients, include a Responsibilities and Dependencies tracker as a “standard” part of your weekly or monthly project update conversations.

Of course, you can also leverage the Approach Alternatives section of your proposal to explicitly describe what is included in three different levels of scope.

Will a simple enumeration of responsibilities prevent Responsibility Dodging? Often not; however, those two sections of your consulting firm’s proposal open the door to:

  • Surface and discuss concerns around your client’s ability to deliver on their responsibilities;
  • Brainstorm, in advance, solutions if you client can’t meet their responsibilities;
  • Document you client’s participation and agreement in the design of the scope.

Perhaps you couldn’t foresee the Responsibility Dodging or anticipate the Scope Creep with SFC. That happens. Powerful language for your conversation with Coronel Lijadora will allow you to avoid a project meltdown. We’ll cover that language in another article.

For now, let me know if/how you have you prevented Scope Creep and Responsibility Dodging.


12 Comments
  1. Gabrielle Fontaine
    June 8, 2022 at 8:20 am Reply

    Since most of my significant contracts usually last a year (or more), the scope ALWAYS changes. My solution to that has been that I just make sure my fee is substantial so that when the changes come, I’m being well paid for the work, so it’s not a problem. If what’s being asked is way more than was originally agreed, at that point I let the client know we need to re-evaluate / strategize their needs and update (re-negotiate) our engagement so they can get the best results possible and we’re all on the same page.

    I LOVE the idea of including “a Responsibilities and Dependencies tracker as a “standard” part of your weekly or monthly project update conversations” Thank you David!

    • David A. Fields
      June 8, 2022 at 8:58 am Reply

      Good on you for proposing and winning large, long-term contracts Gabrielle. You’re absolutely right that when you price your work effectively, there’s room for changes.

      It’s worth differentiating between a project based on outcomes and a project based on inputs. Most consultants are still selling inputs (hours, processes), which means if a modification in approach is needed to meet the client’s desired outcome, the scope changes. Savvy consultants like you are contracted for (and paid on) outcomes, which means only redefining the agreed-to outcome necessitates a scope change.

      Thanks for adding your example and highlighting the important distinctions underlying scope creep, Gabrielle!

  2. Kevin Dougherty
    June 8, 2022 at 8:52 am Reply

    Great article and advice and applies in many areas of our businesses and lives.

    • David A. Fields
      June 8, 2022 at 9:01 am Reply

      Interesting point, Kevin. You’re smart to point out that many people dodge a wide range of responsibilities–it’s not just a problem with consulting firm clients. There’s probably some good advice for teenagers (or their parents) buried in the article somewhere.

      I very much appreciate you adding that twist to the conversation, Kevin.

  3. Corinna Zennig
    June 8, 2022 at 3:23 pm Reply

    I have one clause in my Statement of Work that is the only one printed in bold letters. It goes along the lines of: All questions and requests have to be answered within 2 business days. Otherwise, the delivery cannot be guaranteed anymore upon deadline day. Any deadline extensions are subject to availability and a daily rate of XXX (expensive). I know that a guilty client is still an unhappy client at the end of a not-so-great deliverable that’s their fault and I will work overtime to prevent that outcome. However, it sets very clear expectations from the get-go I found and puts a good amount of pressure on the client. No more “oops, I was on vacation for two weeks, let me answer that tomorrow”. Was a game changer for me.

    • David A. Fields
      June 8, 2022 at 3:39 pm Reply

      Thank you for the sample copy, Corinna! Your example is very valuable. As you aptly point out, the consultant is always held accountable, even if the client is to blame.

      While I generally wouldn’t encourage folks to use a day rate, the idea of a penalty works quite well. An overwhelmingly large penalty for Responsibility Dodging can help your client (the senior exec) keep the minions on task. In some of our contracts we offer clients an alternative that reduces their fee a fixed amount if they agree to respond within two business days and assesses a (massive) financial penalty if they don’t live up to their obligations.

      Thanks again for sharing your wisdom, Corinna!

      • Corinna Zennig
        June 9, 2022 at 6:06 am Reply

        Thank you, David, for responding. I never thought about this clause the other way round. Carrot versus stick, I see. Thank you for that valuable advice!

        • David A. Fields
          June 9, 2022 at 8:14 am

          You betcha, Corinna. Let me know how it works out if you incorporate the clause in future proposal.

  4. Michael
    June 9, 2022 at 1:35 am Reply

    Excellent topic and advisory, as always. Two responses:

    1) Clients often feel empowered to test scope creep with the idea, “If you don’t ask, the answer is always ‘no,” assuming you the consultant and service provider will not dare say “no.”

    2) Yet one can be assertive and ask questions. I use it as a second sales and negotiation conversation, first focusing on their need/ask and the “why,” showing curiosity and interest and follow with “I can certainly do “X (the request)” and deliver “desired outcome” if you can do “Y (the help I need to accomplish it, plus additional revenue).”

    Final thought: So true, how critical it is to clearly communicate on and agree on responsibilities (and possible new “asks”) in the service agreement to minimize the likelihood of conflict and relationships going sideways. I’m afraid to admit that’s happened in the past.

    • David A. Fields
      June 9, 2022 at 8:10 am Reply

      Very good point, Michael. It is absolutely normal, and possibly desirable, for a client to push on the boundaries of scope. As you point out, it’s similar to pre-contract negotiations in which a client asks for much more scope or lower fees.

      You can’t blame a client for trying! In fact, I usually meet such requests with good humor:

      Good for you for asking! The answer is ‘No’ of course, but I appreciate that you asked [for that extra scope or that discount].

      Thank you for highlighting that important lesson, Michael, and remember that every consultant has experienced projects that go sideways.

  5. Michael
    June 9, 2022 at 1:45 am Reply

    Compliments:

    1) I appreciate how you communicate such wonderful insights and recommendations in such tight, brief pieces. Also enjoy the drawings.

    2) I greatly respect and appreciate how you thoughtfully reply to comments, that you make time to do it as well. Rare. It reveals personality and adds to the learning.

    3) I also really enjoy reading what your followers communicate. It inspires deep thinking and consideration. These pieces are gold.

    • David A. Fields
      June 9, 2022 at 8:13 am Reply

      Like you, I very much enjoy reading what other consultants’ responses to the articles. The dialog in the comments section often multiplies the value of the original content.

      Michael, thank you for investing your time in reading the articles, sharing your thoughts with other readers (and me) and providing feedback to me. All are greatly appreciated.

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