How To Prevent Scope Creep From Trashing Great Relationships

Clare Josa, Research & Training Director

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Scope creep - clients increasing what they want after agreeing the budget - is well understood in industries like the building trade, but how do you handle it in your B2B service business? Find out why it used to make us tear our hair out, but why we now celebrate it. And how you can either prevent it, or make it a win-win.

I'll never forget back at the start of the first 2020 lockdown I was running a keynote for an ED&I group for a major corporate, on Imposter Syndrome. We had agreed an event fee for 100 attendees, with me hosting the replay for those same 100 people in my training resource vault, for 12 months.

And the invoice still showed no sign of being paid, despite being over a month late, 4 hours before the keynote.

Then the call came:

"Our legal team says you can't host the replay, we have to."

A few quick questions revealed that the client wanted to add the keynote to their online worldwide training vault, for 100,000+ global employees as an in-house training course, forever, for free.

As you can imagine, that's a very different fee.

And there was more:

Having agreed a fee for 100 delegates, they now had over 1,000 registered.

"But you've already done the work, apart from the hour of delivery, so it shouldn't make any difference to the fee."

The thing is, it does. You can't buy one ticket to, say, a Beyoncé concert and then show up with nine friends on your lap. Sharing a life-changing training with ten times as many people significantly increases value to the company.

The ED&I committee lead had signed the contract months before, but was being yelled at by the legal and leadership teams, who wanted blood for their money.

In that moment, we had to decide whether or not to pull the plug.

We went ahead, capping the room at 500, and there was no recording or replay because the legal team couldn't consider our suggested options in time. That was sad, because it was a great session, despite the major, last-minute stress. And, two months later, I did eventually get paid the original fee.

But it was a big lesson in scope creep. And it got us thinking...

We all accept scope creep and price changes for building works, so why has that system broken for B2B services?

We all understand that a builder might need to do that sucking-air-over-teeth thing, once the old plasterboard is off and they can see the real state of the wall. And we have all heard of building jobs 'growing', taking longer, and costing more, when the customer changes their mind about what they want.

"While you're here, could you just...?"

It's accepted that there has to be give and take.

We realised we needed to rethink scope creep, if we wanted to prevent the stress - and relationship damage - it can cause.

Scope Creep? Now We Celebrate It!

We talk about two types of scope creep:

The Two Types Of Scope Creep

  1. 1
    Unconscious Scope Creep - the client hasn't thought through the potential cost and timing implications of a request for changes, or even considered that the requests are different to the briefed or contracted project. Fixing this requires educating the client.
  2. 2
    Conscious Scope Creep - the client is fully aware that they're moving the goal posts, and they're doing it because the project is important to them. They know there may be cost and timing implications. Fixing this requires negotiating with the client.

Conscious scope creep isn't usually a problem. The client understands they're changing the brief - or the contract - and they'll expect you to revisit the fee. But unconscious scope creep can turn previously happy working relationships sour, fast. It's important to prevent it (more in a mo).

But first:

3 reasons why we now celebrate scope creep, whereas before it had been known to make us cry.

1. More people = the teams are excited

It can be really tough in an initial briefing meeting to accurately predict how many team members might attend a workshop or keynote talk. That's why we quote for ranges of attendees.

And with the extra support that we give clients to build buzz and maximise impact, it can mean you end up with more people than you would normally expect at that kind of event.

But this is a good thing. It means that the topic is important, and that it's more likely to create a wave of change than if people just felt 'meh' about it. The audience is excited.

2. More deliverables = the client is excited

Perhaps the client wants to add in extra elements to the project - great! They can see the value of the work you're doing together and they want to give you the chance to make it even better. 

In our work, this can mean everything from adding human-generated captions to a keynote replay, through to every attendee getting a copy of one of my books, through to extending the post-keynote research report from a summary, to be a full report and board presentation.

3. Increased scope = the client wants to solve the real problem

This means the client has seen that the 'wall behind the plasterboard' needs more to fix it than previously thought, and they're not going to bodge it. They really want to solve the problem.

In the past, this has included things like asking us to add in post-keynote focus groups and a full company-wide research study, to prioritise high-impact, low-effort actions to make as big a difference as possible.

How We Proactively Prevent Unconscious Scope Creep

Conscious scope creep - as a reminder - is where both parties are aware and agree that the changes affect the original brief and contract. To handle that well, it just takes a deep breath and a bit of renegotiation.

But unconscious scope creep is a bit trickier: the client may genuinely think it's a fair request, within the contract. So here are three ways we try to prevent it.

We Pre-Empt Scope Creep In Our Quotes

We include 2-3 pricing options in any proposal, and the most expensive option includes the most common scope creep requests, at a discount. We display this in a table, to make it super-easy to see what is and isn't included at each price point.

We Remind Clients In Their Welcome Pack

Once we have the purchase order, our clients get a welcome pack, putting them at ease on how things will run for the project. It also includes a table with what is included in the quote they chose, plus the common upgrade options, with prices.

We Check Again, At Our Final Briefing Call

We take them through that welcome pack table in the final briefing call, making sure that nothing has changed. And if it has, we can use the table to discuss the cost implications, so that the client can make informed choices.

And if those don't work? 

Then it's time for a call. How to handle it to make increase the likelihood of a win-win outcome?

  • Keep it factual. Take out the emotions. Even if the scope creep is intentional - and cheeky - it's not personal. Get grounded, so you're not tense and wound up as you speak.
  • Don't accuse or blame. Come from a place of curiosity, not frustration.
  • Use the 'if this, then that' cause-and-effect model. For example, "If you add in an additional ten questions to the research questionnaire, then it will add £x to the project price and have z impact on timing." And if you need it, consider using a "because...", but you really don't have to.
  • The power of the pause: after you share the price / timing implications, shut up! Give the client time to process, rather than filling the silence with waffle that undermines what you just shared.

Then the client can choose whether to increase / vary the scope, and it's a win-win outcome.

If you're in the situation where the client needs to understand why their new requests could impact the price, it's really worth having educational content on your website that pre-empts it. They're much less likely to take it personally (and you're more likely to stick to what's fair) if they can tell that this is public your message to the world, rather than personal about them. 

It's why we have articles like How Much You Should Expect To Pay For A Keynote Speaker and What Goes In To Creating A Brilliant Bespoke Keynote? 

If it's not knowledge a client is born with, then it's not fair to grump with them for not knowing it!

And to give you more examples, common scope creep items for us with, say, a keynote talk, include:

  • Having ten times as many contracted attendees on a virtual event
  • Turning the replay into a company-wide training course
  • Changing the event from all-virtual to hybrid, with solo viewers and in-person watch-groups, which requires redesigning the way interactions and exercises work
  • Last-minute asking us to host the event as a Zoom webinar, rather than on the client's platform
  • Last-minute asking not to use Zoom, but to use something bespoke that requires slide and content redesign, as well an extended tech rehearsal
  • Adding in print or digital copies of Ditching Imposter Syndrome or Dare to Dream Bigger for each delegate
  • Adding in human-created captions for the replay, in three languages
  • Designing and running a panel discussion for immediately before or after the keynote
  • Adding in a 30-minute Q&A, after the keynote
  • Adding in an afternoon workshop on a different topic, having done the opening keynote for a conference
  • "Just running a few more questions" through the data in the post-event research summary report
  • Presenting the research summary report, in person, to the company's board
  • Designing the questions for post-event focus groups on the keynote topic

All of these can be accommodated, but they may impact the price and timing.

And it's really common for clients to ask to add back in things they had previously asked to have removed, to make the event fit within their budget, without considering that this will put the cost up.

I'm curious: what are your thoughts?

Whether you're the client, or the one delivering the service, what kinds of scope creep do you regularly see? And how would you advise handling it? Click the button to join in the discussion on LinkedIn.

Want to find out more about booking me as a keynote speaker for your teams? 

My keynote topics include ditching Imposter Syndrome, preventing burnout, clearing out toxic resilience, leading from your heart in a head-based world, and working with my Natural Resilience Method® and HOPE Matrix® frameworks to grow thriving, diverse, authentic teams and confident, courageous, inspiring leaders.

If the idea of working together has you curious - or even perhaps excited - here's how to take the next step:

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As interviewed by:

Clare In Numbers

8 Books

helping over 100,000 people change their life

20 Years

as an international keynote speaker


podcast listeners in over 100 countries

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About the Author

Clare Josa, Research & Training Director

Clare is considered a global authority in the fields of Imposter Syndrome, burnout and toxic resilience, and has been an international keynote speaker for over 20 years.

The author of 8 books, a reformed engineer and the former Head of Market Research for one of the world's most disruptive brands, she blends research-backed practical inspiration with demystified ancient wisdom, to help you create breakthroughs in ways that are fast, fun and forever.

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