How to handle projects with an unclear scope

You know the situation. 

A prospect comes to you with a project and the scope is just unclear. 

We all run into this issue from time to time.

A website with very open ends as to what will be done or how much content will be made. 
An application where the features and use cases are just not thoroughly thought out. 
A large design project where the final deliverables aren't even decided yet.

So how to we handle these situations when a client comes to us and the scope is unclear?

How do we proceed forward and not commit ourselves to something we later regret?

My goal with this post is to outline a method to handle these situations and also get paid for your time. 


Why you should charge the client for the discovery process

One way to get clear on the scope is to charge the client for the initial discovery and planning phase of the project. 

For those that don't know, "Discovery" is the work that creatives do up front to get clear on the scope, objectives and approach for the project. It's all the planning work that we do before we actually start the hands on creative work. 

Devon Rheel from Enginate charges for the discovery process with his clients. He charges his clients for 10 hours of work up front and then uses that time to get clear on the full projects scope and deliverables. 

This paid discovery time allows Devon to really dive in and put hard thought and research into figuring out a plan of action for the clients needs. 

Lawyers don't give away their time:

To some, this process of charging from Discovery can seem like a scary ask to make, but Devon frames it in a great light.

"Ask yourself, “has my client ever done any of the following?" 

  • Sought advice from a doctor.
  • Hired a lawyer to read a contract and recommend a course of action.
  • Hired an architect to draw up plans for a building, then had the building built as a separate project.
  • Had an accountant come into their business and audit their books.

If they've done any of the above, then discovery won't be a foreign concept to them, or even one they're uncomfortable with. For a variety of reasons, many business owners don't view creatives, copywriters, designers, or developers in the same way as the professions listed above. But the fact is we are professionals, with professional experience, charging professional rates--we just need to do a better job reminding them of that."

No other professional gives away their time like creative professionals. Just because everyone else is giving away their time doesn't mean you have to.

I interviewed Devon on the Working Without Pants Podcast specifically about this topic and Devon also put together a great article called How to explain paid discover to your web design prospects.

When to charge for discovery: 

Not every project is a right fit for a paid discovery process although here is a simple criteria that you can use to figure it out. 

You should charge for discovery when the projects scope is large and it will require more than 1-3 hours of conversation with clients or research time to get clear on the scope and deliverable

An example of a project where it makes sense to charge for discovery:

A prospect comes to you with an idea for a new website. The website will have user accounts, admin accounts and several features on the front end and backend. The prospect hasn't really thought through use cases, levels of admin and doesn't have a site map or any mockups built. 

All of these details lead to a very unclear scope that will take several hours to get clarity on. In this case you want to charge for discovery. 

When NOT to charge for discovery: 

If you try to charge for discovery when it isn't needed, then chances are you will get some push back from the prospect. Here is a simple criteria to decide when you shouldn't charge for discovery.

You should not charge for discovery when the project is small and the scope and deliverables are already clear to both parties. 

Example of a project where you wouldn't charge for discovery:

  • Small informational website builds
  • A project where the client comes to you with very detailed mockups and instructions on use cases and the different uses of the product. 

When a project is small, or the client has done most of the planning and research for you, that is when you don't want to charge for discovery. 


How to bring up the paid discovery conversation

Whenever I bring this up, people are always afraid of actually charging for the discovery process. They feel like the client may walk away when they ask to get paid up front.

The truth is that yes, some clients will not agree to this and walk away. That is a risk you must be willing to take.

But if the client's don't value your time for research and consulting, then they probably aren't clients that you want to work with anyway.

Here are a few tips on how to handle conversations about paid discovery

1. Explain that your time is valuable  

Explain to the prospect that this process will require 5-10 hours of your time to really dive in and get clear on the scope. This short paid discovery allows both parties to get the chance to work with each other without committing to a much larger project. 

Some clients will fight this, but others will like being able to test the waters with you before committing their full project budget.

2. Promise a deliverable. 

When you run a paid discovery process, don't just charge for your time and offer no deliverable. Instead offer some sort of strategy or approach document that outlines the findings you have made in the discovery process. 

A simple way to phrase this is "Even if you don't hire me after the discovery process, you can take this document to any other company and they can execute based not he research and approach outlined in this document."

When you offer a deliverable, it creates tangible value in the eyes of the client and eases their concerns about paying for discovery. 

3. Send them to this blog post. 

Seriously if they don't get why you are charging for paid discovery, then send them to this post and hopefully it will help clarify.


The bottom line

Your time is valuable so don't go giving away countless hours of your time for free. 

If you are going to do the hard work of getting clear on the projects scope, then charge for that time.

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