Project Management

How independent contractors can avoid getting burned by too many client revisions

Don't let multiple client revisions lead you to do unpaid work that's beyond the scope of your contract. Meredith Little offers tips on how to handle these client requests.

 When you're a contractor, client revisions and changes are among the most frustrating aspects of any project. Depending on the payment terms you've worked out, round after round of revisions can reduce your profit on that project to a fraction of what you expected.

However, you are contractually obligated to deliver what your clients want. Let's take a look at how to handle requests for revisions that are beyond the scope of your contract or — much worse — are incredibly time-consuming but not necessarily outside your contract.

What does the contract say?

One of the defining conditions of any independent contract project is that the client doesn't control how you perform the work, but instead, has the right to accept or reject the finished result. How clearly your contract defines that end result can make or break you as a contractor. But what do you do when the contract is already written and signed? When faced with a request for a revision that you think is unduly burdensome, first refer to your contract.

In-scope vs. out-of-scope

The most important clause in the case is the one defining the scope of work. The more detailed and precise you made this clause when you signed the contract, the more guidance you will have when dealing with revisions.

If the revision is clearly beyond the scope of the contract, you can offer to perform the additional work for additional compensation. If you find that the revision is clearly within the scope of the project — either because your work is deficient or because the scope wasn't clearly defined — you pretty much have to do the work or risk breaching the contract.

If the revision falls in a gray area, you'll have to weigh what doing the revision will cost you in terms of time and your payment terms and proceed from there. If you're paid by the hour, it may be no big deal. However, if you've bid on the project for a fixed fee, you may be less inclined to perform every change.

Types of revisions

It's important to point out that you should always expect some client revisions, and you should have factored that into your bid. The client has a right to receive the work they expected. Requesting one or two revisions is probably reasonable but six probably isn't.

If a change relates to the inherent quality of the work, you need to revise as often as necessary. For example, if a document is rife with typos and errors, you should fix them at no charge. On the other hand, if the client wants you to rewrite a document according to AP style instead of Chicago style, that's clearly out of scope unless the client specified AP style in the contract. Therefore, you may choose to seek extra compensation.

Changes to the software/hardware

A big factor in many IT projects is changes to the software or hardware that you are developing or deploying.

If you were hired to develop one platform for one site and the client now wishes to add a second site or an additional system or network to the plan, this is almost certainly beyond your contract. Again, when such disputes begin, line-item descriptions within a contract's or project's scope section are invaluable. When both parties can see such an addition wasn't part of the original plan, it's much easier to create an addendum that ensures you get paid properly for the extra work/equipment.

Offer to write up a contract extension

If the work is clearly out of the scope of the contract, you can say to your client, "No problem. I'll write up a contract addendum and cost proposal for your review." When the client realizes that the change is going to cost more money and take more time, they may decide they don't want it. Or, they may accept your offer and pay for your extra work.

Head 'em off at the pass

Let's say that you're faced with a scenario in which the contract is already written, and you realize that you're approaching a situation in which, contractually, you may be forced to do a lot of extra work for no extra money. You can try to prevent the situation by incorporating certain processes into your work now, before the fact. Or, if you're already in the midst of the situation, you can simply approach the client and attempt to appeal to their sense of fairness.

Start using status reports and a review process

Not running your work by the client until the very end of the project is a great way to set yourself up for endless revisions. At certain deliverable milestones, whether they're in the contract or not, apprise the key person on your project of your progress to date. Especially if your scope of work is not well defined, meet with all the key people on a regular basis and make sure everyone is in agreement about what's been done so far and where you're going from here. You cannot over-communicate.

You can also incorporate a review process into your work at any point. Reviews are a great way to get feedback on the project and written assurance that your work to date is satisfactory. At intervals or in sections, submit your work to the key person on your project and make sure that person signs off on it. You don't need a new contract for this — just a cover sheet that says something like "I have reviewed Jane Shane's work and found that it meets our goals for this phase of the project." It should have a space for the reviewer's signature and date.

Unless it's in your contract, this may not be legally binding. (Litigation should be a last resort anyway.) It won't necessarily avoid revisions later on down the road, but its strong evidence that the work was already accepted and approved to some degree. This can help you negotiate to either keep revisions to a minimum or to be paid for extensive revisions.

For both status reports and reviews, make sure you're dealing with the person or people who will be making the final decision on the project. It won't do you any good to have 25 signatures and enthusiastic reviews from folks who aren't ultimately in charge of approving or rejecting your work (or who are signing your checks or POs).

Attempt to reach a compromise solution

In a worst-case scenario, you may have to throw yourself upon the mercy of your client. If it's Month 10 of what you bid as a six-month project, you can attempt to renegotiate the contract, either reducing the scope of the work or increasing the compensation. (This is viable only if the delay is through no fault of your own — something other than poor project estimation skills.) Don't renegotiate to make a bundle — you'll have to accept some loss in this situation. And if that doesn't work, finish up as quickly as possible and make your contract more specific next time.

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