Turn a Profit This Time: Define The Scope of Work

Architects couldn’t live without it. The same goes for carpenters. So why do consultants and freelancers fail to define what they will be doing? Independents often end up making much less than they planned per hour because they work too much overtime on ill-defined projects.

Consulting work need not be nebulous if you define things up front. This isn’t harsh or demanding, it’s the way the world works. In fact, when you define the scope of a project, it can help everyone feel clear-headed about the agreement.

Your Parameters

From this day forward, you can set clear parameters by defining at least these basic parameters:

  • What are the deliverables?
  • How long will it take?
  • How much is your client prepared to invest in your services?

Watch the Risks

If you’re defining the scope prior to taking on a job, there are risks at both ends of the spectrum. Define the scope too broadly and you might not win the client’s business; define the scope too narrowly and you might end up putting in a lot of unpaid hours.

So how can a consultant accurately define the scope of any given consulting project? How do you avoid pricing yourself out of opportunities, while also avoid ending up working for minimum wage?

The Principles

Here are a few key principles that any consultant can use in defining the scope of a project:

  1. What is the “What?” Every consulting project needs to have a clear definition of the work product. Exactly what you will be doing. Be as specific as possible. If you’re a marketing consultant, don’t write a scope of work that says, “develop marketing materials.” Instead, drill down further into the exact details of what is going to be provided—piece by piece. Even if your services are limited to less “tangible” results, such as advisory work or idea generation, there should be a clear understanding of the number of billable hours included within the scope of work.
  2. Clarify roles and responsibilities. For each part of the project, be specific about dividing the responsibilities between the client and yourself or your team. If the client is going to implement your recommendations, make sure that this is noted in the scope of work. Or if you are going to have more of a hands-on role in executing the final stages of the project, make sure that this expectation is clearly noted.
  3. Time is of the essence. It might sound basic, but do you always include timelines for every consulting project? Describe deadlines and key milestones along the way so that everyone knows what is expected and when it will be done. Adjust the timeline accordingly if you have to wait for reviews or feedback. In other words, if you’re not the cause.
  4. How do we know when we’re “done?” The scope of work for a consulting project needs to include a definition of the deliverables or “success measures.” Whether it’s a new website, 10 completed training sessions, or a five-hour seminar for the senior leadership team, your scope of work needs to clearly explain when you’ve reached the goal.
  5. No surprises. Clients don’t like to be surprised when they receive their invoices from you. Make sure that your project scope takes into account any contingencies. If you’re billing on a fixed-price basis, make sure that you have budgeted enough payment from the client to cover your costs and time spent while still allowing for a reasonable profit. If you’re billing on a cost-plus basis, make sure your clients are fully in agreement and aware of the possible costs that they will ultimately have to pay for your services.

Using these key principles can help you craft more specific and a better-written scope of work. This should lead to smoother client relationships, increased profitability and hopefully, repeat contracts or great referrals.

What do you include in your scope of work? Comment below.


  1. Jason Hull says:

    One item to add is change management. We got caught up many times in the desire to make the customer happy, and when the customer would ask if we could just do one more thing, we’d do it and not renegotiate scope. As a result, we wound up doing a lot of unnecessarily free work for customers thinking that we couldn’t say “yes, we’d love to do X, but it will cost $Y more to do it.”


  1. […] Identify project scope. Everyone has heard (or experienced) scope creep. This happens when a project isn’t clearly defined and begins to take on more tasks that weren’t part of the original mission. It’s difficult to make a living as a consultant or freelancer when projects creep out of scope. (For more see this article on scope creep.) […]

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