what are my obligations to a client when a project drags on?

A reader asks:

What are a consultant’s obligations to a client whose project timeline is just dragging on indefinitely? I have a client who expected work to be completed over a short amount of time (about 6 weeks). I was paid a lump sum for the project as detailed in the original scope of work. After the first part of the work was completed, my entire scope of work changed based on new information. More work than I anticipated but OK, fine. I’ve completed most of my deliverables under the new scope, many of which are dependent on another partner doing some work on their end. Also not a problem, in theory.

However, things are going much slower than anticipated, and as a result, there are some outstanding things on my end that just can’t be done at this stage. Further complicating matters is that I’m consulting for an organization hired to complete this project for the main client. I don’t think the main client even realizes that I was paid a fixed amount for a set body of work and that I am not on retainer or otherwise endlessly available based on their changing timelines and needs. My other work will pick up substantially soon, and this project will have significantly exceeded the agreed-upon timeline and the compensation.

What are my obligations in, say, a month or two from now? Six months from now? I took a slightly lower rate for this project based on the nature of the organization and the work, but it will become a significant opportunity cost for me to continue providing support on such an undefined, indefinite basis because I am billing other work at a substantially higher rate, when means I am losing money on this work the longer it drags on. Would it be appropriate to renegotiate at any point based on this new timeline and the fact that the entire original scope of work changed? Is it appropriate to say I’m no longer available after X amount of time after the official start of the project?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 15 comments… read them below }

  1. FG*

    Oh yeah, definitely should have renegotiated when they changed scope. And lesson learned: Never agree to lump sum because projects / timelines ALWAYS change.

    Now? Alison’s language is good. Talk to the company you’re subbing for, not the client. You will probably get pushback, but stand firm. They’ve already taken advantage of you; don’t let them take more.

    1. Koalafied*

      I prefer to charge by the piece as a freelancer because it gives me the ability to earn more by becoming more efficient and fitting more work into a day, whereas I can’t put more hours in a day so if I get more efficient I have to raise my rates to realize the additional earning potential. But a “piece” is always very clearly defined. I won’t run your marketing campaign for $X; I will draft a creative brief for $X, and produce X pieces of content for your campaign at a rate of $Y/piece, with 2 rounds of revisions included for each piece and additional rounds at $Z/round/piece. Additional pieces can be added on at some discount of $Y/piece. And I’ll make myself available for meetings up to 60 minutes/week for the 4-week duration of the campaign gratis, additional time billed at $100/hour…and so on. They get an itemized invoice with each deliverable entailed in the project, including a line with $0 for the gratis time included in the contract.

  2. Nanani*

    Adding to the advice – It might be that someone involved in decision making does not realise you are an outside contractor at all. Maybe internal management at the client changed hands or something and they lost track of the fact that you’re not an employee. Maybe a lot of things.

    Remind them! It is not just appropriate but necessary.

  3. Sloan Kittering*

    I will only add, sometimes we can’t make our goal that everybody is happy. If your client is currently receiving a lot of work for free, and you have to tell them you can’t keep doing that, they may be a little annoyed because the old plan worked for them. That’s not really your problem and they’re wrong, but this is very delicate for contractors whose future work depends on goodwill. So don’t consider it a “failure” if they were disappointed or even upset, consider it a success if you are no longer doing work for free.

  4. lost academic*

    Exactly the kind of situation that we use in project management training in my consulting firms for understanding how to address this at the proposal stage and how and when to have that conversation with the client even if you didn’t. Remember too that your point of contact may not be in charge or even aware of the costs and what is and isn’t included, so your discussion may need to widen to the pertinent people.

    I hate lump sum on smaller projects – it is much harder and I’ve never had one that wasn’t stressful because we chose that option. T&M and a lot of communication. Actually, I think I just generally hate lump sum.

    1. Nanani*

      ^This so much

      With the lump sum already paid, there isn’t the regular flow of invoices and such to remind people that they are still paying for LW.

  5. anone*

    Things I do as a consultant:
    1) When the scope of work (timeline, budget, or deliverables) changes substantially, I renegotiate the contract right then and there to reflect the changes. I have a clause in my contracts that we can do amendments by email, don’t need to re-process paperwork, but it needs to be in writing, not verbal, and spell out the implications, so that it’s very explicit what has happened and what the new relationship is.
    2) I also have a clause in my contracts that specifies that completion of my work is contingent on be given timely access to whatever it is the client has that I need to hold up my end. If they blow the timeline, I’m not responsible for that.
    3) Project end-date is in the contract as part of the scope.
    4) Early exit clause. Either party can simply terminate the project at any time, without reason, with 2 weeks notice, and I bill for work completed and return all the materials and in-progress deliverables (the amount of notice time can depend on what makes sense in the overall timeline of the project–e.g., weeks-long projects versus multi-year projects).

    In practice, I’m quite generous and flexible on this for most clients and work with them as long as they’re trying to work with me. But as a consultant, it’s my responsibility/obligation to communicate and manage my boundaries. Many clients are wrapped up in their own organization and work and some have no idea what it’s like to be a consultant and juggling multiple projects across multiple organizations, so they don’t always realize how their actions can impact me. I don’t get mad about it (it’s not their job to know my job–that’s why they hired me!), but that’s why I use contracts as a tool to make expectations and mutual responsibilities very clear and explicit, and I make sure to represent my requirements while also meeting theirs. When you work for yourself, you are boss *and* employee–it’s your job to look out for your own interests while also helping your clients. Be the boss you want to have as well as the consultant your clients will appreciate (and a lot of clients appreciate working with someone who is clear and communicates things before they hit a crisis point!).

    1. AnotherSarah*

      #2 seems really important here. I’ve had projects where the work I still needed to do wasn’t out of the scope, but I didn’t get something from the client back in a timely fashion.

      1. anone*

        #2 is one I learned from a mentor and directly copied from the contracts he uses. I remember it being a total lightbulb moment when I saw it. Fortunately so far I’ve never had a project where it became an issue (I mean, several projects where things were delayed on the client’s end, but they always acknowledged and took responsibility for it), but I always feel better knowing that we’ve spelled it out. When clients prefer to use their boilerplate contract rather than mine, I always amend this in. I will say, it probably isn’t as robust as it could be since “timely” is up for interpretation, but it’s hard to be more specific than that since it’s very contextual. But anything egregious (like sending me materials *after* the deliverable deadline) would be obvious.

  6. Purely Allegorical*

    Consider adding a clause that states that if the timeline for the work exceeds the agreed-upon endpoint, you have a have a per hour/per day/per week/whatever makes sense for you fee that kicks in.

  7. DrSalty*

    Just to add – I work at an agency doing project-based work with clients and we submit revised SOWs all the time when the client decides they want something different outside the original agreement. It’s very common and super reasonable!

    1. Napster*

      What DrSalty said. The reason for a SOW is to keep everyone on the same page regarding deliverables, timeline, and budget. If any of these change appreciably, that should trigger a revised SOW. (Even if it’s not a big change, document it in an email at minimum.)

  8. Katie*

    I have been taught to say, ‘We will be happy to do this new work. However, we need to discuss the new level of effort and work with XYZ to update the contract ‘

  9. Gumby*

    I am reminded of a popular quote: There is no such thing as scope creep, only scope gallop.

    But yes, I agree with everyone else – if your scope is well-defined at the start, any changes need to be documented and any significant changes need to trigger a re-evaluation of the cost. And, frankly, so very many bright ideas and wouldn’t it be great ifs evaporate magically when they are greeted with a polite “what an excellent idea. That is beyond the currently contracted scope and based on the initial description that seems like it might be in the $X to $Y range. Though, of course, those are preliminary numbers and I can’t commit to them without doing a more detailed analysis to find out what exactly would be required.”

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