Know Your SOW: What it is, how to craft it – and how to enforce it

business clients freelance writing scope of work sow Aug 31, 2021

Over the course of my freelance career, I occasionally became embroiled in situations where the client did not want to adhere to the SOW we mutually agreed on in the contract, thereby making life miserable for all concerned.

What is a SOW, you ask? Great question.

SOW stands for “Scope of Work.” A poorly defined SOW can make or break a client relationship. A poorly defined SOW can allow clients to take advantage of you. A poorly designed SOW can spark feelings of resentment in you towards a client. So, today we’re going to discuss how to craft a SOW that works for you.

But even if you draft an ironclad SOW, it’s a useless document if you don’t enforce it. Today I’m going to share some strategies for tactfully getting clients to adhere to the bounds of the scope of work.

This is No Time for People-Pleasing

Many of us went into nursing because we love helping people. I know I do. I freely share nursing advice with people who ask me, and, of course, I’m sharing my freelancing knowledge with you all because I’m passionate about helping you use your nursing skills in a new way as a freelance writer.

But there’s a difference between ‘helping’ and ‘people-pleasing.’

People-pleasers tend to have difficulty setting and enforcing boundaries. People-pleasers frequently let others walk all over them (often while grousing about it under their breath). As a business owner, you need to learn how to help clients without necessarily being a people-pleaser. It’s a delicate balance, and it’s where the SOW comes in.

What is a ‘Scope of Work’ Statement?

Simply stated, the SOW defines in detail the services you will provide to the client. Here’s a great analogy…

As a nurse, your professional practice is bound by a formal Scope of Practice (SOP) document set forth by your state Board of Nursing. In my state, for example, during the years I was practicing the SOP barred nurses from administering ketamine drips. Therefore, if a physician asked me to administer a ketamine drip, I could point to the SOP and say no, it’s outside my scope of practice.

In freelance writing, the SOW performs a similar function. It places boundaries on what you will (and will not) be doing for the client. It sounds straightforward – and in a certain way, it is – but a million little nuances can come into play on any given project. That’s why it pays to be as detailed as possible when crafting the SOW for any assignment.

The Elements of a SOW

At a bare minimum, the SOW should include:

  • Description of the deliverable (e.g.: white paper, blog post, article, etc.)
  • Number of each asset to be delivered (e.g.: “one white paper,” “10 blog posts,” etc.)
  • Length of the deliverable (word count or other measure)
  • Sourcing requirements
  • Deadline
  • Number of revisions
  • Timeline for revisions
  • Submission method (e.g.: email a Word document, create in Google Docs, submit through Basecamp, etc.)
  • Number and format of client meetings/consultations (e.g.: phone calls, Zoom meetings, etc.)
  • Point of contact on client side

The precise elements of a SOW will vary depending on the type of asset you’re producing and your client relationship. For example, the SOW for a monthly retainer project that’s ongoing may cover multiple discrete elements, such as defining the word count for a blog post as well as the word count for social media posts. Or maybe you’ll have different deadlines for different deliverables. ALL of this information should be captured in a SOW clause in the contract, contract addendum, separate signed document, or, at a bare minimum, email exchange.

What Format is Appropriate for a SOW?

In many cases, the SOW is presented as a clause within a contract extended to you by the client or as an ‘appendix’ document: Exhibit A, as it were. What I’ve noticed, however, is that these Exhibit As tend to be highly non-specific, which benefits the client. These appendices tend to say things like, “Writer will produce blog posts each month, per schedule.” That’s not advantageous to you.

But the good news is you don’t have to try to renegotiate the entire contract – or even the exhibit in question – if this is the case. You also can rely on email exchanges to outline the SOW, and these are usually considered equally legally binding (if it ever came to that).

If an assigning editor or client approaches you by email with a project after you’ve signed the contract, feel free to outline all the SOW elements in a return email “just to make sure we’re on the same page.” Boom, done!

How to Enforce the SOW

No scope of work document is worth a hoot if you allow clients to abandon it at will. The SOW should protect you from that sort of behavior, in fact. This means you will occasionally have to take a deep breath and communicate to the client that their requests/demands lie outside the scope of work. Here’s what I do.

I generally tried to accommodate minor client requests that fall outside the SOW. I considered this to be good customer service. Only you can define what “good customer service” means to you. Personally, I liked a saying my late husband always employed: “The customer isn’t always right, but they are always the customer.” I used this as a guideline for communicating professionally and rising above any “right-fighting.”

If a client begins to stray far outside the SOW, I addressed it as quickly as I noticed it. Usually I sent a brief but polite email with a message along the lines of, “I hear what you’re saying and can understand why you want to do that, but I do want to point out this request is outside the agreed-upon scope of work. How do you suggest we resolve that?” Putting the responsibility onto the client’s shoulders helps them feel empowered to negotiate a solution to the problem. In my experience, this step often becomes the only one necessary to resolve SOW issues.

Occasionally, however, I had that client who either didn’t understand the SOW or didn’t want to understand it or simply didn’t want to adhere to it after they’d agreed to it. They just wanted what they wanted, and they figured they were paying me to do what they wanted.

Au contraire, mon frère.

I would point to the SOW in client communications as often as necessary to rein in a project. Once, I dealt with a client who assigned a “1,000-word” article, but it became clear very quickly what they really expected was for me to write an article twice as long that they could then edit down to 1,000 words. I politely declined and pointed to the SOW. I said I was commissioned to write a 1,000-word article, and that’s exactly what I turned in. The client was not happy and never worked with me again – and that was fine by me, because I didn’t want the headache of dealing with their unreasonable demands.

This story illustrates why you need the most ironclad SOW you can craft. It will save you from clients like that one, who try to take advantage of you. Thankfully, these situations are few and far between. But a great SOW document will be your lifesaver on the rare occasion a circumstance like this arises.

And that, my friends, is my insanely long dissertation on scope of work. Questions? Hit me in the comments!

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