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I always loved making friends with other agency owners in my city. Anytime I would meet one at a networking event, I would set up a lunch to “talk shop.” It was an easy ask and an easy “yes” for them. After all, we were both part of an exclusive club that knows the ups and downs, stresses, and joys of running a creative business.

Immediate Change Orders: Like a Slap on the Wrist

During one of these lunches, my new agency owner friend and I got to talk about sending clients change orders. You know, the client asks for something outside of the agreed-upon scope, so you send a change order to increase the project price to accommodate the new request. It is standard practice in service-based businesses.

He told me his agency’s strategy for change orders, stating, “One of the first things we do on any new project is watch for an out-of-scope request and immediately send a change order. This sets the standard and lets the client know we aren’t going to budge on the scope without increasing the price.” This client conversation would go something like this:

Client: “We would like to make one last change to the design.”

“Ok. You’ve already made all the changes included in the project. We can make the extra change. Just approve this change order for $2,000.”

Client thinks and sometimes says: “This is what I hate about agencies. They give a project price and then change-order you to death, and the whole thing ends up costing twice as much as they quoted. Makes me so mad.”

The Ugly Change Order I Received

At the time of the conversation, I hadn’t sent many (if any) change orders to clients. But I had received an ugly one while I was a creative director at Fox.

We had a design vendor doing some work. The original price for the engagement was $30,000. I guess we had made requests that fell out of their assumed agreement (albeit a very loose agreement with a vague scope), and they dropped a surprise $20,000 change order on us.

As a young creative director, I just about whizzed my pants, unsure how to navigate the surprise. We paid the change order, but I hated the way it felt to get a surprise invoice that had never been discussed in advance. I vowed never to make my clients feel the way I did with that type of unwelcome surprise. Here is how that conversation goes:

Client: “Thanks for the final approval. We will send you the final files as soon as you pay the change order attached to this email.”

You, frustrated by the surprise: “What change order? You mean you are adding $20,000 to the price? What the Hel-vetica? Why didn’t you tell me our requests were going to cost extra?”

Client: “It is what it is. You owe us the money. We won’t send the files until you pay.”

I never used that agency again and never referred them to anyone. It wasn’t due to the amount of the change order or even that I disagreed with their claim that we made extra requests. My vow to not use them was merely because I hated the surprise. If your client is requesting something out of scope and you intend to charge them for it, tell them BEFORE you do the work and they incur the extra cost.

My Change Order Approach: Somewhere in Between

I didn’t want to be the “immediate change order” agency. That approach doesn’t align with one of my core values to be extremely accommodating to my clients’ requests with a no-drama, partnership approach. Neither did I want to be the “surprise change order” agency, irritating my clients with unwelcome budget increases with no advance warning. So I typically implemented a “somewhere in between” approach with a spoonful of sugar.

As long as the client’s extra request wasn’t too crazy (i.e., their request was something like an extra round of changes to a design and NOT adding a button to their website that launches a satellite into deep space), I would give them ONE FREE change along with a warning that the next one was going to cost them. Here is how that goes:

Client: “This looks good. We just have one final request. Could you _______________?”

You, with an accommodating approach: “Thanks for the request. Technically, this falls outside of our agreed-upon scope. However, the project has gone well and this won’t take too much time, so we are happy to do the request within the original project budget. But any additional requests after this one will be charged at $____ per hour.

Client thinks and sometimes says: “Thanks so much for doing the extra request within the original budget. We really appreciate you being so accommodating. I think that should be all the extra things we have.”

You just gave the client a spoonful of yummy sugar and a “change order warning.” They are grateful for you being accommodating, and you prepared them for future change orders without getting them frustrated about an immediate price increase.

I did this SO MANY times, and to be honest, it was very rare the client would ever make an additional request after the free one. It was also very common for my clients to come back with many more projects and referrals in the future.

This approach is kind of like a “shot over the bow” with a warning that the next shot would be into the side of their ship. And the client says, “Thank you for not just shooting us and sinking our ship immediately,” as they fall in line.

Michael Janda

I am Michael Janda, an executive level creative leader with more than 25 years of experience in both in-house creative departments and agencies working with some of the greatest brands in the world including Disney, Google, Fox, ABC and NBC. I create books, courses, workshops, lectures and other training materials to help creative entrepreneurs run successful businesses.