How Well Do Your Consultants and Customers Understand the Statement of Work?
Years ago, I was working as a senior consultant with a client on a contract to deploy custom-developed software in their test lab. The project was going well and running slightly ahead of schedule. Then the project manager had a sudden idea that we would be deploying to a previously unmentioned cluster environment. There were many challenges with this idea. First, we had not tested clustering in their lab. Like many clients, their production environment did not match the lab environment. Secondly, the proposed rollout day was the Friday before a three-day weekend. Finally, the Statement of Work did not say anything about a production deployment.
Consultants hear similar requests from clients regularly. “We’d like you to (do this thing you had not considered doing), on (a schedule you do not think is realistic)”. Clients don’t do this to be malicious or to be difficult. Many times they only have a vague sense of what is in the Statement of Work. After all, the Statement of Work is a contract. And contracts must be for attorneys, not project managers, and certainly not for technical staff.
Saying “no” to a client does not come quickly to professional services consultants. They share a strong need to serve others in a professional capacity, to make their clients happy, and want to work very hard for their customers. This leads to an unfortunate shared perception that it is better to over-extend oneself than to create conflict by gently refusing a customer’s request.
However, agreeing to unexpected requests from a client leads to scope creep. Depending on the complexity of the project, it can also introduce additional liabilities or risks for the professional services firm. There have been numerous articles, and a couple commercial training classes, on how to teach consultants to say some variant of “yes, but” when handling an unexpected request.
Saying “no” also assumes the consultant knows that the request is outside of the project scope.
In the past couple of years, I’ve started training consultants and subcontractors about the important things to look for in a Statement of Work. The training is not lengthy and requires minimal preparation for a professional services manager. However, although the concept is the same, contract language varies by firm. Therefore, it is not portable to other companies. Surprisingly, not all professional services managers do this for their teams.
The parts in a Statement of Work that are most useful for consultants to understand are:
- the planned activities and associated duration of those activities
- the project deliverables that will be left behind with the client
- exclusions to the project scope, whether explicit or phrased broadly
- changes to the project schedule
- acceptance terms
It takes about thirty minutes to cover those topics, including examples of the standard language and alternative text. For instance, if your firm uses a fifteen-day default acceptance clause, it is important for consultants to watch for required sign-off language in the Statement of Work.
The results to date are very positive, although limited to my professional services organization. This training is a quick win for a professional services organization. As an added benefit, your consultants might have useful feedback on your contract drafting standards or may propose additional exclusions. Finally, it’ll be far less likely that they will be unprepared for a last-minute request from the customer.