A statement of work (SOW) is an imperative starting point for a successful project or an ongoing client engagement. I write SOWs for pretty much any project that I start, even projects where I am the sole operating entity and the sole person who will benefit from what I’m doing! That’s how important I think it is. As freelancers, we know it’s key to manage client expectations, and that’s exactly what a good SOW does. It details exactly what a project covers and WHAT IT DOESN’T COVER to avoid scope creep (something we’ve ALL experienced).
Many freelancers hurry through the SOW to get it over to the client as quickly as possible. I recommend spending a few extra minutes thinking it through to make sure you’ve given the client what they’ve asked for, while also protecting yourself from small one-off requests that can add up to a substantial amount of time over the course of a project or engagement. Clarity is key in a good SOW, and as I stated above, I would highly recommend writing out not only what your SOW does cover, but explicitly what it does not.
While a good SOW should set project expectations in stone (or written document), it does not take away your flexibility. In fact, having everything set out clearly often makes the client realize that there is more value you could provide. If the client does want to engage you further, write up an addendum to the existing SOW or another one altogether. This may seem tedious, but I promise it will benefit you more than anyone else in the long run.
What your SOW should include
Here is what an SOW includes and what you should fill out with each and every project or engagement you work on, whether it’s something that can be done in a single morning, or something that will take a couple of weeks. The foundation of this is taken from Eric Verzuh’s Fast Forward MBA in Project Management book, and a few minor modifications have been added for efficiency and clarity.
Please keep in mind that certain freelance marketplaces, like Paro for example, may lay out their proposal requests in a different way (through a process on their website vs. sending an SOW through email), but you should still include all of these elements.
- General purpose statement. This is a brief summary of why you are doing what you are doing. The purpose of this project is to ____________ in order to
- List of major project activities. This is a bulleted or numbered list of the tasks that will be done to achieve the project and desired mission. Number these in chronological order, but the tasks do not need to be linear (and some may be dependent on the client getting you necessary information or data).
- List of what is NOT included as a project activity. This is where you list the tasks that don’t fit with this project. It can be great to refer back to this when a client makes an unreasonable request or one that just doesn’t fit within the scope.
- What the project will deliver when complete. What will the project achieve and deliver when it is finished? Be comprehensive and specific. If you’re working a longer term engagement, you should probably break this out into chunks of time or deliverables per month.
- The timeline and schedule. This is a breakdown of when each task should be completed and what it is contingent on. For example, if a task is contingent on someone providing me with key information, I include that. Otherwise, the client may assume that I should have completed the task regardless of having the correct information.
- Additional Notes. This is a great place to include anything that doesn’t fall into the bullets above but that is necessary for both parties to agree upon.
The look and feel of a great SOW
The SOW should be straightforward and easy to read. It shouldn’t have so much detail as to overwhelm the reader, but should give enough detail so both the client and freelancer feel they know exactly what is expected of them. I see it as more of a contract than a proposal.
Feel free to add your company logo, but keep the color scheme neutral. Focus on readability and content first. Different fonts and colors can distract from the message.
Again, many marketplaces may have the SOW process flow through their website, in which case you will not be creating it in a word document; so, if you’re part of a marketplace, just make sure you understand their process and follow it accordingly.
In summary, creating a great SOW should be standard practice for all freelancers. It will help manage client expectations, keep you focused and organized, and protect you from scope creep. If you’re new to freelancing or just want to refresh your SOW, you can download an example SOW and template here. I’d love to know what you think!
Faith Hutchinson has a passion for process improvement and enjoys stopping scope creep in its tracks. She’s a data analyst and data manager within the distribution realm and is excited to help small businesses in their analytics' needs. Her educational background is mathematics and operations management, but she likes to balance out analytical work with gardening & karaoke.