Wondering how to approach scoping at your agency? It’s an important decision—especially around choosing which team members lead the custom scoping process. When the right people “own” scoping, you set the stage for smooth and profitable delivery—and when the wrong people are in charge, delivery’s likely to be late and unprofitable.
An agency leader asked me how to structure scoping at his multi-country agency, which focuses on custom web development and ongoing digital marketing within a specific niche:
“How should I approach building structure and process in my delivery teams, to help them scope and understand projects and deliverables better without making our process too templated? Every project is different; historically, we have over-templated our processes and struggled to adapt to more complex projects and clients.”
Once you’ve committed to the “custom vs. productized” decision, I recommend you focus on who leads the scoping process at your agency, since this impacts everything else.
Today, let’s review how to choose the right people and roles for custom scoping, along with which people shouldn’t own scoping. And beware: sometimes that “shouldn’t” person is you, especially if you’re the agency owner.
NOTE: This article focuses on scoping at agencies doing custom work that is priced on a milestone basis. If you do a more productized approach, scoping is less critical—because you’ll likely decline to accept work that’s out of scope.
Why is your custom scoping process important at agencies?
If your agency does custom work, you must get the custom scoping process right.
Why? You rely on a scoping process to understand the work you’re committing to do—which impacts both profit margins and client satisfaction. This is especially true if you do milestone (fixed-scope) pricing. But it’s also important when you do Agile hourly pricing, so that clients aren’t unhappy at the end of each sprint—or when they run out of budget before getting what they expected when they hired your agency.
I’ll share more about scoping in a future article—but today, let’s focus on finding the right person to overseeing the scoping process.
Qualifications: How to choose the right scoping owner(s)
Want to get it right at your agency? Here are qualities to look for in the person—or people—you put in charge of custom scoping:
- Understands the agency’s work: They need to understand the work you’re doing. They may not be a subject matter expert (SME) on every aspect of the work, but they need to know common obstacles and challenges. This is the core of the “Competence” portion of my “Desire, Competence, and Capacity” model.
- Integration-minded: They need to know the individual pieces—but they also need to think about the sum of the parts. This helps them consider precedents and other “conditionals” that impact how the work fits together.
- Detail-oriented: A big-picture person can potentially scope the high-level parts of an Agile engagement (to the extent that Agile involves “scoping”). But if you’re scoping a large project or retainer, find someone who’s good at managing details.
- Skeptical: Your ideal matches tends to be skeptical about everyone’s estimates. They’d rather over-estimate than under-estimate the work. (Sometimes you may need them to dial-back the estimate, if it seems grossly over-estimated.)
- Team-focused: Everyone at your agency should be comfortable working on a team—but it’s especially important for the person doing custom scoping. Why? Because they need to pull together inputs from your entire agency; it’s not a solo position.
- Has time to do scoping: Be sure you aren’t over-scheduling the custom scoping owner. Otherwise, you’ll delay the sales process unnecessarily—which might cost you opportunities or create delays in currently-running billable work. This is the “Capacity” portion of “Desire, Competence, and Capacity.”
- Wants to do scoping: Even if everything else aligns, they still need to want to do this. If they don’t like scoping—including working with the internal team and external clients—they aren’t a good fit. This is the “Desire” portion of “Desire, Competence, and Capacity.”
Are there roles that typically lead custom scoping at agencies? Yes; read on.
Benchmarking by agency type: Which roles typically lead custom scoping?
What’s “normal” when it comes to assigning people to create custom scopes? The answer varies by agency type, since the nature of your work drives who’s a suitable match. Here are norms across five agency types.
- Development-oriented agencies: Project managers (PMs) tend to own creating scope. That’s because they have a mix of technical and integration skills; they understand [enough] about the individual pieces to consider how it all fits together. At larger dev shops, a technical lead, systems architect, or CTO might lead custom scoping.
- Marketing-oriented agencies: Project managers usually own creating scope—but sometimes it’s an Account Manager (AM) or a strategist. If you have AMs or strategists in charge of scoping, be sure someone more skeptical (like a PM) is doing a double-check before your plans go to clients. Why? Because non-PMs are often overly optimistic.
- Creative-oriented agencies: Producers tend to own the scope-creation process at creative agencies. That’s because they form a natural bridge between the client and internal teams. At some creative agencies, producers have a “project manager” title—or scoping might be handled by a creative services manager.
- PR-oriented agencies: For better or for worse, PR agencies tend to have people do a bit of everything. An accounts person (e.g., Account Manager, Account Supervisor, or Account Director) is usually juggling account management, project management, and their subject matter expert work. If you don’t have a dedicated PM, I recommend assigning your most detail-oriented accounts person to lead custom scoping.
- Optimization-focused agencies: If you’re doing conversion rate optimization (CRO) or other analytical work, the scope-creation owner is typically an analyst or other subject matter expert (SME). They understand the work, but may struggle to integrate work inputs from other team members.
Are there some agency roles that should not own scoping? Absolutely; read on.
Beware: Some roles should NOT do custom scoping
Don’t put an overly-optimistic person in charge of your agency’s custom scoping process—they’ll tend to under-estimate the work involved, which means you’ll constantly go over budget, which creates all kinds of financial and PM and AM headaches. For example, these roles are often risky choices:
- Salespeople (nearly always): I don’t recommend letting salespeople “own” the scoping process. Even if they mean well, they have too much incentive to close the deal… regardless of whether the scope makes sense. This often translates to under-pricing and/or over-promising. They also don’t always fully understand the work—that is, they “know enough” to sell it, but not enough to fully evaluate all the moving parts. The exception? When you’re selling Paid Discovery or other productized services; in that case, there tend to be sales “guard rails” around over-promising.
- Account Managers (sometimes): If an account manager isn’t detail-oriented, I wouldn’t put them in charge of creating a detailed custom scope. But since they tend to be enthusiastic and relationship-oriented, your AM is likely a good person to present the scope to your clients.
- The owner (often): If you’ve ever thought, “We’ll should do this client work at break-even because we need the money for payroll,” don’t put yourself in charge of scoping. If delegation isn’t an option, at least talk through scopes with someone more skeptical before you ship them to the client.
If one of those roles sounds like you, take scoping off your plate ASAP—otherwise, you’re making life harder for yourself and your team.
What can you do to “operationalize” creating (or improving) your scoping process? Read on.
How can we create a more-profitable custom scoping process?
Remember—if your agency is doing custom work, you’ll want to ensure the process owner has the Desire, Competence, and Capacity to do the work. Likewise, they should tend toward skepticism. Otherwise, you’re likely to win the deal… and then get burned on gross profit margins.
Here’s where I recommend starting your scoping process overhaul:
- Identify 2-3 past client engagements that are representative of the future work you’d like to do. Your goal is to find recent samples that can help you predict how they might unfold in the future. For example, that might be a similar project or a similar retainer, even if the exact details are unique.
- Debrief on your current custom scoping process. That is: what’s working, what’s not working, and what should you do differently? Be sure to include people impacting by scoping—including your salespeople and your delivery team.
- Create or expand your library of estimates. I worked as a PM at two custom-oriented agencies. At one, we had an internal “library” of estimates—for example, a homepage assumed X hours for design, Y hours for back-end dev, and Z hours for front-end dev. As the PM, I’d use that as a starting point—and then pull-in technical experts for “sales engineering” support. This took time—but we were creating six-figure custom scopes, so it was worth it.
- Create time-tracking categories to encourage good scoping. You want to create incentives for team members to spend enough time on custom scoping. If you’re scoping work for an existing client, you might track scoping (billably) to Project Management. If you’re scoping a prospective client, create a business-building (high-value non-billable) category for “Sales Support” or similar.
- Free-up space in the scope owner’s schedule. If you assign someone to create a custom scope but they’re over-booked with other work, something’s going to slip. We all have time crunches… but there’s a crunch every time you need their scoping help, you’re creating a vicious cycle.
Question: What’s your next step to improve the custom scoping process at your agency?