When you hear the word ghosted you might immediately think of dating. But ghosting can happen in business, too. One day everything is great with your client or prospective client, and then poof. They’re gone.
What should a freelancer do when a client ghosts on them? The answer depends on when exactly in the design process your client disappears. Either way, there are a few things you can do to rectify the situation.
When no work has been done…
The most common time for a freelancer to be ghosted is before the start of a project. You’ve talked with the prospective client, created a proposal, and it all seemed like it was going well.
But then you never hear back. You send a follow-up email after a few days or a week, but it’s radio silence. Maybe you send a second follow-up after that, but still nothing.
How long should you wait for a prospective client to get back to you after a proposal? In general, if you haven’t heard back within a week, and they don’t respond to your follow-up email or call, consider the client to be a loss.
The exception to this is if they’ve told you that their approval process can take some time. In that case, delay your follow-up email until after they’ve said they would get back to you. If you still don’t hear after a week or two, assume they’ve gone in a different direction.
When they ghost mid-project…
While most ghosting happens early on in the process, sometimes a client will ghost in the middle of a project. This can be particularly disheartening as a designer since you’ve already dedicated time, energy, and resources to the design.
So what should you do if you’ve sent off some mockups or an initial design concept and hear nothing back from the client?
If you don’t hear back after a few days or a week, it’s a good idea to send a follow-up message or call them to make sure they received the materials you sent. Sometimes things slip between the cracks and it’s an honest mistake when a client doesn’t get back to you.
To help prevent this type of scenario, lay out timelines for the delivery of materials and how long the client has to get back to you with any feedback. This sets clear expectations on the part of the client and hopefully, they’ll mark in their calendar when their due dates are.
If you still don’t hear back, it may be time to terminate the contract and send an invoice for any work done that isn’t covered by the deposit (you did get a deposit, right?). You should have language in your contract for how to do this and what kind of notice you or the client need to give in order to terminate the project. Follow it to the letter if you’ve given up on hearing back from them.
In some instances, just the notice that you’re going to terminate the contract can be enough to prompt action on the part of the client to get things rolling again. It’s up to you whether to continue with the project or move on at that point. Which you choose will likely depend on your relationship with the client and how large the project is. If you do decide to continue with the project, it’s a good idea to review deadlines and expectations again with the client.
When they ghost on an invoice…
You’ve finished the design, delivered it to the client, and sent the invoice. And then…crickets. The invoice due date passes with no payment. You send a follow-up invoice and still nothing from the client. You wonder if they hated the design, but from what you can tell it’s being used.
This is most designers’ worst nightmare. Being stiffed on an invoice can feel like a huge setback. Hopefully, there were payments made during the design process, so you aren’t out the full amount of the project. But that can still leave you with hundreds or thousands of dollars due (or more).
You have a few options when it comes to unpaid invoices and unresponsive clients. If the invoice amount was small, you may want to just set up recurring invoices to send every few weeks and hope they eventually get around to paying it. In all likelihood, they won’t, but it’s not always worth pursuing deadbeat clients if their balance due is only a couple or a few hundred dollars.
With larger unpaid bills, though, you’ll want to take more proactive steps to collect. A phone call to the client might get results, but it may take more than one call to get anywhere.
If that fails, I strongly urge contacting a lawyer, especially if the client you’re dealing with isn’t local. Sometimes just a letter from a lawyer is enough to get the client to pay up. If not, further legal action might be necessary. A lawyer can guide you through your options.
If your client is local, you may be able to take them to small claims court. In many jurisdictions, small claims court doesn’t require a lawyer and can be used for claims of under $5,000. This isn’t a great option, though, if your client isn’t in the same jurisdiction where you do business.
Collections agencies may also be an option depending on the size of the invoice, or if you have multiple invoices. Different collections companies have different criteria for taking on clients, so you may need to shop around to find one that fits your needs.
The sad fact is that if you work as a freelance designer for long enough, you’ll likely run into a client who ghosts you.
There are two key things you need to do in order to minimize the damage from a ghosting client. First, always have a contract. This should outline the work to be done, the deadlines for both parties, and the amount to be paid along with the terms in which it’s paid. While you can use a boilerplate contract, changing the specifics for each client, it’s a good idea to have a lawyer vet the template.
The second thing to do is always require a deposit upfront before you start work. Depending on the size of the project, the deposit might range from 25-50% of the total proposal. This way, if your client does ghost, you haven’t lost out on the full project fee.
Those two simple things make it less likely that your clients will ghost, and also help protect you in case they do. With any luck, this will be a rare occurrence in your work, but it’s better to be prepared than get caught off guard.
About the Author — Cameron Chapman: Editor. Blogger. Author. Designer. Copywriter. Marketer. Entrepreneur. Speaker. Consultant. Coach. I wear a lot of hats. What most of them have in common, though, is storytelling.