What to Do When a Client Disappears in the Middle of a Project

clientNo matter how hard you might try, as a business owner you’ll invariably come across a problem client who seems great in the beginning, and then somewhere in the middle things start to fall apart.

This MIA client will seem nearly ideal in the beginning, but as things go on you’re more and more skeptical about things turning out smoothly.

What do you in this situation? Can it be salvaged without losing a lot of money? It’s important to have good processes in place to avoid getting burned, but in the event you haven’t implemented those yet, there are still steps you can take.

Here’s what to do when a client disappears in the middle of your work, and how to avoid this situation in the future.

1. Don’t Ignore the Red Flags

It might sound like a no-brainer, but the best thing you can do to avoid a problem client is to pay attention to any red flags. These warning signs can save you tons of headache down the road, so it’s important to not ignore them.

The whole point of being the boss and running your own business is to have the freedom to work with amazing clients, who mesh well with your brand, while giving you control of your daily schedule. Don’t give in to the demands of those clients, otherwise you’ll be slipping back into that employee mindset. You’re the boss now!

In order to identity red flags in any client relationship, here are the top three major warning signs:

Slow on payment. In the beginning stages of signing the contract and collecting pre-payment a client should generally be pretty quick about knocking both of these off the list. If they are slow to pay you now, you can be sure they will be slow to pay you once the project is complete. In fact, they may not even send the final payment, so it might be best to pass on this project altogether.

Need a quick turnaround. If a client has a crazy time constraint and needs something done as soon as possible, you should expect extra payment for your fast turnaround. But if they want it cheap and quick, this is a big red flag. If they haggle on both the timeline and price of the product, you should consider moving on. You don’t want to sacrifice the quality of your work for some cheap cash.

Ignore your personal “space”. If your client requires you to respond to emails at all hours of the day, night and on weekends (after you’ve clearly stated your office hours) this is a very bad sign of the things to come. Essentially they don’t respect you as a business owner and creator. They only care about their needs and what they want.

2. Send Reminders and Follow Up

Sometimes clients just get busy and emails fall through the cracks (I’ve been guilty of this myself). So it’s a good idea to send one or two friendly reminder emails, spaced out over a few days, to remind the client that you’re serious about the job and haven’t forgotten them.

If they don’t respond after those first reminders, it’s still important to keep following up. Make your emails short and to-the-point, while asking them to reply with a quick note letting you know if they need to extend the timeline.

Once you’ve exhausted the reminders and updates via Skype, emails, and text messages, your last-ditch effort can be made via snail mail. Send a note to their physical mailing address stating that you’ve tried to contact them using other methods without success.

And if they want to continue working with you then they need to contact you ASAP. Otherwise they forfeit the deposit and the contract will be considered void. Make sure you keep copies of all your correspondence with the client, in case they come out of the woodwork with all sorts of demands.

3. Evaluate Then Move On

After you’ve given adequate time and energy to step #2, it’s time to move on. Don’t give this client any more headspace, it’s time to cut your losses and move on. But don’t just disregard the whole situation as a loss, use it as a lesson for future client relationships.

How could you make the process easier? What could you implement for better communication? Do you need to get their personal phone number up-front? Do you need to update your policies and contracts to state that you require a deposit or 50% payment in advance?

Take what you’ve learned in this situation and leverage it for future projects. And don’t take it personally. Lord knows why they flaked in the middle of the work, so don’t stress about it. Evaluate the issue and then move on. Don’t give it another thought!

4. Protect Your Cash Flow

In order to protect your cash flow, you might need to revamp your agreements and contracts. If you don’t charge a deposit or require some sort of pre-payment, now’s the time to implement that. You also need to establish clearly defined deadlines, expectations for each party, and any specific actions that need to be taken.

I know one business owner who implemented a “Client Obligation” clause that states if the client fails to respond to emails or requests in a timely manner (as detailed in the contract), they must pay a re-installment fee to continue moving forward on the project.

This is a big deterrent for clients who constantly waver on jobs, and helps weed out the clients with too many red flags. The main point here when protecting your cash flow is to clearly state all the details, and be firm with your policies.

How to Handle a Client Disappearing

If you’re dealing with a tough client situation, take time to evaluate the pros and cons. Are there red flags that keep popping up that you ignored? Is the possible stress of the situation worth moving forward, or is it time to move on?

Remember that losing a client or losing out on some income doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Just learn from the experience and move one. Besides, now you have time to look for the next big thing!

About Carrie Smith

Carrie Smith is a financial artist and founder of The Client Connection, a matchmaking service for clients and freelancers who want to avoid job boards and instead build quality businesses. In 2013 she quit her full-time accounting job and now works as a full-time business consultant and writer. Find her on Twitter (@carefulcents).

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Hello Carrie, thanks for the great advice. The “red flag” point about slow payment is especially true, I have seen that many times!

Web Design Fife

Hi Carrie, this post has came along at the, rather spookily, right time! I have 2 ‘clients’ at the moment who, after providing them with the 1st draft of their website – have disappeared & refuse to get in touch with me.

The problem is I never got the 50% deposit I normally ask for! Usually I require 50% up-front & the balance on completion OR after 3 weeks since I started their project.

Lesson learned!!! 🙁

Many years in this biz...

Obviously, being able to clearly identify the red flags is important. But sometimes you can’t…

In these cases, when the client really goes MIA, and is unresponsive… you need to give it time, but cash flow is critical to a service business. Pause the project and move on to the next one! In the case of “force majure” picking up where you left off is reasonable.

A couple of additional points:
1. Get paid upfront, never in arrears. Whether you break that into milestones or not is up to you. Your capabilities, experience, and references are what they hire you for. Getting paid in arrears keeps you chasing… well… your rear.

2. I urge you to consider adding a “kill fee” to your simple services agreement, with two circumstances. If you have not completed the work, put the fee at 30% of the remaining project fee. If you have already completed the work, charge this fee above and beyond the remaining balance. This is high enough to mitigate the risk on both sides. If the client does not respond after 30 days. Kill it.

3. Find a local attorney that is willing to handle “collections” after a certain time period. Most will charge a flat fee (ie: $150) or some percentage of the collected amount. This has worked wonders in collecting payments from clients that take a bad turn.

Ewald Horn

These are very important lessons indeed! I sure wish I had learned them by reading a blog post instead of the hard way.

My point of view these days is quite simple: If the client is slow to pay, especially in the beginning around the deposit, I take it as a sign that they are either not serious about the project or can’t actually afford it. Either way, it’s a complete waste of time for me to continue with the project. My current contracts state clearly that work will not commence until the agreed-upon deposit has been received, and any invoice outstanding for more than 14 days will also halt the process.

It might seem harsh, but the reality is that the deposit rarely covers more than two weeks’ worth of work, and there is nothing to be gained from trying to be a “nice guy”. As long as you do not jump these conditions on the client, but rather explain it up-front, there shouldn’t be a problem. The ones that take offense and go another direction, well, chances are you’ve just saved yourself heaps of trouble without even knowing it.

Thank you for another great article with valuable advice!

Carrie Smith

So glad this post came at the right time for you Web Design Fife! This is a tough situation to be in, with even tougher lessons, but thankfully we all get through it. Good luck in your business!

You make an excellent point Ewald Horn. Being the nice guy in business rarely pays off and it’s important to stick to your guns if you want to be successful. I’m thankful you found this article helpful! Cheers.

Edwin James Lynch

I split my fee into 3 (40% deposit, 30% when client has seen draft, 30% on completion – whereupon I add a site to Analytics and let Google know it exists). I used to do 50/50 but sometimes waited months for that final 50%. Also, I try to show the client a design to see what their comeback is. I did this once for a client who suddenly became my boss, insisting on a million changes to the design. I passed on the client, suddenly becoming “too busy” 😉 – sometimes doing a little something for free (say, doing a jpg / photshop mockup) reveals more about your potential client and how they might be like to work with – before money changes hands. It also shows your commitment – which puts you ahead of the pack. Something we freelancers forget. It’s not all about us y’know ;p

Ollie hong kong

I oftentimes think that poor client responsiveness may be the fault of the vendor who passes on even rudimentary project timeline planning, to set expectations.


Problem is, there seems to be a lot of clients like this. Is there some handbook out there we as designers and developers or business owners are missing? Something that’s telling these clients the opposite of how our business typically works. It’s baffling.

Carrie Smith

I really like your pricing strategy Edwin! That’s something I might have to work into my contracts going forward. It’s tough to focus on the client and remember their needs, but that’s the life of a business owner!


I added a clause to my client contracts stating that projects will be moved to the end of my queue if the client fails to respond or fails to provide what I need to complete the work. I do a 50% deposit to put them on the schedule (they have 10 days to pay once they accept a proposal) and 50% due BEFORE the project is handed over, within 10 days of final signoff. Those things have helped cut down on the number of clients who disappear tremendously, but it’s still a concern – some people seem great until the work actually gets started.

Joe Hughes

Great to read this and realize I’m not the only one who has disappearing clients! I get 50% up front and it’s still amazing to me that people just disappear and don’t care about the money and time they’ve already invested. I have a clause in my contract that states that I will reply to them within 24 hours and they will reply to me within 48 hours. This helps to set expectations, but in the case when someone still does not reply, I eventually drop them and point them somewhere else where they can finish their project. Stop-and-start clients are just too stressful and not worth the headspace.

Steve Okello

This has helped. I have been a victims several times and won’t fall into such traps again.

Steve Okello

Good riddance to disappearing clients having read this masterpiece

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