When Clients Disappear: How To Give Your Business A Proper “Clearing”

During the Christmas holiday season, perennial story characters such as The Ghost Of Christmas Past are dusted off, receiving a breath of new life. Just about everyone remembers The Ghost Of Christmas Past from the story A Christmas Carol. But, what if you’re the hero in a story where your client has disappeared?

Disappearing Ghostly Shutterstock 12.07.14Earlier this month, I wrote a post about the disappearing client, and how they strangle-hold your productivity. I explained why it might be a great idea to fire this type of client, but there are lots of considerations to weight out before you end this mysterious relationship.

Before you banish them out of your professional life forevermore, you’ll need to make sure that you’ve done everything in your power to engage in contact with them. You’ll also need to ensure that you’ve protected yourself legally, and financially. Then, you’ll need to make sure that you perform the “clearing” under the best circumstances possible. After all, the last thing you’d want is for a bad “clearing” to come back to haunt you!

Learn how to gain clarity and protect yourself from ghost clients to begin with!

Why Do Clients Disappear?

It’s hard not to take things personally when the source of your revenue suddenly disappears into thin air, without a word. And, depending upon the point that they vanish, you might find that a lot of hard work and energy was lost. Let’s face it: the enemy of creative professionals is the lack of acknowledgment and appreciation. You want your clients to fall in love with your products and services, especially when the work is an organic extension of who you are!

Having said this, your client might genuinely be in love with your proposal or your work in-progress. But, due to poor planning, they might have run out of funds to begin or complete the project. Rather than looking like a low-rung loser in your eyes, they’d rather place themselves inside a self-imposed witness protection program. As you might imagine, there’s nothing that you can do to rectify a client’s poor cash flow.

It’s often common for clients to disappear because they’ve developed cold-feet about the project. While your client might fully understand why they need to fund a project, they might be deathly afraid of giving the go-ahead. If they’re just starting their business venture, then authorizing a project means that they’re placing serious intent into their venture.

Instead of boldly moving forward, the client might formulate a million doubts about things that could go wrong-while they’re in fear mode, they imagine scenarios such as losing all of their money. And, the last thing that anyone wants to do if they fear losing money is spending money. Some potential clients simply lack vision for how much value your product provides their business venture in the long-term, so they see no immediate reason for spending their money on your services.

Then, there could always be the chance that you were out-bid. Although it would be courteous for a prospect to inform you that they no longer need your services, this is often the exception instead of the rule. There are always those clients who simply don’t respect you as a valued business partner or collaborator. Finally, your potential (or current) client’s priorities might have changed. The same patterns in the dating world often apply in the business realm.

Again, it would be courteous for your client to inform you that they can’t or won’t move forward with you, but they often won’t. This means that you’ll be faced with a few options. One option is to curse the day that you decided to hang your shingle and investigate another line of work. Assuming that you’re not a quitter, you could take a proactive approach and investigate the whereabouts of your client. Depending upon the point that they left your radar, you should take the following approaches:

When The Project Hasn’t Begun

Your client might disappear during the point before you send the final contract, but after you’ve exchanged a few emails and have spoken on the phone (or via video chat). Since you haven’t exchanged funds yet, there isn’t much for you to do except to initiate contact a couple more times, then end further communication.

Here’s a tip: It’s recommended for you to place “closing file” in the subject line of your final email. The reason boils down to human nature-no one wants to be rejected, and just about everyone hates the feeling of being “in trouble”. When you inform the client that you’ll be closing their file if you fail to hear from them again, then they’ll probably start treating your messages with priority.

But, what if you’ve been in the thick of working on the client’s project, and you need to communicate with them in order to gain their approval for the next phase of the project? What if the retainer or the deposit they’ve paid has been exhausted, and you need more funds to in order to continue? You or your team might find yourself in a holding-pattern because the client has vanished, but you can still move forward.

You can either attempt to re-establish communication with your client, or you can properly and ethically end the relationship by doing the following:

Determine Your Contact Strategy

Clearly, you’ve got other things to do (like finding new clients) besides using all of your billable time chasing down clients who might not want to be found. Therefore, determine the number of contact emails you intend on sending-two is usually a good number, but you could send three emails for good measure. Creating a contact strategy helps you to establish boundaries, preventing you from wasting time on a client who has moved on or doesn’t want to move forward.

A contact strategy also saves your rear, both legally and financially. If the client threatens to take legal action against you for failing to complete their project after they’ve paid you for services, then your correspondence will serve as legal documentation that you’ve made every attempt to ethically engage them, to no avail.

Place A Deadline On Your Final Correspondence

Again, you don’t want for this go on forever! For your own productivity and sanity, it’s best to enforce a deadline for when you’ll no longer attempt to contact the client. State your final contact deadline in the body of all of your correspondence. Also, state a date for when the project will be considered officially abandoned, when you’ll enforce any applicable kill-fees, when any pre-paid deposits will be considered non-refundable, etc.

Here’s another tip: Be sure to spell out your fee schedules, your non-refund terms, and your kill-fees within your original proposal/contract. Refer to these terms as you attempt to reach your client.

Finally, state in your closing communication whether or not you’re willing to apply any pre-paid fees towards their future projects. Keep in mind that you’re not obligated to offer this concession, and it’s perfectly fine to fire the client outright. However, as a courtesy, you should let the client know upfront how you intend on proceeding with the relationship should they disappear with no contact.

Keep A Cool Head When The Client Disappears

Whether you’re operating an agency or whether you’re a lone-wolf freelancer, you’re going to encounter all sorts of clients with all sorts of personality types who are experiencing all sorts of life issues. So, whether it’s the client’s fault or not, it pays not to take things personally.

For example, what if your client was suddenly hit by a car while crossing the road, and they had no way to get in contact with you? What if they experienced a death in the family or some sort of personal tragedy? It would suck for you to lash out at them, and this is why it’s best take every step to ensure that you’ve done everything to get to the bottom of a disappearance.

Did you make sure to send your correspondences to the correct email? Was there an assistant handling the project, and the assistant has quit/been fired? If this is the case, then you can bet that your client hasn’t received your messages, and they haven’t been kept in the loop about the project status. If you were tasked with working with an assistant or a liaison, then make sure that the authorizing client knows that you’ve been trying to reach them before you perform your final “clearing”.

If you’re 10000% certain that you’ve done all that you can to find the ghost client, then you’ve got to set them and their project free!

During all phases of trying to reconnect with the client, emotional discipline is crucial! Even if you’re exhausted with trying to find the client and you’ve fallen out of love with anything associated with them, don’t burn professional bridges with anger, annoyance or contemptuous behavior (or language).

You want to stay in business long after your client has vanished into mist, so your behavior has to remain above reproach, as much as possible. A client can disappear for a host of mysterious reasons, but understanding how to handle them can give you new energy to find and receive fresh opportunities.

About Terri Scott


Terri is a content marketing storyteller and strategist. She teaches marketing and entrepreneurship through stories for marketers of all stripes. Her specialty is creating narrative and she writes essays and memoir in her spare time. You can view her work at terriscott.contently.com, and she'd love to hear from you: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100011073971177

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Janet Pearson

A truer word has never been spoken. Excellent advice. Especially about remaining above reproach in all correspondence and dealings.

Terri Scott

Hi Janet,

Thanks for your response. Yeah, we’re all human, but it’s crucial to remain above reproach, no matter how much crazy is thrown our way (Ha!)

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