There is one type of client that all service-based business owners will almost certainly encounter—the disappearing client. Disappearing clients usually fall into one of three buckets:
- They disappear during the proposal/bidding phase
- They suddenly drop off the horizon in the middle of a project
- They stop using your services for no apparent reason
If these relationships ended for no apparent reason and without so much as a heads-up, it can be hard not to take it personally—especially if you’ve put lots of work into building the relationship and delivering a good product or service. Even worse, if a client disappears in the middle of a project, how will that impact your ability to invoice them?
3 Ways to Deal with Disappearing Clients
At the Bidding Stage
This is the time you’re most likely to see client drop-off, often without any follow-through. As frustrating as it might be, especially if you thought you had it in the bag, it’s part of business. Many times, these disappearing clients won’t even communicate that you lost the proposal. They just vanish. In these cases, the most you can do is try to reach out and find why your proposal wasn’t accepted. But be prepared to accept the fact that you won’t hear from them again and move on.
During the Project
This is an especially frustrating scenario. The client who stops communicating with you in the middle of a project can really mess with your ability to complete and bill for that work. The reasons could be endless—internal reorganization, your point-of-contact got fired or abruptly left, or the project exhausted the available budget. Before you take any measures to chase any payments owed, try to establish what happened and pursue all communication options. If your client is dealing with a personal tragedy or life-changing event, you don’t want to be the one to call them out for not responding to your emails promptly.
There are ways to mitigate the impact of this one using your original contract. Non-refundable deposits, for example, can protect your interests. Plus, a client who agrees to a deposit signals that they are serious about working with you. A good rule of thumb for a deposit is to calibrate it according to the anticipated loss you may experience as the result of a disappearing client.
If you can’t get a client to agree to a deposit, see if they’ll accept milestone billing. This involves invoicing them at the completion of key stages of the project. For example, a writer might propose the following billing schedule for a whitepaper project:
- Jan 3: Signing of agreement.
- Jan 10: Original research and delivery of white paper outline. $300 due.
- Jan 17: First draft. $350 due.
- Jan 24: Incorporate edits/comments and deliver second draft. $150 due.
- Jan 30: Delivery of final whitepaper. $500 due.If the client disappears or scraps the project at any stage, your back is covered. If you’d proposed all of this as one lump sum, it would be less clear how much you’re still owed.Finally, if the client does come through and cancels the project, you can protect yourself with a kill fee. This pre-set, contractually agreed-upon amount is essentially a deterrent and also encourages the client to stay in communication about their intentions. Read more about how to use your contract to protect yourself and nail down cash matters.Whichever approach you use, be sure to refer to these contract terms when you reach out to your client —and above all, don’t vent your frustration, but instead be professional and courteous. It won’t help matters and could come back to bite you on the grapevine.
Clients That Simply Stop Buying from You
Like the disappearing clients who vanish during the bidding phase, this is a fact of business. Perhaps your client hired a new employee who took on the responsibilities that they previously outsourced. Perhaps they decided to go with a competitor for no reason other than that the CEO’s cousin works there. Who knows? The signs are also similar—a sudden and unexpected silence, no response to emails, etc. If you can’t get anyone to explain why you were dropped, the best scenario may be one of watchful waiting. What goes around may come around again, so don’t burn bridges. Some of my best clients have disappeared unexpectedly only to re-emerge months or years later with a call for help.
Now if that client still owes you money, that’s a different scenario and may require intervention—invoice reminders, collection calls, etc. Good luck!