It’s called ghosting, and it’s not just for romantic or dating relationships anymore. Odds are that, if you stay in business for more than just a few months, it’ll also happen to you. Just what every entrepreneur needs — another challenge, as if funding and marketing and managing your team weren’t enough.
When a client ceases communicating with you and weirdly goes silent, it’s such a frustrating feeling. After all, if your client wasn’t interested in completing the work you’re doing for them, why did they hire you in the first place?
When it happens to you, follow these five straightforward steps to resolve the situation and make sure you and your business are adequately protected.
1. Don’t panic
It’s easy to panic when an important client fails to respond. That’s especially true for accounts representing a large percentage of your company’s revenue.
However, as noted above, a client ghosting a business isn’t unusual, so try not to let anxiety or confusion dictate your response. Panic usually only leads to ineffective or emotionally charged communications, and right now, you need to maintain a calm, even, professional tone.
Before you reach out to your radio-silent client, though, remind yourself of a few things:
- You don’t yet know what happened. Maybe your client just decided to flake out. But it’s also true that unexpected events occur in every life, and some of those events cause massive upheavals.
- The appropriate response depends on whether you want to maintain this working relationship or not. It’s important to take a full assessment of the situation before you make that decision.
- When you maintain a state of equanimity, you can calmly and objectively analyze the situation, which leads to a better decision.
So take a few deep breaths, meditate, work out or whatever else you need to do to keep panic at bay.
2. Take a step back and assess the situation
Where are you in the work cycle with this client? Your options look very different at the beginning of the project than they do at the end, after you’ve done all the work and your client has ghosted you just after you sent the final invoice.
Based on your business interests and goals, consider how much time and effort has been put into the work you’re doing for the client. Compare your company’s input to the client’s. How responsive have they been so far? Are they up to date on paying your fees?
Next, double check your contract and any written emails, texts or messages between your company and the client. See where you stand legally and whether there are any provisions in your agreement that cover the situation you’re facing now. Those should be included in your overall assessment.
Now that you have a fuller sense of the big picture, balance the equities to figure out what your next step and your ultimate goal should be. Do you pursue payment for unpaid work to date? Do you cut your losses entirely, terminate the relationship formally and move on? Is some other strategy more likely to lead to meeting your goals? Decide what your ideal outcome is before moving on.
3. Send a polite message (or two) asking what happened
Now you’re ready to reach out and check in. Craft a gentle, non-accusatory message (email or text initially, depending on the nature of your relationship with the client) aimed at resolving the issue. Avoid sounding confrontational. To ensure you reach the right tone, read the follow-up email out loud to a trusted colleague or team member and ask for their first impressions.
Your first message should be aimed solely at finding out if the client is well, unexpectedly out of town, or facing some personal emergency. If you don’t get a response within a week or so, and you don’t have any other methods of contacting them, try one more time. This time, let them know you’ll be closing the project and billing for any unpaid fees due you unless you hear otherwise.
4. If you don’t receive a response, move on
This is the hard part for many entrepreneurs. You have to actually follow through on the ultimatum you issued earlier. It’s time for the break-up.
If you haven’t heard from the client within the time specified, do what you said you would — close the file and bill for unpaid fees. If you like, you can include a conciliatory message along the lines of “We hope all is well, and if you’d like to resume our work in the future, let us know.”
Then turn your attention towards something new. What’s next for your business? Engage in a little creative brainstorming, and make a new plan.
5. Learn from the experience and use it to improve your business practices
Embrace the lesson in this experience and let it inform your future work. What contractual clauses would have helped you resolve this issue sooner or more fully? Consider adding some language that gives your small business the right to consider a lack of response to be the client’s consent and approval of your work, for example, or to convert a flat rate to an hourly one in the event the client fails to respond and you need to terminate the agreement.
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