Designer Diaries : Ghost Clients

Today, I am starting a new series called “Designer Diaries”. I’ve had the privilege of connecting with some amazing designers over the past several years, and there are some pretty common themes we all seem to deal with. While I wish every single project was perfect, it’s nice to know that I’m not alone in feeling that, “What the hell just happened with this project?!”. This series will discuss some of the situations that arise when you’re running your own studio. I plan to talk about things like:

  • When clients ghost
  • What to do when your calendar is full or not full enough
  • Breaking up with a client
  • Money & accounting
  • Not meeting client’s expectations
  • Finding your tribe
  • Navigating feedback
  • Saying “no”
  • Dealing with copycats

Some of these topics are awkward or sensitive, but super important when building your design brand. If you have a topic you’d like to share, I’m all ears! 

Let’s get started! 

Designer-Diaries

In the perfect dream world of design, a client hires you, enjoys your project, and absolutely loves the final product. Communication is amazing, and you basically want to become best friends (um, yes, this happens!). But, let’s be real … work isn’t always dreamy. Sometimes clients disappear. And that, my friends, is what us designers like to call a “ghost client”.

Yep! Sometimes clients go MIA during a project, and you’re left wondering what happened, and what to do. Thankfully, this isn’t commonplace, but it’s happened enough that I have my first post in this series dedicated to the topic.

I’ll share my thoughts on this in just a sec, but first, let’s remember something: we are usually not the center of our client’s universe. Before jumping to any conclusion (like they hate what we’ve delivered, or they want to quit the project), remember that this likely has nothing to do with you. Approach the situation with grace and an open heart. You’ll be good! 

  1. Check-in: If it’s been a few days since I’ve heard from a client, I will usually send a gentle reminder that I’m waiting for a response. Then, I let it go. I’ve done my due diligence of checking-in. My contract states that clients that go MIA for more than 20 days will lose their spot on my calendar, and the project will be cancelled. Obviously, all of this is at my discretion, and I’ve always been super understanding that life happens. Having this clause protects myself and my calendar, but also gives a client a little wiggle room to take pause, if needed.
  2. Get paid ahead of time: Earlier this year, I experienced my first situation of someone disappearing before they made their final payment. I made the mistake of not sending an invoice when I should have, and doing work ahead of schedule. When they disappeared, I was left with an unpaid balance, and it felt shitty. Now, I only do work I’ve been paid for, and keep track of payments with FreshBooks. 50% of the total project balance is due before we start, and the other 50% is now due before I deliver any final files.
  3. Know your contract: What happens if a client disappears, and they’ve already paid part of their balance? Does your contract protect you for the work you’ve done? Having your contract reviewed by a lawyer will ensure that you have protected yourself and the client in all situations.
  4. Manage expectations: If you don’t hear from a client after x number of days (whatever number you feel is the tipping point between them being busy and them just not communicating with you anymore), I suggest sending an email or letter to explain that the contract is cancelled. This message needs to include an acknowledgement that the project is cancelled, a review of your attempts to contact them, expectations of copyright and use, and a review of your cancellation policy in regards to payments made or payments due.
  5. Don’t burn bridges: Just because a project is cancelled, it doesn’t mean there has to be bad blood. Sure, sometimes projects end in a big ol’ mess (this so rarely happens, that it’s not even really worth discussing), but mostly, a client switches gears, or has a life situation that means the project isn’t a good fit at the time. I always remind people that I’d love to work with them again, and appreciate their business. In most cases, I honor their contract and any payments made, for 1 year. Sometimes a project just isn’t the right fit for now, but in 4 months, it’s perfect, and we move forward.
  6. Learn from it: Being your own boss means you’re fielding everything from the amazing moments to the crappy moments. In every experience there is a lesson! If someone disappears, and you find out later that they didn’t like your style, there’s a lesson there. Sure, it’s not your fault they didn’t like your work, but maybe it teaches you to showcase your work better on your site, or that you need to include a clause in your contract about your style. If someone criticizes a part of your workflow, don’t take offense. Do better! Trust me, becoming a mom and running a business is tough. I learned a lot from feedback, and have made huge changes to better accommodate clients. Learn, grow, be open to change!
  7. Let it go: If you cancel a project, let it go! Delete that client’s folder, delete the profile from your accounting software. The reminder of that situation will be gone, and you can open some emotional space for a new project that will be amazing!

What about you? Have you ever had a client disappear? How did you handle it? Am I missing anything here?

If you’d like to see more of my work, you can find me on Dribbble … to keep up with the everyday, follow along on Instagram.

  • Jessica - Really great tips here! I love reading about how others handle tricky situations and what they include in their contract. Bookmarking for reference!ReplyCancel

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