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Forget the frustration of prospective client switcharoos covered in last week’s post - when potential clients vanish into thin air - The real stuff of freelancer nightmares is when a current client suddenly - POOF! - disappears.
First of all, if you’ve run into this situation, let me express my absolute sympathy. It stinks. When you’re depending on a client’s feedback (or worse, their check), there’s very little worse than shouting into a void, wondering if you’ve been had. So what do you do?
1. Stay calm
Let me be clear - this is not about assuaging the feelings of your client; stay calm so that you can handle this situation with emotional intelligence. Try to initially channel any feelings of fear, outrage or annoyance as Spock would: With logic, Captain.
Look for logical reasons why they might not have responded yet. Don’t jump to conclusions too soon! It’s possible Vanished Client is intentionally ducking your calls or avoiding payment, but it’s more likely that your client is flaky, not a con artist. Stay calm; the odds are in your favor.
2. Assess the situation
Now that we’ve taken a step back and calmed down a bit, Vulcan-style, we can assess the situation objectively:
I assume you’re beyond the initial negotiation stage with this client (if not, refer to last week’s post - until the contract is inked, you’re really dealing with a prospective client).
Take stock of the project: review your contract and look at written records, including any emails you’ve received from the client.
How far are you along in your project for this recently-silent client?
If you’re midway through your work and you’ve asked Captain Disappearo for necessary feedback, only to find he’s vanished, temporarily STOP until you make contact.
If you’ve already completed your work and the client has conveniently gone off the radar - suuuure, the “check is in the mail” - review your contract terms and create alerts in your calendar for when payment will be 30, 60, and 90 days overdue. You may not need these alerts... but start prepping.
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3. Reach out in writing
Send a calm, polite email at the beginning of the workweek. Make sure that you’ve got their contact information right, and that you’re very specific about what you need, and when.
If you need feedback in order to continue, specify that you’ll halt work until you get confirmation.
If you need a check (and are past-due payment time), reattach the invoice, and indicate when you sent your last email. Include a friendly warning about your late payment policies - they don’t want to get hit with a fee, right?
If you like, you may also supplement this with a phone call. If you do not make contact via phone, leave a polite voicemail.
Wait one week. If you still have no response, send another email (I also like to politely forward the previous email, personally). Again, your tone is still POLITE and CALM - resist the urge to fly off the handle (Spock never would). Give another call; try to confirm that they have indeed received the information.
Wait one more week. If you still haven’t heard anything, now is the time to start poking around. If you have any other contacts at the company or if you’ve worked with a team, forward them the last email with a CALM, UN-AGGRESSIVE NOTE attached - you’re just trying to get information, not going on the warpath.
Finally, send one more email to your primary contact, reiterating what you need and when you need it. If you’re waiting for payment, re-attach the invoice, along with the original due-date.
4. Review your options
Okay, now you’ve sent three emails... creating a nice little paper trail. If you STILL haven’t gotten a response, it’s time to review your options.
If you’ve done some (but not all) of the work, you’re going to have to decide whether it’s worth moving on or pursuing it. I hope you’ve gotten some kind of deposit, but I know I rarely do. Consider invoicing for the hours you did work.
If you’ve sent rough drafts, do a little poking around and make sure they’re not using your drafts as final product. Often, freelancers retain ownership rights to work before it’s paid for or officially transferred; investigate if that’s the case in your region, and if so, inform the client of this fun legal fact.
If you still haven’t been paid, triple-send your invoice at the 60 and 90 day mark with attendant late fees. What do I mean by triple-send? Fax it in, email it in, and mail it by plain ol’ certified mail. You are inundating them, in the most civilized fashion imaginable.
If THAT doesn’t get their attention, you may have a real deadbeat on your hands. Again, remain polite, but don’t be afraid to communicate your intention to take legal action.
The one time I ever had a truly slippery deadbeat client, the mention of incipient legal action plus a well-placed call from a lawyer friend did the trick. It’s not an empty threat - if you don’t hear back, you should indeed investigate your legal options. Freelancer’s Union has several articles that’ll give you a good start.
Unfortunately, the best protection against a disappearing client is prevention. You want to tie your work to a nice, concrete contract before you start a project.
Be extra wary of potential clients who - presto! - go to ground at the mention of a contract or specific terms, who tend to flake out on initial negotiations, or who don’t like deadlines or paper trails. These slippery suspects are most likely to disappear mid-project…. and you don’t want to be left holding the top hat!
Looking for more ways to troubleshout troublesome clients? Head over to our *_Dealing with Difficult Customers - Resources_ Hive *and crowdsource your issue with other freelancers!
Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.