How Do You Handle Unresponsive Clients?

Recently Carson Brackney wrote this wonderful article about getting more work from existing clients. The advice he gives is excellent, and I have followed most of it unconsciously for some time, but it got me thinking about what happens on the opposite end of the spectrum when we must deal with an unresponsive client.

This has been on my mind recently because I have been worrying about a client who suddenly dropped off the face of the earth. Fortunately, he went incommunicado shortly after he paid the balance he owed me on our latest project, so I’m not concerned about chasing down my money. But now I can’t reach him through email or the phone, and he hasn’t returned my messages. Of course, I haven’t been pestering him; I’ve kept my correspondence polite and professional, and it has been just enough to let him know that I’m thinking of him and his business.

But still, I’ve been frustrated with the potential loss of more work and income. When the client and I first discussed working together, he described three other projects that he wanted me to help him accomplish, one of which sounded like a steady weekly gig, and so I had looked forward to the future income. I’m still hopeful, but every day that my messages go unanswered my hope weakens.

So, at what point do you tie up the loose end and amicably severe the relationship? At what point does the worrying about the client become more than a simple worry? Naturally, several factors will influence your decision. You must evaluate your other projects, their current income, and their earning potential, and weigh it against this current problem project. If you have other clients from whom you feel you can expect future work, then perhaps your efforts should focus on them and you can take a loss here. Also, you should consider the professional relationship you had with the silent client. Was he or she a joy to work with on past assignments? Did you collaborate well on projects or were you mostly on your own, struggling to understand your client’s needs? If the client was someone with whom you worked well, it might be worth it to stick it out a little longer. After all, everyone goes through weird slumps once in a while. And finally, how could severing the relationship harm your ‘brand,’ especially if you work in a specific niche? Could you get away with not severing the relationship, but merely leaving the ball in the client’s court?

In my case, I have decided to write the client one last email and let him decide what to do. I’ll be sure to thank him for his business. I’ll tell him that I’m currently ready to begin work on the other three projects, and that he can contact me when and if he wishes to pursue those projects. I’m happy with the current state of my freelance business, so I’ve decided to no longer worry about this one project. I like to think that I’m not cutting the link; I’m simply unhooking it for now.

This guest post is contributed by Olivia Coleman, who writes on the topics of online colleges and universities. She welcomes your comments at her email Id:

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Photo Credits: Photo by RW Photobug.



10 responses
  1. Joy Avatar

    Even freelancers can become victims of office politics. I did a small job for a large company with the understanding that it would be the first of many assignments. When that turned out to be false, I felt like I had wasted my time and was pretty angry. I never let the client know this and sent one follow up email, keeping tabs on future opportunities there on my own. Ultimately my gracious attitude won me an even better steady gig with them down the road. Never burn a bridge.

  2. Chris Avatar

    Great post. I actually wrote something on the same topic recently. It’s difficult to know when to say “goodbye” because there are a number of factors to consider. However, sometimes the loss of income is worth it if the client is just stressing you out. I’ve let a couple of clients go for being rude or low paying– but none just yet for being unresponsive. I do have one client right now who isn’t getting back to me in a timely manner, but I figure I’ll give it another month or two before I let them go. Thanks!

  3. Tamar Cloyd Avatar

    Great post! I too have worked with unresponsive clients. One client in particular is like this, but he has consistently reappeared and offered me all kinds of gigs that weren’t necessarily related to fundraising. I agree with Joy that we should never burn bridges. Being MIA doesn’t necessarily mean a no to your business. It often just means, not right now…

  4. John Soares Avatar

    Olivia, we have a similar attitude toward unresponsive clients. I write for textbook publishers, and editors in the textbook publishing business can be very inconsistent with communication. If business slows a bit, I send out e-mails to editors I’ve worked for before asking if they have any projects coming up. Frequently I don’t here back from them — until it’s three or four months later and they have work for me.

  5. AprilMay Avatar

    Ditto here…I have dropped two big clients in the last two years due to unresponsiveness (after sending a final, polite email). I think what bothers me is how unprofessional it is. If you don’t have any more work for me (or perhaps you just want to let me go), please do the right thing and just tell me! I promise I can handle it!

  6. Carol Avatar

    I’m not sure why you think you have to write a kiss-off letter to this client. They’ve paid their bill, so they’re not a deadbeat.
    What occurs to me is their silence may not be about you. Maybe the client is swamped. Maybe their other projects aren’t ready to go yet. Or their mom died. Maybe their server has crashed and they’re not getting emails.
    I say just back off and maybe be in touch in a month or two…and a month or two after that.
    I have a folder on my desktop called “Dormant Clients.” When a relationship seems inactive, I throw their folder inside there. If it comes back to life, it’s just there, ready to pull out and get back to work on again.

    1. Chris Avatar

      I like this. Good idea. I think I’ll make a dorman client folder too.

  7. Joe Mullich Avatar

    First things first: you have nothing to sever. The client hired you for one project, you finished it, and he paid you. Your obligations to each other are fulfilled. It’s good to keep in touch with clients, but you’re making a mistake if you treat a casual mention of future possible projects as a promise those projects are coming your way.

    It is certainly reasonable to ping the client, tell him your availability, and ask if he wants to lock you down. (But it can certainly backfire if you present this as a threat.) Believe me, I know it’s frustrating when people are nonresponsive, but that’s so common these days that you will give yourself an ulcer if you overreact to it. We are in an age of non-response, and you can’t always know what a non-response means.

    My feeling is the best approach is to remain in contact. And contact isn’t just asking for work. It’s about sending links or other material that will be useful to the client. When you keep in touch, give stuff; don’t just ask for work.

  8. Krists Avatar

    I agree with what others are saying. If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that a client’s talk about “potential projects” doesn’t mean much. I’d estimate that at least 50 percent of my “potential projects” don’t come through in the end for whatever reason.

    I have several clients that I’ve worked with for years. I don’t hear from some of them for months at a time, even when I e-mail about available projects. But there’s no reason to sever the relationship. They might come back with something in the future…or maybe not.

    Unfortunately, there are no guarantees in freelancing.

  9. Perry Rose Avatar

    How do I handle unresponsive clients?
    I don’t.
    After the second e-mail to him or her, I move on.

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