Mysterious case of the disappearing client

Do your clients ever go missing mid-project? Stacey King Gordon’s sometimes do.

On the CFC LinkedIn Group, Stacey, freelancer turned content strategy firm owner of Suite Seven in Northen California, posted this question:

My typical client is a very busy marketing manager – someone with way too much responsibility on her plate. The clients who fit this profile work with me because they know I can take the ball and run with it, and that they can trust me to get things done right. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that these clients inevitably go MIA on me in the middle of a project, sometimes several times throughout a project. No amount of emailing or calling can get them to reply. Eventually they always emerge, apologizing profusely (or not) and then need to rush through the next phase of the project because somebody is screaming at them to get it done. And guess who then has to jump through hoops to make it happen?

In addition to the schedule slippage, I feel this lack of communication means I don’t get the information I need to do the job thoroughly, and because much of what I’m doing is strategy, it’s impossible to do my job in a way that is satisfying for me (even if it works for the client because she is able to “check the box”).

I’ve tried a number of things to keep this from happening and throwing my team off track:

  • Instituting weekly check-in meetings (but during busy times clients neglect to call in for them)
  • Putting a clause in the contract about “significant slippage” on timelines resulting in change orders (I’ve yet to enforce this)

I’ve gotten to the point in my business where I’ve decided I no longer wish to work with clients like this. Actually, I’d like to keep working with them – but I need to “retrain” them to be more engaged in the process.

Does this happen to any of you? What have you done to keep your clients engaged throughout a project? How do you keep your clients from going MIA?

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This question has gotten a number of helpful responses from other
creatives. Any advice for Stacey? Join the CFC LinkedIn Group to take part in the conversation.

6 thoughts on “Mysterious case of the disappearing client

  1. Bexmo

    I don’t know if I have any useful advice, but I AM one of those people described above! To fill in details from the other side, Stacey is completely right that we have too much on our plate, too many responsibilities and too many actual tasks to undertake. Normally I begin a project having cleared some space to really concentrate on it and I really want to be able to keep that up. However, being the Marketing person often also means being asked to respond to every other dept at the drop of a hat and carrying out various random requests (all of which must be done *urgently*!). This then means that the space i planned and cleared for my important project is no longer there.

    One important thing to know when I’m not replying to emails/messages etc is because I really want to, but I can’t just dash a reply off, I need to catch up with the project, get back into it and think something through. I often make the mistake of thinking it’s better to hang on another day and another day in the hope that then I’ll be able to send a decent reply, rather than a “sorry i’m busy”. This is often because I can’t say exactly when I’m going to get back to the project. I usually am also feeling really bad about it too.

    In terms of keeping me on track I would say the best thing would be to give me an idea upfront of the schedule for the project and dates for when you need things from me. E.g. I’m working on a web project at the moment and I’m struggling to get the company to tell me everything they are going to need upfront so that I can plan it in as we go along. Instead they are just telling me bit by bit and then I have to try and find space to do it when they need it.

    Also, if you have that project plan I wouldn’t mind a weekly Monday morning/Fri afternoon email reminder of “this is what’s coming up”. As for ad-hoc requests/questions etc I would find it helpful if the subject line of the email was as descriptive as possible – e.g. “Clarification needed on X by end of today” or “Figures needed for X by end of week”. That way I’m clearer on what is being expected and less likely to ignore it and feel guilty.

    I hope it’s useful to hear the other side of this. If you have any questions let me know and I’ll try to post back… although I could still go MIA! 🙂

    1. Jodi Hersh

      Hi Bexmo – It’s easy to understand how and why clients go MIA like you described.. but it’s important to realize on the flip side, that the professional designers, content strategists, etc are also dealing with their own set of urgent distractions and demands and that when clients cause delays and projects stall, it takes just as much, if not more time for us to catch up and try to get back into a project where we left off… and it also creates mayhem in our production schedules. Often working on your project again in the calendar space that was planned for something else. Often in my biz, when clients emerge from being MIA and they have a sense of urgency and hysteria to meet an original deadline, we simply can’t make it happen which is unfortunate — not to mention very stressful for all involved.

      No matter how you look at it, we all pay in the end one way or another. But one thing is for sure, it’s a problem that is not going to go away anytime soon. I simply have a clause that allows me to bill for all work completed to date should there be significant project delays. and then when the project starts up again, I will schedule the work as best I can.

      Best of luck to everyone!
      – Jodi

  2. Melaine Kemp

    Hi Elise,

    Good question and thank you for your post! Yes, this can be a problem at times. I have experienced this in agency settings and as a self-employed graphic designer. Techniques that seem to work the best are discussing joint accountability up front, including timeline and billing expectations. No one likes to pay for services products they have not received, so progress billing can be an effective incentive for all stakeholders to respect commitments.

  3. Ashley

    I actually used to have this happen to me all the time. So much so – that I had my attorney add in a “Client Obligation” clause into my contract which state that if a client fails to respond in a timely manner then they must pay a re-instatement fee in order to move forward and that rush fees may apply (there’s also one about sending content for a project in a timely manner as well). I’ve also hired a “client care coordinator” that in essence is kind of a project manager – she keeps a checklist and makes sure that if someone if non-responsive after a few days to a week that they get an email and a phone call – if there’s been no communication after 2 then we’d send them a warning about their project being archived if we don’t hear from them. So far – with these new policies and process and my super hero office manager we haven’t had this happen (yet). I think you just have to be firm and make sure you repeat your policies.

    Stacey, You could always make those clients that constantly go MIA pay you a monthly retainer so that when they come back with nutty deadlines then at least you feel compensated for your time and troubles.

    1. Julianne

      Ashley, I’m glad to hear you’ve found some legal language that works for you — and for your clients. I have discussed these kinds of terms with several colleagues, all of whom are searching for a standard.

      The consensus is that all of us would probably benefit from the creation of a new client expectation that these kinds of “anti-MIA” clauses are normal, enforceable, and in mutual best interest of the client and the free agent.

      To that end, would you be willing to share the clauses you have instituted with the group?

      Wishing you every continued success!

  4. Dot

    Thanks for this topic. It has come up a lot in the last year. Small projects, no deadline, great swaths of no communication or approval. I like the idea of a “Client Obligation” clause. I just have trouble getting people to adhere to what’s already in my contracts. 🙁

    I have tried to get a retainer situation so I can address their last minute reactivations but they just never make time to talk about it. I think this comes from a company owner (not the contact client) that keeps flinging new ideas to try and never following through with them. I get that those people don’t think about follow through but I wish idea C-levels would let their people (the contact client) do their jobs. It isn’t just this economy making people taking too much on their plate. Certain people will always do this. They are obviously not in an industry that encourages them to under promise and over deliver like designers are.

    One thing I have learned about this situation is that some don’t like to give or receive bad news so they don’t communicate at all. I would never do that to someone. If I can’t make a deadline, I will tell you a day or two ahead but I will tell you when I can get it done. I would rather have that small note saying they can’t make the promised deadline than the disruption and unprofessionalism of not communicating.

    Bexmo, if they don’t know when they will get back to me, that still helps. It means I can plan around it and prioritize.

    Good luck to all.

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