Client ghosts: how to deal with ghosting customers?

Ghosts are real 

Everyone has heard stories about ghosting freelancers. Like, how they abandon people’s projects in the midst of work and all that. Today, however, we’ll take a look at the problem from a freelancer’s perspective. 

If you are a customer looking to hire independent contractors, let this post be your guide on how you should not behave with the person you hire. If you are a freelancer, you know why you’re reading this.   

Based on personal experience and chats with fellow freelancers, we’ve gathered some useful insights, tips, and recommendations on how to not be ghosted by your clients. For today’s blog post, we talked with an independent contractor going as Amabaie, and a B2B ghostwriter Naomi Nakashima.  

Possible reasons why clients ghost

In our experience the most common reason why clients ghost freelancers is that

Their financial situation changed

Yesterday they had budgets, and today they haven’t got a darn penny. Poor planning, binge drinking – whatever the reasons it ain’t your problem, right? 

Wrong. A client who’s run out of money is likely to disappear forever even after you did some work for them.  

Other reasons include:

Changes in management

Your client’s previous manager contacted you because they believed outsourcing is cheaper and no less effective. Their current manager starts every morning with despising all freelancers in the world. Sometimes, if a client disappears, it may be due to unexpected staff changes.  

Online disinhibition effect

Aka, “No face-to-face communication – no responsibility.” Aka, “out of sight – out of mind.” This mindset affects clients of all scales, especially if they hired you to do some quick or routine job. Presumably, some kind of internet virus turns people into freeloaders. 

Deliberate strategy

Smart-ish psychological effects are one thing, but deliberate cheap skating is another. People secretly chose to not pay you from the moment they hired you, can you imagine that? 

We at Lemon hate it so much! The clients we match with our freelancers never do this. 

*angry panting intensifies*

Feels inconvenient to fire you

Isn’t it nice? They were so shy to personally tell you they didn’t like your work (or couldn’t afford working with you anymore, or insert any other reason to stop working with a freelancer) that they chose to go off of the radars. 

Doesn’t explain why they did not pay you or the part of the work done, though. Perhaps, it felt inconvenient too.

Has too much on their plate at the moment

And again, it should not be your problem, but it is. Some things you just can’t predict, and your client’s poor organization of their work processes is one of them. Anyways, in this particular case, chances are they just forgot about you, so a reminder email could net you that paycheck.

Ways in which a client can ghost you

Disappears completely

This is the golden standard of ghosting. By all canons, your client just stops responding to your messages, emails, and calls. Their profile turns out to have been deleted. Chief investigator rubs their head in surprise, “This is the case for Dick Tracy, no less.” 

Ignores you for long periods of time

This is our personal “favorite.” When you just begin to think they’ll never return, the client re-appears with edits, a portion of payment, and promises to pay in full “later.” 

Brain-picks

Some smart-ass clients like to personally meet with freelancers “to discuss project details.” They invite you to a business lunch (they pay!), and you have a nice professional chat. The client asks your opinion on a bunch of project-related topics, admires your expertise, and looks very satisfied with the meeting, promising to hire you “as soon as they get . 

So are you, until you realize they just used you for a free consultation to never return again. 

Human greediness can be almost beautiful sometimes.

How to minimize the risks of ghosting

Amabaie believes you cannot completely dodge ghosting customers. As a freelancer, you will run into some of them while working: 

“People disappear all the time. Unless your clients are publicly traded (and therefore regulated) companies, they are as fluid and flexible as you are. I’ve had SEO clients simply stop paying when they got impatient (I assume), and no amount of emails I sent would get an answer. They stop paying, you stop working. 

No methods guarantee 100% results, but you can minimize the risks by organizing the work process properly. 

Upfront payments

Asking for upfront payments is a completely normal professional practice. Beginner freelancers often agree to work for “some time later” payment, and fall victims to unscrupulous clients from hell. Amabaie says:

While you can’t stop clients from ghosting, you can stop them from running away with your money by doing only work that has been paid for in advance. That’s what I do, and it saves a lot of anguish.”

I.e., do ask for upfront payments. 

Milestone payments (escrow and such)

Agree about the chunks of work that you will be showing the client in exchange for portions of payment. This is one of the most reliable ways to ensure you get paid. If you back down, the client doesn’t lose too much money. If they disappear – you don’t waste too much of your time.  

Here’s how Naomi Nakashima puts it:

“By setting up regular milestones with smaller payments, you increase interaction with the client (they are less likely to ghost on you if you’ve become friends through the process) and you’ll be able to collect most of the money owed to you. Additionally, if they see regular progress being made, they are less likely to ghost.”

Discuss situations which require additional communication

To avoid communication vacuum, agree on extra cases when you and the client need to inform each other about. E.g., ask them to tell you if they have to delay the payment. Or, inform them if you get sick and have to postpone the deadline. 

Think of an incentive for disciplined clients

Naomi Nakashima comes up with a creative way to encourage her customers to pay on time:

“One thing I do is incentivize paying early. When I send an invoice, I offer a small (3%) discount if they pay within 24 hours. It’s more effective than charging a late fee later on, and many clients jump on those discounts. And because it’s not advertised anywhere, I don’t run the risk of attracting clients who are only out to get a discount.”

Require payment for anything involving your professional expertise

Often, unscrupulous clients can be like, “Of course we are going to hire you, let’s discuss the project “ and then vanish, full of your ideas they received for free. To avoid mind-picking and scope creeping, always charge money for consultations you give to the client. 

Work with reliable freelance platforms

No, ID verification or positive reviews alone do not automatically make a platform reliable. We’re talking about real reliability here (what a tongue twister!). We’re talking about platforms that curate the work process between you and the client, and that guarantee your payment once you complete the order. 

How can you tell the client is going to ghost you?

Naomi Nakashima advises to look out for some tell-tale signs that a client could be a ghost:

There are a few warning signs that a prospect may turn into a ghosting client that I keep an eye out for. For example, if they are almost bully-like in negotiating during proposals and estimates, unwilling to pay a reasonable down payment, if they try to tell me how much I should charge, or if they start scrutinizing or questioning the terms of the contract after it’s already been signed. Keep in mind that these are just warning signs, and individually they probably don’t mean much. But if you start noticing a client doing several of these, it may be time to consider either cutting your losses or taking precautions to secure that payment before continuing with the work.”

What you should do if you are being ghosted

Resend invoices

Sometimes this simple measure is enough to wake the client from anabiosis. Perhaps, they forgot. Perhaps, they got distracted. Or maybe, they intended to not pay you, and your repeated invoice made them feel guilty. Who knows. 

Follow up email or social media message

For the same reason, it’s a great idea to write follow-up messages. Do not feel embarrassed about “disturbing” your clients. You did their job, you deserve to get paid!

Direct call

When polite messages don’t help.

Spread the word

So, what can you do? Fortunately, word of mouth is still worth something. There are resources such as Trustpilot or G2 Crowd that you can use to review customers. 

Cry like a baby Write a review with details on who ghosted you, when, and how. Do not embellish your story, stick to the facts only.

But first, try to figure out your client’s circumstances. Don’t rush it. Perhaps, there was a banking error. Or maybe you missed their email warning you about a 1-day delay of payment. Or maybe they had some kind of emergency? 

Just check out Amabaie’s story, and make your conclusions:

“We were writing a novel for a fellow in California, when all of a sudden he stopped answering emails. His phone number stopped working. We heard nothing from him for nine months. Then we got a call. He was in New Jersey. He had been in a car crash. His girlfriend then left him, and he made his way across the continent. New home, new job, new life. He said he needed to complete his book as a therapeutic exercise (to feel he was tying up loose ends and accomplishing something, I assume). So, we continued where we had left off.”

We are all people. Sometimes a client can ghost you not because of being a jerk, but because of life circumstances everyone can get into. 

Blacklist

So, should you never work with the customers who once ghosted you? We are not that kind and all-forgiving, but Naomi Nakashima believes in second chances:

“From my own experience, when I’ve been warned about a client who ghosted on a previous freelancer, that client paid me quickly. I can understand the want to blacklist a client, but unless there are other factors involved, I prefer not to blacklist ghosting clients. Things happen, life happens. Unless there is reason to believe that they ghost regularly, I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt that it was a fluke rather than try to bar them from being able to continue to do business with other freelancers.”

Should you take legal action?

The “I’m calling my lawyer” email or phone call is like a nuclear bomb – a weapon that can devastate you along with your opponent. Use only if you’re good at bluffing Or if you really do have a lawyer and are ready to take legal action.

Which is, to be honest, not necessarily the best solution to the problem. The threat might motivate some clients to finally pay you, but we think it’s not worth the trouble. 

Amabaie, the fellow freelancer, agrees: 

“I can’t see a possible upside of going to court. It takes time, money and stress to go to court. Your business, family life and possibly your health will flounder in the process. Unless you have somehow done many thousands of dollars of work ahead of payment, even if you win and somehow can collect, you lose. And collecting is a whole other matter.”

Nakashima-san advises to be careful when threatening with legal action:

“Suing doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get the money that’s owed to you. In my experience, as long as you have a signed contract, then even the mention of legal action or pursuing legal options can often bring many would-be-ghosters back and make them decide to pay up. However, I would not specifically mention suing unless you have the means and resources to do so.”

What else can we say? Take precautionary measures, work with reliable freelance platforms (Like Lemon! We’re genuine and squeezy, whatever that means), and you should be fine.