What do you do when a prospective client ghosts you?
I don’t mean someone who mentioned at a networking event once that “We hire contractors from time to time” but who hasn’t responded to your LinkedIn connection request.
I’m talking about someone with whom you’ve had a least one (probably many) phone, email, or in-person conversations. They like your work, have a project that is right up your alley, and ask for a proposal. You spend hours on it and send it their way.
And then, nothing.
Professional ghosting: an example
Recently, I’d been connected with a startup that needed help on a project in my exact repertoire. They were excited that I could design what they needed, plus help build the website, develop the copy for it, and round out their marketing material. This project was going to need a lot of support, which I was happy to provide.
They requested a proposal, and I spent around three to four hours* putting it together.
*Since I was still tweaking the content and layout of my proposal template, this may have taken a little bit longer than normal. But every proposal I put together is specialized for the project and takes at least a of couple hours. I think most clients don’t realize this, since it takes only a few seconds to say, “Send me a proposal!”
A week or so went by with no response, which was surprising since the client was so eager to get started on the project. I followed up, and still nothing.
I’d been working on other projects and decided to give the client the benefit of the doubt: they had probably thought they’d responded and hadn’t. This made me think communication was probably going to be an issue, and since I’d already sent the customary follow-up email, I decided to count it as lost and move on.
Then I heard through the grapevine that, in a meeting with a peer of mine, the client openly admitted to never replying to my email because my pricing wasn’t within their budget.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little annoyed that the client hadn’t bothered to tell me directly.
So what do you do?
As Henry Ford famously said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”
In this situation, if you’d already followed up, the only thing you really can do is learn from the experience to reduce the chance it’ll happen again. Here were my takeaways:
1. Get a number up front
I knew to ask for a prospective client’s budget when discussing a project. But in my enthusiasm, I hadn’t been firm about getting that number before sending over a proposal.
When you are really excited about a project, it’s easy to jump into action when a client says, “Just keep it under a million dollars wink wink.” But don’t misinterpret their enthusiasm for a willingness to pay what it will take to get the job done.
It’s an unwritten rule of negotiation to never be the first to name a number, but that coy process is just a waste of time for all parties involved.
In the example above, I would have saved a lot of time if I’d insisted on getting a number up front. Most clients, especially individuals or small business owners, don’t yet have a concept for the time it takes for you to create what they want. It’s no fault of theirs—they just haven’t had the experience to know what to expect. But before you invest more time, you need to know that the client has actually considered what the project is worth to them.
If you want to learn more about pricing strategies, I recommend Dan Mall’s ebook.
2. Think back to any warning signs
You’re inevitably going to have clients who need more attention than others, but sometimes the client is more work and stress than they’re worth. The more people you work with, the more you’ll be able to spot early warning signs.
Here are just some examples of red flags I’ve experienced in the initial project conversation:
- The client is late
- The meeting time goes way over because the client can’t stay on topic
- The client does most of the talking (your initial meeting should be a conversation, not a monologue)
- The client mentions having worked with overseas designers*
*If you’re in the U.S., you’re competing with often very talented designers who have lower cost of living (and therefore, lower pricing) in other parts of the world. You bring value to the project that is worth paying for, but if your client has worked with designers overseas, they’re going to be used to paying (and therefore, expect) lower rates. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but it’s something to be aware of.
One or even two of these flags doesn’t mean the project won’t be a good one. But noticing these (and other) signs will help you better prepare for the project and set early expectations with the client. And if you come across too many bad signs, perhaps you should pass on the project all together.
3. Let it go (you probably dodged a bullet)
Let’s be honest: if someone has no problem ghosting you this far in the process, they were very likely going to be difficult to work with. I know it’s hard to be counting on that project only for it to disintegrate, but it’s much better to dedicate that time to pursuing better clients and better projects than to spend several months pulling your hair out because of poor communication, scope creep, or—worst of all—a client who goes dark when it’s time to write that final check.
I hope this helps you turn a bummer situation into a learning opportunity! Do you have a similar story? Let’s hear it! Ping me on Twitter if you can top my story with one of your own (and share what you learned in the process).