Is your agency plagued with clients that go unresponsive?
From the client missing a deadline to third-party integration issues, there are all sorts of reasons a digital agency may run into project delays. But there is one above all others that drives agencies crazy more than any other—an unresponsive client.
If you’ve been selling web design or development services for any length of time, you likely have had a client disappear and go MIA in the middle of a project, leaving you wondering what the heck is going on and stuck where you’re at unable to move the project forward.
You likely have reached out by email and by phone multiple times and have received no response and are growing more frustrated with the disrespect and lack of regard for your time as each new day passes.
Unresponsive clients are the most challenging clients because there isn’t a conflict to resolve or problem to solve, there’s just a missing client and no information as to why—and without the proper provisions in your website contract, your digital agency doesn’t have a clear path of action to deal with the missing client.
Instead, you’re left holding the bag and waiting for them to show again. Don’t let that be you!
Instead, be sure to include termination clauses in your website contract that dictate exactly how your digital agency will handle a client if they become unresponsive and how the client will be impacted.
In addition to the normal cancellation clause that enables you or your client to cancel the project at any time with 30 days notice and the payment of applicable fees, there are three termination clauses to consider including in your web design contract:
A dormancy clause addresses what happens if or when a project falls dormant because the client disappears. It outlines the amount of time or grace period given to an unresponsive client, what will happen if a client disappears for a specific amount of time with no communication, and what is required of the client when they finally do show up again.
Here is a sample dormancy clause:
We understand that sometimes life happens and you may need to pause work on your project. That is completely acceptable if we are notified and made aware of your situation in advance. If your project goes more than 30 days without any forward progress or significant activity from your end, and no prior arrangements have been made with us and agreed to, your project will be put on hold and all associated files will be archived. Once your project has been archived, a $500.00 re-activation fee is required to restart your project and your project will be scheduled into our current workflow where space is available.”
The cancellation clause takes the dormancy clause a step further, outlining exactly what happens if the project reaches the dormancy deadline, is archived, and the client remains MIA for a set amount of time.
Here is a sample cancellation clause:
If your project remains inactive for an additional 15 days past the 30 day dormancy period (45 days total) with no significant forward progress made, milestones reached, or prior arrangement in place, our engagement will expire, no refunds will be available, and you will forfeit all deliverables associated with this client agreement. Basically, if you disappear for 45 days, or delay the project with no forward movement and no communication for 45 days, this contract will be canceled and no refunds will be given.”
A completely separate situation that can create problems for digital agencies are the clients who disappear and show up, then disappear and show up, and continually delay the project without making any significant progress.
This usually happens when it’s time for the client to provide the final website content because the website is either not done yet or they haven’t started, they’re embarrassed, and they don’t want to admit it.
This also happens at the end of a project when the final payment is due and they don’t have the funds to make the payment.
Without the proper clause in your contract, you risk being held hostage by the client—and even though you’re unable to complete the project, it’s still on your project list, in your development account, and requiring your attention to care for and maintain.
With this in mind, consider designating an expiration date at which the contract will automatically terminate.
While this type of clause is often used in retainer contracts for ongoing design and development, where a contract may expire after 12 months with an option to renew, you can also use this clause to put a limit on how long a project can sit once specific milestones are met.
Here is a sample expiration clause:
Once the theme design and development has been completed, you have up to 90 days to work with our team to take the final approved website live. After 90 days, this contract will expire. At this time, you can renew your contract for the flat fee of $X to finish the project or choose to receive a zip file of your completed website.”
What To Do When A Client Goes MIA
Even with the proper contract clauses in place, your digital agency is still going to run into clients who disappear in the middle of a project. If this happens and you plan on enforcing your contract terms, it is critical that you take every action possible to re-engage the client and keep the project moving forward—and that you document every proactive step you take.
Using the sample dormancy and cancellation clauses outlined above, here’s a sample outline of what you need to do—remember to screenshot or print every email sent and document every phone call made:
- At week one with no response: Send the client an email reminding them that it’s now been a week since you heard from them last and you’re waiting on them to move forward. Ask them to respond.
- At week two with no response: Check-in by email and by phone, being sure to leave a voicemail message. If the client is local and has a place of business, stop in for a visit to see what’s going on.
- At week three with no response: Check-in by email and by phone, being sure to leave a voicemail message. If the client is local and has a place of business, stop in for a visit to see what’s going on. If you’re connected on social media, consider reaching out via private message. Remind the client of the dormancy clause in their contract and copy and paste the clause into the email for their reference. Communicate that you’re reaching out because you want to help them avoid reaching dormancy.
- At 25 days with no response: Check-in by email and by phone, being sure to leave a voicemail message. Remind the client of the dormancy clause in their contract and copy and paste the clause into the email for their reference. Let them know the deadline is in five days. Again, communicate that you’re reaching out because you want to help them avoid reaching dormancy and the reactivation fee.
- At 30 days with no response: Draft an official letter on company letterhead notifying the client that their project has reached dormancy and what the implications are. Send the letter to the client by US Postal Service and by email. Consider calling the client to alert them of the change in project status as well.
- At 42 days with no response: Check-in by email and by phone, being sure to leave a voicemail message. Remind the client of the cancellation clause in their contract and copy and paste the clause into the email for their reference. Let them know the deadline is in three days. Again, communicate that you’re reaching out because you want to help them avoid reaching cancellation and losing out on the investment made in the project so far.
- At 45 days with no response: Draft an official letter on company letterhead notifying the client that their project has reached cancellation due to dormancy and what the implications are. Send the letter to the client by US Postal Service and by email.
The Bottom Line
When dealing with an unresponsive client, the goal of your digital agency should always be to re-engage the client, keep the project moving forward, and finish it off strong. Regular check-ins by phone and email, positive reminders of the contract clauses, and offers of support should do the trick, but if not, you can be confident in your actions with solid dormancy, cancellation, and expiration clauses in your contracts to fall back on.
Jennifer Bourn is founding partner at Bourn Creative a full-service design and development company specializing in WordPress. With twenty years in the industry under her belt, she is an award-winning designer who consults on branding, website strategy, and content strategy. Jennifer speaks often, delivering workshops and keynote presentations, co-organizes the Sacramento WordPress Meetup and WordCamp Sacramento and writes regularly about freelancing, client services, blogging, marketing, websites, and branding. Learn more at the Jennifer Bourn website.
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