How To Manage Clients Who Disappear Mid-Project (And How To Protect Yourself Next Time)

Discover three ways to manage unresponsive clients through your freelance business contract and learn what to do when a client goes MIA before a project is complete.

From the client missing a deadline to third-party integration issues, there are all sorts of reasons projects encounter delays. But there is one reason above all others that absolutely drives freelancers crazy more than any other:

Unresponsive clients that go MIA in the middle of your work together and disappear.

If you’ve been freelancing for any length of time, you likely have had a client disappear mid-project, leaving you wondering what the heck is going on and stuck where you’re at unable to move the project forward. You probably reached out by email and by phone multiple times and when you received no response, you grew frustrated with the complete disrespect and lack of regard for your time as each new day passed.

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 they disappeared. And, without the proper provisions in your contract, your freelance business doesn’t have a clear path of action to deal with the missing client and you’re left holding the bag, twiddling your fingers, and waiting for the client to finally show up again — most likely at the very worst time.

Don’t let that be you!

Use A Strong Freelance Contract

Instead, include termination clauses in your contract that dictate exactly what will happen if a client disappears and becomes unresponsive, how the project will be impacted, and what the ultimate result will be if they disappear for too long.

In addition to a traditional cancellation clause that enables you or your client to cancel the project, there are three additional termination clauses to consider including in your freelance contract:

Dormancy Clause

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 reactivation fee is required to restart your project and your project will be scheduled into our current workflow where space is available.”

Dormancy Cancellation Clause

The dormancy cancellation clause takes it a step further, outlining exactly what happens if the project reaches the dormancy deadline, is archived, and the client remains MIA for a further 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/communication 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.”

Expiration Date

A similar situation that creates problems for freelancers is the client who disappears and shows up, then disappears and shows up repeatedly, continually delaying the project without taking any action or making any significant progress.

In the web design and development world, this often happens when the client must provide their website content because it’s 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 the client doesn’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 website project, it’s still on your project list and in your development account, and it still requires regular attention and maintenance.

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 120 days to work with our team to take the final approved website live. After 120 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 theme as is.”

What To Do When A Client Goes MIA

Even with the proper contract clauses in place, you may still run into clients who disappear in the middle of a project. If this happens and you will enforce your contract terms, you must take every action possible to re-engage the client and keep the project moving forward — and you must document every 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:

  • 7 Days 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.
  • 14 Days 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.
  • 21 Days 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.

Some links used on this site are “affiliate links.” If you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

About Jennifer Bourn

With 22 years of experience as a graphic designer, 16 as a web designer/creative agency owner, 12 as a blogger, and 5 as a course creator and content strategist, Jennifer helps small businesses build brands, create content, and grow profitable online platforms. Her renowned business systems and automations allow her business to thrive while she travels with her husband of 21 years and two teenagers, squeezes in daily workouts, tries new recipes, speaks at events, facilitates workshops like Content Camp, and leads online courses like Profitable Project Plan.

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