In the latest episode of Unsure? Insure! we share a story of a freelance designer whose client ghosted them, refused to pay their invoice, yet popped up on the radar several weeks later to demand the website be delivered.
The freelancer's story
"I’ve been working with a customer on a website design who has asked for it to be completed to an unrealistic timescale. I proposed a more realistic timetable along with a detailed explanation of each step and what the customer would need to provide.
I explained that to meet the deadline I’d need the quote to be signed off quickly and we’d need to begin discussions immediately about what they wanted for the graphic design and new logo. I sent the quote, which referenced the payment terms, and the invoice for the deposit.
Upon receiving this the customer expressed their eagerness, but a week passed before they signed the quote. After trying to discuss the logo and website design, I didn’t hear from them. I continued emailing and calling to get the information I needed to begin work.
4 weeks after signing the quote the customer called and provided some vague guidelines on what they wanted, before telling me they were very busy and had to go. Based on this limited information, I drew up two logo propositions.
This week the customer received an automatic reminder from my billing software for the overdue deposit. She forwarded it to me, which is the first contact I've had with her for 5 weeks. She said, "Sorry, I don't want to pay this as I haven't got my website yet".
I explained that it’s a deposit, and that she agreed to it when signing the quote. The deposit, I explained, is required to be paid before the website’s delivered. I also explained that the reason nothing had been delivered is because we've had no response from her over the last 4 weeks.
She said that she expected the website to be finished by this week, which was her original timescale—NOT the more realistic timescale I proposed. She then said she didn’t want a logo anyway, even though this was something she agreed to.
She accused me of selling her things she doesn't want. When I drew her attention to the fact her input was necessary to proceed with the first stage of the website, she told me to cancel the project and that I'd be hearing 'from her lawyer'."
Let’s start with the pros. What did the freelancer do right?
They proposed a realistic timetable, which is important if your client presents you with a schedule that isn’t achievable. We’ve helped freelancers in the past who have had claims made against them for missed deadlines, so it’s important (and part of your job!) to manage project milestones appropriately.
If a client has unrealistic expectations, propose a more realistic timetable.
The freelancer also detailed each step of the project, which is crucial for helping clients understand exactly what they’re getting. This helps to manage expectations and ensures everybody is on the same page.
We have assisted freelancers in the past who have had claims brought against them because the client misunderstood what features they’d be getting or what work was included in the price they’d agreed to pay. Detailing each step of the project can help to manage those expectations.
The freelancer even listed the deliverables they’d need. They specifically mentioned this was in relation to the graphic design and logo, but deliverables could also include content, images, video etc. It’s important to tell the client what you need and when you need it by to minimise delays.
Lastly, the freelancer even invoiced a 30% deposit upfront. Paid deposits confirm it’s go time! All of this points to a smooth running project.
Where did it go wrong?
The freelancer started work without the deposit being paid. You shouldn’t start work on a project without payment. That’s what the deposit is for. It’s the client saying, "I’m serious about this, I’m ready to work with you".
An oral or written agreement that they want to go ahead isn’t the same as money being deposited into your account. That’s confirmation.
The freelancer also ignored red flags. These red flags included the client not paying the deposit, but the fact the client was difficult to get a hold of was also a major red flag.
Despite the client implying this project was urgent with their unrealistic timetable, it was 4 weeks before they spoke to the freelancer about the design and logo. This conversation didn’t even provide the freelancer with all the information they needed to move forward with the project.
If a client is difficult to communicate with, it’s a red flag. If a client isn’t giving you the deliverables you need to start work, it’s a red flag. It's never a good idea to ignore red flags.
How can insurance help?
Those are some best practices to consider, but how does insurance help in this situation?
Because there has been a legal threat you should notify the insurer if you have professional indemnity insurance. It's important to notify them of a circumstance that may give rise to a claim as soon as you're aware of any problems. However, there is no claim for damages or compensation so there is no monetary loss the client is claiming.
This could be an empty threat from the client designed to have the freelancer walk away quietly. We’ve seen this before where a client threatens a freelancer with legal action before backtracking completely and standing down.
Because there is no request for damages or compensation, but there is still the matter of work having been done without payment, there is the option to use the contract dispute service that’s provided with your legal expenses insurance.
In one part of the story, the freelancer mentions that it’s in their signed contract that if the customer cancels the project, any invoices already sent are payable.
There is the option to contact your legal expenses insurer and file a contract dispute a claim or get help recovering the money you're owed.
So, to recap, here's what to do if a client ghosts you, refuses to pay your invoice and threatens to get their lawyer involved:
- If a client proposes an unrealistic schedule, it’s your job to highlight it’s unrealistic and propose an alternative timeframe
- If they’re insistent on tight turnarounds, charge accordingly—and that means receiving 100% of the payment upfront for short projects with a sharp turnaround
- Make sure clients understand exactly what they’re getting by detailing each step of the project
- Give the client a list of what deliverables you need and when you need them by to ensure the project isn’t delayed
- Don’t start any work until the deposit has been paid
- Be aware of red flags—unresponsive clients, deposits or contracts going ignored. Listen to your gut
- If a client threatens you with legal action, contact your insurer immediately
- However, if there’s no claim for damages or compensation, you might want to submit a simple contract dispute claim if you have legal expenses insurance. If covered, they will provide you with a solicitor who will try to recover your payment and help with the negotiations