Clients going AWOL part way through a project can cause all kinds of problems. The deliverables you need to do your work aren’t provided on time. The sign-off you need to move onto the next phase isn’t completed. The payment you expect to receive isn’t settled.
The project abruptly pauses. If you don't move onto the next phase you’ll miss the deadline, but you’ve not been paid for the work you’ve done.
You’re feeling anxious and are left asking, “How do I get paid for the time I’ve spent on this and what are my options?”.
Ideally we’d prevent this situation from happening in the first place. Whilst there are no guarantees to stop a client from ghosting you mid-project, there are things we can do to minimise the chance of it occurring. These include:
- Having the right clauses in your contract
- Payment milestones
- Not starting work without a deposit
- Not delivering work until the final payment has been made
Contract clauses for clients that ghost you
Whilst contracts don't stop projects from going wrong, freelancers should never work without a contract. Let’s look at the contract clauses that can help if a client ghosts you mid-project.
What is a pause clause? If a client is late in providing deliverables like input, content, payment or approvals you’ll put the project on hold after a period of time has lapsed. This period must be stated in your contract. Is it 5 days? 10 days? When the deliverable is received from the client the project will then be rescheduled based on your current workload and availability.
How does a pause clause help? The pause clause incentivises clients to stay on track because ghosting now has real consequences. You'll be moving onto other client work and it could be weeks before you have availability. It also ensures you’re not wasting time on a project that may have no intention of concluding.
Credit for the pause clause goes to Carl at the Bureau of Digital who says it "sets expectations and starts a conversation about staying on schedule".
What are late fees? You are entitled by law to add interest to your invoice if your client is late paying for your service. This is something you can utilise if a client is dragging their heels with payment milestones mid-project. Whilst you don't have to highlight late fees in your contract, I'd suggest adding a late fees clause to show clients there are financial implications to ghosting your payment. You can also add your payment terms to your invoices as a reminder.
How do late fees help? I don't know of any client that is happy to pay more than what they've been quoted for a project. Late fees work. As one freelancer said, "I've only had a late payment once and enforced the late fee. Client has paid on time since then".
Work Notes have written an excellent blog post on why freelancers should issue late fees.
Ownership and licenses
What is ownership and licenses? Transferring ownership, licenses and all necessary files only once you've been paid in full incentivises clients to (quickly!) pay the final balance. It's important clients are happy with the final version and they sign-off on it, but there are ways to show clients the final product without handing deliverables over. Anything from a staging server to watermarked photos. I used to be a freelance photographer and I'd show clients a contact sheet with low-res imagery or use watermarks on high-res imagery.
How does ownership and licenses help? Picture the scene. After weeks of working together happily you deliver the final assets and issue your invoice. There were no hiccups throughout the project so you trust your client to pay. 30 days pass. Then 60. Now 90. Your client has no motivation to pay because they've now got everything they need. Quite simply, having a clause in your contract about being paid in full before transferring ownership and licenses means your client is less likely to ghost you.
What problems can arise from client ghosting?
It's not just payment issues that arise as a result of clients disappearing mid-way through a project. Ghosting shows a lack of commitment to the project, which can cause other problems. We share one story where a client disappeared for 4 weeks and complained the freelancer hadn't done the work they'd expected them to do.
This can easily lead to a claim against the freelancer, which is what your insurance is designed to help with. Nobody wants problems to escalate to the stage where you need legal help, which is why it's important to make sure you've got solid project and client management processes in place.
- Learn practical tips from other freelancers on keeping projects on time and managing client expectations
- Tips on what to do if your client is ghosting your invoice
- Hear from a freelancer whose client wanted their website delivered in 3 days after ghosting them