The secret to surviving an unresponsive client

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October 07, 2014
The secret to surviving an unresponsive client.

Why do some clients stop communicating with us all of a sudden? Is there any way out of this crappy situation? Picture this: a client calls you; she is super excited, telling you about that amazing project she needs you to design. She heard from a mutual friend that you’re the man for the job. You talked for two hours on the phone, there were laughs. You exchanged a few emails, she was very responsive. Everything went so well. It felt like love at first sight… And now all of a sudden she’s not answering your emails. You’re thinking — What did I do wrong? Is this like that girl I dated when we were 16 who just suddenly stopped calling?” Screw it. You want to forget all about her and move on. You can always work with another client, who really wants and appreciates you. But wait, what if she calls all of a sudden? What if she’s on vacation and just missed your emails? You wanted this project so much… You feel like you’re stuck in a limbo. You send another polite follow up e‑mail, and nothing. She’s disappeared. I’m sure this has happened to you. Well, it’s your lucky day, I’ve got a fix for it that I’m going to share, and it works like magic. First, let’s try to get into your client’s head…

Why isn’t she answering?

Let’s assume your client is alive and well. I mean, sometimes I want to create a voodoo doll for special clients, but this usually only happens after we start working together. So why has she disappeared into thin air? There could be many possible non-fatal reasons. And you should take into account the different possible reasons before you blame yourself or start hating her. At this point you should still be optimistic. Here are some possible reasons why there’s quiet on the other side of the line:

She wants to date someone else

Well, s*** happens. Someone else may have gotten the job. Your competitor could be cheaper/​better/​have more recommendations/​whatever. It doesn’t matter, because you’re still thinking: Hey, it’s cool you took someone else for the job, but why can’t you be nice and tell me about it?” The truth is, sometimes we forget that clients are real people. Some of them are less fair than others, some just try to avoid conflict. So this one took the easy path and just ignored you. What’s important here is that you shouldn’t feel that you’ve done something wrong. No one likes to get dumped for someone better, but there’s nothing you can do about it; reality bites.

It’s not you, it’s me”

She told you all about her project, she was so excited about it herself. But unfortunately, the project itself fell through. It’s just not going to happen, for many possible reasons, none of which have to do with you. That’s simple bad luck for you. Now, do you think she’s happy about it? She probably wanted it to happen more than you did; and now, for whatever reason, it’s not going to happen. She’s probably down, sad, depressed. So she isn’t answering your emails because it just reminds her of the thing she wanted to be doing right now and can’t. It’s not you, it’s her.

She’s too busy to answer


, with this one you still have some hope. She didn’t decide to give up on you, she’s just too busy with the 1,000 tasks she has, working on that exciting project of hers. She has 48 unread e‑mails waiting in her inbox, and she isn’t responding to most of them because she’s overloaded. You should have faith, because as soon as she’s available again, you may get this job after all.

She can’t trust you just yet, she needs to meet you face to face

For some people a real meeting, face to face, works much better than communicating digitally. Especially when it comes to closing deals, discussing money and the like. Remember, many of our clients have never worked with creative professionals before. They might not be business people, so they feel confused about all that pricing, copyrights, and other things you mention in your e‑mails. They would rather meet and see that they can trust you with their precious project. So why isn’t she answering? Well, sometimes she’s just waiting until she has the time for a real meeting, and until then she’d rather not delve into the work. You know what, it’s possible a simple phone call is all she needs. Hearing your voice could help her build that trust. But you can’t call just yet because you don’t know if this is the right reason.

What should you do then?

So what do I do when a client seems to have been kidnapped by aliens? As I said, I’ve got a fix, and it works like a charm. Ready? Write another email (yes, another one, just trust me on this). A super short one, just a single paragraph: Subject: Closing The Loop
Hi [ Client’s name ];
I haven’t heard back from you on [project/​opportunity] so I’m going to assume you’ve gone in a different direction or your priorities have changed.
Let me know if we can be of assistance in the future.
[ Your name ] Now, before I explain what’s going on, I have to clarify two things: first, I use this myself and it works — in fact it works 50% better than any other email I’ve ever sent to a non-responsive client; second, I have to give credit to the genius who came up with it: Blair Enns. Thank you Blair. How come it works so well? Apparently it has several tricks in it: If the client is not working on the project anymore she’ll feel grateful that you’re still interested in assisting in the future, and at least send you a thank you” email. She may have been afraid you were upset and tried to avoid the conflict. Now she sees that you’re fine with it, so she can easily reply because there is no conflict. If she was too busy, well now she knows you are not waiting anymore, so if she still needs you, she’ll reply with Wait a second! Don’t go! I have no one else! You are the one for me!” This also goes for the possibility she wanted to meet you face to face and didn’t have the time to ask. Now she knows she must act fast or she loses you. And what if she’s dating’ someone else? Well, you walked away with dignity. You offered her help in the future, and set her free. She might not respond, but she will definitely remember you as someone who doesn’t have a big ego; someone she might use in the future, or even recommend to a friend who needs a job done. (By the way, I’ve never tried this with actual dating. If you do, let me know what happens.)

For next time

I guess you read this post because you are stuck with a non-responsive client at this very moment. But in case you want to learn some new tricks for the next time, here are a few things you can do to prevent this situation from happening again. Have you read How to win friends and influence people” by Dale Carnegie yet? If not, do yourself a favor: save time on reading other stuff about networking, just get this book and read it. Slowly. If you do just half of what he teaches there, you might not have to look for clients anymore. They’ll jump on you. His best tip is Listen more, talk less.” A client called you about a project? Don’t just discuss the details of your work with her, but listen to everything she has to say about the project. And then ask her some more. You’ll want to hear about the vision of the project, the budget, and the risks. Try to understand who you’re competing with. Also, as mentioned above, some people need a face to face meeting in order to develop trust. Ask her if she’s fine with emails, or if she’d prefer to meet. Those questions show her that you’re interested in the project, not just doing your job. You want her to feel like you are both on the same team. She needs to trust you. Moreover, you want her to feel you’re engaged, so that even if she doesn’t end up hiring you, at least she’ll remember to tell you about it. And if she doesn’t, at least you’ll have a clue about why this happens.

Lior Frenkel

Lior Frenkel is the CEO at the nuSchool, helping freelance designers charge what they’re worth. Additionally, he is a freelance web project manager, writer (Wired Magazine) and speaker (TEDx, Web Summit). Follow him on Twitter @nuschooler.

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