Should you work with a client who returns after ghosting you?
Last week, I said that nagging wasn’t part of my job as an editor. Jonathan Rick, a reader, asked what to do about a client who, “after ghosting us, suddenly resurfaces to ask if we’re free to chat today or tomorrow.”
That’s a good question. What do you do about a client who comes back after giving up months earlier? You should put your pride aside and continue . . . but take advantage of the knowledge you’ve gained to reconceive and reprice the job.
Half-done projects are common
People give up on freelance projects often. While I complete about 90% of the projects I start, I can’t finish if the client isn’t available to contribute their part of the partnership — reviewing my work and responding. I’ve had projects left hanging for all of the following reasons:
- Client had to take care of a sick family member.
- Client changed their priorities, no longer wants to complete the project.
- Client says they can’t concentrate on the project right now, will come back to it at some later date.
- Client just stopped responding, or took months to respond and said, “I can’t focus on this right now.”
Freelance life is like that. It’s one reason why it’s best practice create a bunch of intermediate milestones and deliverables — with corresponding payment amounts — in your projects. That makes it more likely that you get paid for the work you already did, even if it wasn’t possible to complete the project.
When a break like this happens, I will ping the client every three to six months to see if they want to continue. But if there is no movement after nine months or so, I just give up and leave it alone.
So what should you do if the client returns after a long pause?
It’s natural to feel, “Hey, you ghosted me, and now you want my help?” But it’s counterproductive to your business to act on that feeling of pique. A client with a half-done project is far more likely to pay you for continued work than a new client you need to qualify and convince to work with you. You no longer need to get to know them and their needs, you’re already familiar with their content, and you’ve already figured out how to get money out of their (possibly byzantine) payment systems. A former client is pre-qualified, and you won’t have to write a detailed proposal to resume work with them.
So grumble silently, ask by email what has changed, and then agree to talk with them about how to move forward.
When determining what to do next, consider these things that you already know about the client:
- Was it enjoyable and productive to work with them, or annoying and frustrating?
- Did they regularly meet deadlines until they stopped, or were they habitually late?
- Did they communicate feedback in a way that you could act on?
- Did they pay invoices? Did they pay on time or late?
- Knowing what you know now, what would you change about the way you worked together?
When you reconnect with the client, you can find out more information:
- What’s the client’s current mental state? (This seems like a strange first question, but it’s important. You need some context to see what’s going on with the person that’s different from when they paused the project in the first place.)
- Why did the client come back after pausing? (“My mother died and now we’ve dealt with it and I’m ready to get back to work” is very different from “My ADHD constantly cycles through different priorities and now this project is in my sights again.”)
- Are you just resuming where you left off, or have the goals and deliverables changed?
- Is the scope of the project the same, or is it now larger (or possibly smaller)?
- Is the budget for paying for the project still in place? Has it increased or decreased?
- How have the deadlines shifted?
Then develop a plan for the restart. Crucially, there is no requirement that you continue the project on the same basis as you when left it. Things have changed; your deliverables and fee structure should change as well. You can do any of the following:
- Require payment for any unpaid invoices before you restart the working relationship.
- Revise the deliverables and dates based on new information. Create an updated proposal for the remainder of the project. Use more granular charges and deliverables that protect you in the even that the client goes AWOL again.
- Include an upfront charge for time spent re-familiarizing yourself with the project. (Normally this discovery only happens once, at the start of a project. But if you’re restarting after 18 months, you’ll be spending time finding old content and reconnecting with your frame of mind when you stopped working on it. You can and should charge for that.)
- Include an increase in your rates. You are under no obligation to charge the same rate now that you did when you quoted the project a year ago, especially if you are now charging other clients at a higher rate.
- Slot the project in among other projects you are working on. (If the client was annoying, you are under no obligation to put them at the head of the line, in front of clients who you’re currently working with.)
Here are some recent examples from my own work
How does this work in practice? Here are a few examples from projects I’ve worked on recently.
- I was working on a book proposal to help a client get a book deal. Because the client had decided to focus on other priorities, he stopped contributing content and updates in August of 2021, a year ago, even though the proposal was about 75% done. The client reconnected, said he had three weeks free to work on this and would like to complete it in that time period. Even though the client had a history of missing deadlines, I agreed to complete the proposal, because the client’s urgency made it likely that I’d get his attention during the time before his deadline. However, I (1) included an upfront charge to evaluate the current and new content, and (2) charged full price for the completion as if it were a new project, which was more than it would it have been if I had completed it on the original schedule. Due to a gap in my schedule, I knew I could complete the project quickly. Importantly, the content was evergreen, not based on a timely trend, so the year’s delay made no difference in the relevance of the content. The client also had a history of fast on-time payment, which motivated me to complete the project.
- A client for whom I had completed a book edit returned and asked if I would create a proposal that they could use to pitch publishers. I declined, because, based on my earlier experience, I didn’t think the content was likely to sell to a publisher and couldn’t in good faith create a proposal for it.
- A client who worked with me on monthly retainer stopped needing my help. After a few months in which we did no work, I proposed ending the retainer agreement, since it wasn’t helping him. I will restart work with this client if he circles back around and needs my help again.
- A client who had put a project on pause due to family reasons said she was ready to start working again. The first part of the project had gone well and the client had been responsive until her family issues abruptly took precedence. I enthusiastically agreed to continue working with her on the original basis as soon as she was ready again.
Restarts are great
As you can see, while it may seem annoying to restart a project after a gap, it’s actually a win. You get to charge extra and you don’t have to qualify the client or make the case that your work is worth it.
Certainly, protect yourself; a client who has ghosted you once is more likely to do so again. But don’t let your bruised ego get in the way of an opportunity to do good work and get paid what you’re worth.
Respect and lack of entitlement attitude from someone would weigh heavily in whether I’d work with them again on any basis.
I’ve been ghosted – when it would have taken someone less than a minute to send a quick email warning that they were dealing with something extraordinary. There are people I will never work with again for lack of this small courtesy.