When clients "go dark"

April 28, 2016

You spent hours putting together a comprehensive web build proposal for your client and diligently emailed the finished document within the agreed timeframe. That was two weeks ago and you are still waiting on a response. You have tried to gather feedback by emailing and leaving a phone message, and it becomes painfully evident that your client has "gone dark".

To "go dark" is a slang term meaning to disappear, or suddenly become unavailable or out of reach for a period of time. It happens in the world of intelligence and espionage, and it certainly happens in the world of client service. What should you do when (not if) this happens to you?

Why might your client go dark?

#1  Poor communication

Your client knows what he's thinking, he just hasn't thought to let you know what he's thinking. Yes, it's very rude, unbusinesslike and annoying.

#2  Deliberate avoidance

Is your client sourcing comparative quotes from other suppliers? Has he decided to use another supplier and is now avoiding having a difficult conversation with you? Has he changed his mind about the project? Refer point #1.

#3  There's an internal issue

Is there something going on, behind-the-scenes, that is blocking the progress of this project (quote sign-off; budget approval; disagreement on requirements, etc)? Refer point #1.

#4  Low priority

In the greater scheme of things, your project may now be low on your client's priority list. What once seemed a good idea has been overshadowed by other good ideas or maybe their budget will be better spent in other areas. Refer point #1.

#5  Too busy

Yep, that ol' chestnut. Refer point #1.


There are very few excuses that will make going dark acceptable (except perhaps hospitalisation, bereavement or a holiday in the Bahamas). Given that you can't force your client to respond, what can you possibly do about it?


Illuminating the darkness

Exhaust your communication options

Have you been emailing your client? Try phoning them. Been phoning? Try texting. Your client may have a preferred method of communication and perhaps you haven't yet hit on the right one.

Once you've tried different methods of communication (no more than a couple of times each), then you should stop, lest you risk appearing desperate.


Ask for assistance

Are you a small fish dealing with a big client? It may be time to call in the cavalry. You could ask your manager to try contacting your client on your behalf. Your client may respond better to them (ouch) rather than to you.


Send a meeting invite

If you need an answer by a specific date, then why not arrange a meeting with your client to discuss the situation in person? Even if they are not responding to your regular communication methods, send the invite anyway.

It's difficult to ignore a meeting invitation when it appears in your inbox. Your client would have to at least acknowledge its presence by replying "yes", "no" or "maybe" (OK, they could press the delete key, then you'll know it's a lost cause).


Send an invoice

Sometimes nothing will elicit a response faster than the prospect of parting with money. For example: You quoted $5000 to design a new logo for your client. You presented your first set of concepts and then your client went dark. After two months of non-communication, you invoice your client for the work completed to-date (which comes to $1000). You will likely then experience one of two things: either your client will be on the phone, as quick as lightning, saying that he won't be paying the invoice because the project is still very much alive; OR the invoice will be sheepishly paid and at least you won't be out-of-pocket.


Send an ultimatum email

Of course you wouldn't tell your client you are sending them an "ultimatum", but there are plenty of other words that mean the same thing. "If" followed by "then" should do the trick. For example: "If we are unable to have your approval to proceed by 4 May, then we will be unable to launch your website by our agreed date. Please respond with your instructions by Friday 1 April, or else our delivery agreement will need to be cancelled." Professional, clear and (usually) effective.
If you'd prefer to use a less formal approach, you could try: "Hi Bob. We are doing a clean-up of our outstanding studio projects. As we have received no direction about your website development in the last three months we will have to shut the project down, and we will invoice out all work completed to date. You are welcome to kick-start the development again at any time."


Cut them loose

There will come a time when you'll have to consider cutting a project (or perhaps even your client) loose. It is nonsensical to keep a job hanging around on your WIP sheet ad infinitum. You should invoice out the work completed to date and then close off the job (you can always re-open it again at a later stage).

If your client is notorious for going dark or leading you on a regular goose chase, then you have to decide if they are worth keeping on your books. Unfortunately, some clients are literally not worth the hassle.



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