As professional service providers, we all strive to be taken more seriously. We talk often about value, pricing and how what we do is very different from your neighbor’s cousin’s nephew hacking web designs in his basement cave.
The Great Disappearing Act
Unfortunately, there’s a problem in our industry that happens all too often: people disappear. How many times have you heard “my web developer just stopped answering me” from a potential client, or contracted with someone for work who pulled the vanishing act?
A Bump in the Road
Life happens. Perhaps you broke your hip heli-skiing, or you’re spontaneously moving across the country. Maybe you’re sick, or having a family emergency. Anxiety, depression and burnout are legitimate issues. None of these scenarios exempt you from communicating with your client. Take a few minutes to draft a short email that covers two things: your current status and expectations. One day there might be a situation where you can’t call or email clients – have a plan for this. Keep an updated list of active client contact info and have a friend or colleague handle this for you in a true emergency situation.
You Can’t Do It
You over-committed. The project was appealing, you needed money, perhaps you didn’t grasp the full scope of what was required. Maybe schedules slipped on other projects and you just can’t get out of the weeds. You need to say so. Someone, somewhere, is depending on you delivering quality work in a timely fashion to meet a schedule. If you can’t do it, for any reason, communicating that simply and professionally is a far better option than stalling or just going dark. This isn’t something anyone wants to do, but as a professional you have an obligation to do so. If someone is timely and honest, I’d consider them for another project at a better time or more technically suited. If you disappear, that’s not going to happen. I’m probably also going to tell my professional network you’re not a great choice.
You Just Don’t Want To
Things change – you vaguely committed someone to doing some writing or site optimization or fixing that code at some future point. Maybe it’s a blast from the past, someone you haven’t heard from in years or didn’t enjoy working with very much and you have plenty of better options now – or something developed recently that’s a much better opportunity. Whatever the reason, someone is anticipating you will do work for them and you don’t really want to do it. Tell them things have changed and you’re not available. Details don’t matter, just be professional and ideally give them some options and recommendations. Don’t create a situation where someone is contacting you and wondering why they’re not getting a response.
I’ve watched every one of these scenarios play out over the years, some with colleagues I respect. Most people are wired to want to please, and the possibility of delivering bad news and a potential negative reaction often results in avoidance – which makes things so much worse. When you start exchanging your work for money, you are selling professional services, and they need to be professional. You rarely hear tales of someone’s architect or lawyer just disappearing. If we as an industry aspire to be taken seriously, especially small shops and freelancers, we have an obligation, even though we know it might be painful, to communicate what could be bad news.
Clarity Is Often Appreciated
Don’t let yourself get stuck in a bad loop of dread and avoidance. The majority of people are going to appreciate quick and honest communication. It’s possible you might get a negative response, but it will certainly be less negative than if you leave somebody waiting and wondering what happened to you.