How to handle hard-to-reach design clients

A few days ago, I published a post in response to one reader’s question about overcoming fear as a freelancer. The post was such a hit, I decided to tackle another question posed by a designer named Bree. Here’s the request:

I would love to see some reviews or tips on how to handle clients who do not respond or provide feedback in a timely manner.

Well, Bree, today you’re in luck because I’d like to share with you–and the entire Millo community if you don’t mind–a few ways I have tried and tested for handling clients who are hard to reach.

We’ve all been there…

If you’ve been freelancing for more than 24 hours, you’ve probably experienced it: a client who just won’t return your calls, email you back, or doesn’t seem to be at the office when you drop by for a visit.

You’re left asking yourself, “What could possibly be keeping them so busy?”

After a while, you start to ask yourself, “Are they just ignoring me on purpose?”

Finally, the scary question, “Am I ever going to get paid for this project?”

To make the most of a situation like this one, there are a few key steps you should take BEFORE and DURING the design process.

Here they are:

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Preemptive attack: before you start

A lot of the problem can be solved before you ever start working with any given client. Before committing to work with a client who may end up being hard-to-reach, try any or all of these tactics:

Include communication guidelines in your contract
I have an entire section of my design contract dedicated to communication guidelines. In essence, it lists the forms of communication by which I will attempt to contact them with questions, revisions, concerns, etc: their email address(es) and phone number(s) mostly.

In addition to means of communication, I also establish deadlines.

My contract says something like “Client has 48 hours from initial communication to give feedback, answers, or any other requested information or all subsequent deadlines are null and void and must be renegotiated.”

This requires my client to stay in close contact with me so they cannot complain when I don’t hit deadlines due to their inability to respond quickly to revisions or questions.

(PS. For more information on why you should include a contract in every design project you work on, download my free ebook 10 Common Mistakes Designers Make With Clients by subscribing to the free Millo newsletter.)

Take note of your initial interactions
Another preemptive caution you can take before ever signing on to the project is taking note of your initial interactions. If you contact the client and pitch your design services and they take weeks to get back to you, beware. They are likely going to communicate like that during the design process.

Warning: don’t write off a client who takes a long time to respond to your initial pitch. (Keep reading to learn more about that) But if, during the bidding process or initial stages of your designer-client relationship, they consistently take weeks to get back to you, think twice before working with them.

Be a human being during the design process

Even though you should always work hard to ensure you communicate frequently with your design clients, it’s also important during the design process that you are a kind human being.

Things happen. Family members get sick. Upper management changes the rules. People get laid off. Natural disasters interrupt lives and businesses.

And people just plain get busy.

So even though you need to make sure you move the project forward, have patience during the process by doing some of the following:

Try a different means of communication
If you can’t seem to get a response via email, try giving them a call or stopping by the office. Sometimes emails just disappear under a heap of spam or internal email. If you can’t get them to return a phone call, send an email. You get the idea.

Kindly remind them of their contract
Some people forget they signed a contract that said they would respond within a certain amount of time in order to keep the project moving forward. And, frankly, other people don’t even read the contract you draft up and they sign.

If you’re having trouble getting a reponse, remind them in an email or phone call that the deadline for the project will have to change if they can’t offer timely feedback.

Try to understand where they’re coming from
Sometimes, we freelancers forget that other people have bosses. And their bosses have other bosses, and more bosses. There are always more bosses.

Sometimes every cook in the kitchen has to give their input before your client can green-light the project. While you shouldn’t allow your clients to give pointless excuses, sometimes there are legitimate setbacks. Be human. Be kind.

How do you handle hard-to-reach clients?

So what have I left out? What sort of things do you do as a freelance designer to control clients who are hard to reach? Leave a comment and let me know. I’d love to talk with you about it.

Also, it’s not too late to submit questions for me to answer in posts this year. Leave your questions or post ideas in the comments of this post or on our facebook page and I will do my best to answer them!


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About Preston D Lee

Preston is an entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, and the founder of this blog. You can contact him via twitter at @prestondlee.


  1. I agree about the contract thing. You want to make sure they are aware that they have a responsibility to keep up communication on their end as well. Though I’m not so strict that I give a time limit.

    If I send off for approval and I don’t here back, I’ll email them again within 2-3 days. If I don’t here after that, I’ll call with the phone number given. If I don’t here from them after a week. I send out a email that I have to put their project aside and that I can not guarantee any deadlines/time frames due to lack of communication.

    I’ve actually had 2 or 3 clients in the past year, completely disappear on me and yes they did pay a down payment of 50%. Because of this, I’ve now put it my contract that if after 30 days, the project is considered cancelled and they can not get a refund.

    I always promise my clients that I will be available my phone or by email and respond to their questions and/or requests asap. 95% of the time I respond to my clients within an hour, the other 5% withing 24 hours.

    Good communication is the key to a successful project.

  2. I’ve always found that requiring 1/3 – 1/2 payment (depending on the job size) is an excellent way to keep my clients motivated to finish the project. Almost always the investment keeps them roughly on track.

    I, too, in my contracts stipulate that my time frame is dependent on their response time. For example, I use wording such as “After receiving the initial files and the deposit, April will deliver a proof in 2 weeks’ time. Work will cease until YOUR COMPANY contacts April with an approval or requested changes. The project will be completed 4 weeks after approval by YOUR COMPANY to complete the project as agreed upon by the proofing process.”

    Also, I love that you add to be human. It can be frustrating to wait around for a week while the 6-member committee hmms over your proofs, but your patience will go a long ways when the tables are turned and you are taking care of your sick children for 4 working days.

  3. Dear Millo,

    If I didn’t interrupt busy people, I’d never have any work. People who aren’t busy don’t need freelancers!

  4. When I work with those type of clients. I always get a deposit for the work upfront BEFORE the work. We had a client that took 6 months to return feedback to move the job forward and out the door. We didn’t have a deposit and almost considered the project a wash. (This client is now required to make a deposit on his projects and we feel more at ease about it).

    So I’d say get a deposit from the clients that always take weeks or even months to get feedback from. It helps keep stress levels low and you wont be wondering if you’ll ever hear back and get paid for the work!

  5. Hi – great post and very relevant. I especially like your emphasis on kindness. When someone acquires the client lable, sometimes that’s all we see and it’s easy to forget the kids that get sick, need lifts, sudden bereavements – the daily currency of nearly every human being. I’ve found it very very useful to ask right at the beginning: ‘How do you like to be communicated with – sms, email followed by an sms to let you know about it, just an email, or a phone call? Some clients like to work entirely online, others like constant face-to-face interaction or just at the briefing stage, others like to meet initially to put a face to the name and then interact solely online.

    What is common to most people is time-poverty; if a phone-call saves time, I’ll override the email preference so I can move on with the job.

    Would also love to hear other free-lancers’ experiences…

  6. Great post! And the idea of including some basic communication guidelines in a work agreement or contract is perfect. Something simple enough to do yet very effective in protecting the interests of the designer when it comes to meeting project milestones. Thanks for sharing some valuable insights!

  7. I’m currently working with a client who has been looking at my first round of logo proofs for about a month now. I gave him a 2 week quote for project completion and haven’t heard from him in about 2 weeks. He is MIA, but I held firm to my 50% deposit rule and, while he swears he loves the proofs and just can’t decide, I have a feeling he doesn’t want to go through any revisions to pay the other half. I did half the work and got paid for all of it, so I’m considering the project pretty much kaput. I’m definitely going to implement communication rules moving forward! In this business we never stop learning, but that’s probably why we love what we do in the first place.

  8. I was so shocked to see my question being addressed and I greatly appreciate it Preston! All of the information you have provided is extremely helpful, as is the advice provided in the comments. Thanks again! You rock!

  9. I usually have enough projects in progress that I don’t sweat it if a client takes a bit of time to get back to me. Stuff happens, after all, and it’s unlikely that your client is working only on whatever project you have in progress. As long as we both agree on the timeline, and my contract covers how I get paid if I don’t hear from them at all, I can usually adapt.

    The other important thing is to be firm with clients who expect deadlines to stay static even if they never get back to me with vital feedback or other information. I feel like a broken record sometimes when I remind them that meeting the deadline is dependent on them staying on schedule, but it’s better than having them assume otherwise because they are distracted by other things.

  10. I am currently experiencing the horrid nightmare of the vanishing clients.
    I work purely online and have to take offers of around $50 to £130 for digital art that takes weeks to complete, simply due to the same old lack of contact. The work I produce is of the very highest standard – I am extremely gifted at art but extremely un-gifted at business.
    I got so fed up with a current client not responding to my emails/skype requests for feedback that I assumed they had finally dissipated or they were gonna drag this 2 week project out for further months or even years. I finally put the art on my portfolio website to be viewed by the masses as I always need to keep things up to date and new. Yes, this was in breach of their contract but hey – no pay? No replies? I do not care for contracts that protect dodgy clients. If they haven’t paid for it then I get to do with it as I please, surely? I am doing world class work for pennies and no word for 2 or 3 weeks at a time and then get told to make numerous revisions that never end? It isn’t the job of the artist to chase the client – I am throwing my efforts at them and they just cant be bothered. The client is now very angry with me for displaying my art to the world – funny how a client CAN respond really quick when he realizes he has lost control of the situation. A shame he couldn’t reply when he should as the artwork has now been downloaded by hundreds of my fans and I am going to sell the work to someone else who needs it for a book cover. Screw those silly contracts as no court is going to entertain such dire amounts of money and I really can’t see how an American contract will even be valid in the UK, especially as it is only for $400. Clients really are bullies at times and believe all artists should work for free.

  11. This thread was just what I was looking for – I definitely like the communication guidelines section of the contract! Thanks for the good info!

  12. I’ve been searching all over for a post like this! I really appreciate it. I’m actually working with 3 dodgy clients as we speak. Luckily, I’ve collected a deposit from all of them. I just hate feeling like a bill-collector just to get them to provide feedback on THEIR projects.

    I have updated my website to include a ‘Communication’ clause. I currently don’t work with contracts on projects other than web design (I’m mainly a print designer), but I always provide a link to my Frequently Asked Questions page on my site in all emails to clients.

    Thanks again for the info!

  13. Legend Macaulay says

    Great article. Totally agree with the ‘be human’ part. Considerations build relationships esp. When dealing with clients that report to higher ups. Thnx for the tips.

  14. Our on going problem is the reverse, hard to reach web designers. Time and time again the failure to communicate with us regarding updates and or changes. Doesn’t answer email or his phone.

    • Sounds like you’ve had a bad experience, and I’m sorry to hear that. You’ve come looking in the right place if you’re looking for a new web designer!


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