What To Do When Clients Don’t Get Back To You

You’ve been working merrily along with a client or collaborator. Things are going well and you’ve had good results so far.

Now you’ve reached a crossroads and you need them to make a decision, sign off on the work, or pay an invoice.

You, being a good reader of this blog, tackle the issue head on and ask for the other person’s input, approval or payment.

And you hear…nothing.

Radio silence.

How long do you wait for a response? What do you say? How do you move forward if you don’t hear from them?

Don’t Wait Indefinitely

By Ninjagraphy via Flickr.com

By Ninjagraphy via Flickr.com

When posed the question of “How long should I wait for an answer before I do anything?” my first inclination is to say, “A reasonable amount of time.”

But reasonableness is subjective.

The amount of time you might be willing to wait for an answer to your Very Important Question might be very different from the amount of time I’d wait.

But in an effort to break things down, try this simple algebra:

(The Complexity of the Request) – (The Number of Times You’ve Asked for a Response) ÷ (Their Role in the Decision Making Process) = A Reasonable Amount of Time to Wait

Let’s look at the pieces of this equation.

The Complexity of the Request

Are you asking for final approval of a finished project, or do you need their go-ahead to move on to a crucial next phase?

Do they need to pay your regular old monthly invoice, or review and approve $20,000 in brand new expenses?

Is the question “how would you like your name to appear?” or “are you OK if we split the profits 70/30?”

The more complex the question, the more thought they need to put into their answer, which means giving them more time to respond.

Note: the importance of the information to you is not the same as the complexity of the request. Just because you really super care about their answer doesn’t make the question itself harder for them to respond to. Don’t give them lots of leeway  just because you’re worried about the answer.

By sea turtle via Flickr.com

By sea turtle via Flickr.com

– The Number of Times You’ve Asked

If you’ve already inquired three times with absolutely no response, the amount of time that is “reasonable” for an answer decreases.

So if a complex question necessitated five days of consideration before responding, and you’ve asked three times over the last two weeks, they don’t get yet another five days to reply to your next attempt.

÷ Their Role in the Decision Making Process

Are they the decider? Or do they have to check with five other people before a decision can be made?

More people means more complexity, so be prepared for that.

If the person you’re talking to is The Decider, make sure they have the information that they need to make their decision. If you’re unsure that they do, ask them or offer to talk them through the details.

If the person is not The Decider but one of many deciders along the way, consider jumping ahead in line to get the answer you need. This can lead to hurt feelings and weird work politics, but if you aren’t getting the answers you need in order to do your job, it might well be justified.

Make Sure They Know What You Need and When You Need It

So now you’ve done the math and have reasonable expectations about receiving a response. Your request may still languish for lack of specificity. The email will say, “Hey, Stephen, I need your input on items 3 and 4 below, please,” but fail to mention, “and if I don’t hear back from you before next Wednesday, the deadline will be pushed out by three weeks.”

Make sure your requests for responses are clear about:

  1. Exactly What You Need
  2. When You Need It
  3. What Will Happen If You Don’t Get It

Items 1 & 2 are pretty straight forward, but 3 can trip people up.

By Maitri via Flickr.com

By Maitri via Flickr.com

Way too many freelancers I talk to will list the consequence of someone not doing what they need them to do as, “Well, I guess I’ll get screwed.”


The consequence of someone not doing something that you need them to do impacts them, not you.

So for example:

They don’t pay your invoice on time?

Work stops until they pay.

They don’t approve a design in a timely manner?

The delivery date is pushed out.

They don’t tell you how they’d like to handle your collaboration?

You move on to other work.

What Happens Next

→ If you’re waiting for them to pay you.

Have someone else wrestle with them over money so you can get back to work. ZenCash is one option: they’re essentially a collections solution for freelancers and small businesses. You can either pay them per item of work, such as an invoice or a collections call, or you can pay them a percentage of what they collect for you. You can also use a more traditional collections agency. Or, if you think your client is simply distracted or neglectful, start adding late fees to your invoices to startle them into action (or try some other DIY techniques).

→ If you’re waiting for approval to move on with a project.

It’s OK to move on to other work if the client you’re waiting on approval from won’t get back to you. Really, really. You don’t have to be beholden to their “yes” or “we were thinking that maybe another committee meeting would be good.” Now, granted, this requires you have other work to move on to, but as a freelancer there is almost always something else you can be doing: work for other clients, networking, client contacts, administrative work, marketing, and yes, even work for yourself.

→ If you’re waiting for permission to do something.

Do it anyway.


Sure. Look, if they really don’t want you doing whatever it is you’re asking permission to do, if you start doing it, they almost certainly will get back to you.  Don’t do anything that’s irreversible, don’t do anything that could put you in jail, and don’t do anything that will harm another human being. But otherwise, so long as you’ve told them what will happen if you don’t hear back from them, give it a whirl. I’m not saying that there won’t possibly be consequences, but you will get their attention.

By bump via Flickr.com

By bump via Flickr.com

The next time you don’t hear back from someone, don’t throw your hands up and curse their unborn children’s names. Take matters into your own hands by being reasonable, direct about what you need and what will happen if you don’t get it, and ready to move on if they don’t respond.

Categories: Dealing with People


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3 responses to “What To Do When Clients Don’t Get Back To You”

  1. Great advice. I needed to hear that. I might add “Keep providing new paths for them to get to where you want them to be.”

    Today I had a problem with getting a client to approve my recommendations prior to my implementing them (SEO changes to web content and HTML tags).

    I don’t feel comfortable just making changes without written approval via email. But the client did not respond to the past few documents I emailed him. Finally he replied that he was very busy, did not need documentation of my changes, just a summary of them.

    I decided to change the terms to accommodate the client. I emailed them that I would go ahead and send him my recommendations and also make the changes. As long as he does not disapprove what I send him, I’ll take that to mean that he approves them.

    This seems workable since changes are easily made by myself or the client via the admin panel.

    I’ll email him a summary, with the full documentation attached, so we’re both covered.

  2. Lisa says:

    I began a contract role with a small non-profit in mid-February. We have a signed 2 year contract in place for sponsorship & business development activities. I am to be paid an hourly rate for a 20 hour work week. The problem is that the Executive Director and the marketing head are extremely non-responsive. Not only have I been given very little direction, but I have been waiting for some sales and marketing info for 3 weeks so that I can get started on a new campaign. Despite several attempts and nudging (and promises that what I need is in the works), I have received none of what I need to move forward.

    It goes against my grain to not work hard at completing assignments — but my hands are tied. My question is twofold. How do I get the client to be more responsive? And if they do not provide me with what I need to do the job, how should I handle moving forward? It feels wrong to invoice them when I am not accomplishing much!

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