Back in the good old days, like the 80s, when you didn’t want to see someone, change plans, cancel a meeting, pick a vendor to work with, or had an issue with another person, you’d pick up the phone and communicate with them. It was called good manners. Treating people with respect and consideration, even if you didn’t like them or want to do business with them.
But somewhere between then and now, manners and etiquette have gone the way of the dinosaur and a terrible business practice is rife; ghosting.
Ghosting is normally associated with ending a personal relationship by suddenly and without explanation, withdrawing from all communication so the other person is left wondering what happened. The ghoster is never seen or heard from again; no explanation, no reason. It is a term associated with romantic relationships but is now a thing in business.
What does ghosting look like?
It can happen when you offer someone a job, they accept and never show up.
It can happen when an employee decides they’ve had enough and doesn’t come back to work and forgets to tell the boss they quit.
It can happen when you do a job for a client, send them the invoice and never hear from them again (and they don’t pay).
It can happen when you submit a quote for a prospective client and they never respond…ever.
Sadly, this the modern way of doing business.
Ghosting is thing. Disrespectful. Rude. But a thing.
Rebecca McFarland, from Pop Your Career, had a client contact her a couple of times, super keen to have a new resume prepared. “I quoted her, she accepted the price, agreed to my terms and conditions, and told me to go ahead and invoice her… then nothing,” she said.
“Didn’t pay or didn’t respond to follow up emails. She just fell off the face of the earth.”
While it is easy to blame technology; the digital age makes it easy to ignore messages or to lose to messages, at the heart of this insidious practice, is just plain bad behaviour.
Sam Winch, an online course creator, thought she was doing the right thing helping.
“The client disappeared completely afterwards. They stopped paying their rent on their office and all the signage got ripped down. I’ve later found out that the guy had three Facebook accounts, so I’d say he has done this several times,” she said.
It is getting worse. We are seeing an environment where people’s time, skill or talent is not being valued. People assume you will do what they want … for free or cheap … and then they may do business with you but will not take the time to let you know if they will. A lot of this behaviour can be explained by an avoidance of being in uncomfortable situations. It is easier to disappear than it is say ‘no, I’m not interested,’ or ‘I can’t pay right now’.
Lou Hammer from One Day P.A. learnt about business ghosting the hard way. “I had someone ask me to plan their big family Christmas lunch. We met numerous times to discuss theme, budget etc. She agreed to my proposal and budget breakdown,” she said.
“I didn’t ask for a deposit as she was someone I trusted. I got to work on menu planning, mood boards etc. I spent about 20 hours on the project including the late-night meetings.
“I sent her some concepts and then she vanished. Literally not a peep. She never responded to emails or phone calls. It was a big lesson learnt and now I never start work until I get 50 per cent deposit.”
Kara Vaina, Social ConXn, didn’t know ghosting was a thing until it happened to her. “In a service-based business, you will get ghosted; people don’t have the confidence to reply or they get so busy, they don’t get back to you. It’s just a lack of manners in business.” she said.
“We had an existing client who owed us money. We had a good relationship with the client and there were no warning signs. We had an agreement in place outlining our terms and conditions. Until it got to the point where she owed us two months and ignored all attempts of contact. We sent her a final message advising her content was not going out, she paid quickly but left it right to the final moment. Then she did it again. No replies. Nothing.
“We got sick of it. We went to CoverMore and used their templates to try settle it. She still ignored us. After another fortnight past so we handed it to them, and had it settled.”
Kara has now updated all client agreements, changed payment terms and how content is scheduled. “This situation gave us a real sense of worthiness and empowerment not to walk away and to chase them for the money owed to us. We are a lot stricter on payments in advance now,” she said.
“We have shared our story to empower others not to put up with this behaviour and to chase the money. Chasing it may cost you $50 to get $500, but that is work you have done, you deserve to be paid. You are owed it. We’ve since found out this client owes up to $100,000 to other creative businesses. We’ve had up to 70 messages from other business about the same person.”
How do we mitigate ghosting in business?
Lawyer Shalini Nandan-Singh, from Legally Shalini, said having a contract is the best protection. “It is vital to be clear on terms and conditions to protect a business. When it comes to non-payment of invoices, the contract needs to be clear on what happens if the client ghosts you,” she said.
“Even if ghosting has never happened to you, having communication obligations addressed in your client contract and consequences of ghosting behaviours such as suspension, termination, third party collection, must be stated. This way you are covered.”
Have in place conditions around payment of invoices – you might take an initial deposit or payment in full before starting work. If they disappear and do not pay the final amount, there are many low-cost debt collectors happy to chase the debt for you.
You send the invoice for payment and suddenly the person you have had a great working relationship with has nothing to say, even when you send nice emails requesting payment. This is when you must get on the phone. Try calling from a number they do not recognise. Keep track of all communications to cover your back. If phone calls fail, that is when you can big in the big guns like debt collectors and lawyers.
Shalini said to document your attempts to communicate and connect. “As a service provider you, and as a human doing business, should always make the effort to re-establish communication but generally if you have no response (and how much time you give it depends on a number of factors like nature of work, deadline, invoice requirements) then you need to enforce your contract,” she said.
What about those who proposals that never get responded to. Chase them up, relentlessly until they answer. Remind people of manners – it is ok to say ‘no’ to a proposal. By taking the time to say no, you are saving someone hours of chasing you. There are some online programs like Better Proposal you can use to track the proposal; It shows you when it has been opened, every time.
As for proposals, you can start charging a proposal fee, which can be absorbed into the first month’s invoice if they work with you or refunded if they decide not to. This will weed out the tyre kickers and the-not-so-serious.
Shalini said you cannot control ghosting.
“It is indicative of a lack in communication skills and possibly relationship skills that topple over into a business relationship.
“You have to just focus on doing the right thing from your end and then cut them loose and enforce your contract.”
For the ghosters; difficult conversations are, well, difficult for a reason. It means there is something at stake. When you treat someone in this mean spirited and disrespectful way, you are burning bridges; people talk, and people remember. You are leaving people with a negative impression of you Instead of taking the easy way out, be professional and take responsibility for your actions.
For the ghosted, get your contracts in place to protect your business. And if it you are ghosted, know there is nothing you can do about bad manners. Chalk it up to experience.