I think we’re all familiar with the concept of “ghosting” as it applies to the dating world. The gist of it is that two people are having some kind of relationship and then one of them disappears – no more communication, no explanation of what went wrong – just gone. The person on the receiving end typically feels confused, hurt, betrayed, and a whole slew of other emotions. Sure, breakups can be difficult and uncomfortable, but ghosting draws out the whole process because one person doesn’t know the relationship is over.

Ghosting is selfish, cowardly and cruel

I personally have no respect for ghosters. I think it’s selfish, cowardly and cruel. I’ve heard some people justify it by saying it spares everyone the awkwardness of a nonmutual breakup. But just stopping communication with no warning robs the other person of the closure they need. It’s become a huge downfall with technology and how people communicate, or don’t, with each other. Somehow it’s become common, sometimes even acceptable, to ignore people. I don’t think I will ever agree with it. I think we need to remember that, even though we’re mostly interacting via typed messages on various platforms, that doesn’t negate the need for compassion, empathy, and general human decency.

Not surprisingly, ghosting has spread from dating to all kinds of relationships, including professional ones. I hear from people, or see posts in business groups, almost daily now with a new story about a client who ghosted them in the middle of a project. It seems to be happening all the time, in different ways.

Sometimes it’s in the initial discussion before a contract is signed, which can be frustrating because, as many of you know, it takes a decent amount of time to prepare proposals and quotes. We often spend time talking to the client to get the information so we can build the budget for a project, agree upon terms, and all that fun stuff in between – work that’s essentially done for free before the job is even awarded 

Other times work starts and then the client disappears. You have questions that haven’t been answered and you’re left in limbo wondering if you should keep reaching out or call it a day and abandon the project on your end as well.

The worst stories I hear are when jobs are completed and the client goes into invisible mode before making the final payment. Those are the times when, all too often a hard lesson is learned about the importance of having detailed contracts signed before work starts, collecting deposits, and not delivering final materials before the account is paid in full. It’s a mistake that usually only gets made once, but it can have a huge affect on a person – mentally and financially.

I have only been business ghosted once. It was a few years ago and a new client, but someone I’d known for many years, hired me to get a year’s worth of bookkeeping in order so he could do his taxes for his new company. There was a rush, obviously, so I agreed to a one-month package where I would set up the system and get everything entered myself and then train his team how to maintain it moving forward. Along with the contract, I sent the schedule with all of the deadlines they would need to maintain in order to get it all done in the allotted time. There was also a clause that if the work extended past the month, or if they wanted to keep me on retainer to manage it myself, it would be x amount per month. Standard stuff. I gave them two payment options – pay the full amount with 50% due up front and 50% due before the final training, or 100% due up front at a discounted price. They paid up front, so we were good to go.

They missed their deadlines, of course, but we were still able to make progress. I got everything caught up, 1099s mailed out, and everything else ready for their accountant. There were only a few things left, including my video training for how to use the new system, and it crossed over into that next month so I sent the invoice. I never heard from them again. They didn’t remove my login or do anything to indicate there was a problem. They just ghosted. 

It wasn’t really an issue on my end – they didn’t pay my invoice so I didn’t do any more work. The silliest part about it is that because they didn’t respond, they never even got the training session they already paid for. That video would’ve been an important reference tool so anyone on that team could easily do everything properly. It would have given them step by step instructions for how to maintain the system I set up, so they wouldn’t have to pay me, or anyone else, to keep their books updated. The whole point of that was to help make sure they didn’t end up in that kind of situation again.

That experience with ghosting makes no sense because the only one who really lost out was the client, the ghoster. It wouldn’t have been an uncomfortable conversation if they didn’t want to keep working with me, because that was never the point. I intentionally worked out a deal with them that didn’t include any obligation beyond the original one-month term. It was a new busines with a small team, and they had someone there who was capable of doing it. I have never been that consultant who only helps enough to make sure I’m always needed for something else. I’m there to help at whatever capacity is needed, and sometimes they don’t need another monthly bill. They just need a little help to get things in order and then they can take it from there. That’s always fine with me.

My story is nothing but an odd anecdote. But I’ve heard from so many others who have had much more impactful ghosting situations. Discovery calls that end with “yes, I’m excited. I’ll be in touch soon!” And then nothing. A series of meetings, all moving towards a contract, but then crickets when it’s time to commit. Or a ton of back-and-forth emails working through all of the details to put together a budget, schedule, and everything else that’s needed, just to submit and never hear from them again.

And it’s not just clients who do it, either. One of my clients hired a vendor to manage some important elements of her business. After months of progress, this person went MIA, leaving the project unfinished, several months wasted, and my client having to start over from square one with someone new. It’s not okay. Wasting other people’s time and money is never okay.

And it’s not to say you have to keep a relationship with everyone you talk to. But if they’ve put their time into doing something for you, have the decency to say thanks but no thanks. It’ll take you less than a minute to send a simple email. I don’t care how busy you are, it doesn’t validate being inconsiderate to other human beings.

It’s one thing if you reach out to someone to offer services – a cold call or a general inquiry. While I still think it’s polite to respond, I get that the volume of these types of emails can overwhelm an inbox and sometimes we don’t get around to it. But when time and energy has already been put into conversations, meetings, and verbal or written commitments, let them know if you’re not going to move forward after all.

It’s another thing if you’ve only had a couple conversations with someone and decide it’s not for you. I still think you owe them a quick email to say hey, thanks for your time, but I’m going to go in a different direction for now. Or something simple. You don’t have to give a long explanation. It’s more of a courtesy to manage their expectations so they can move on to something else. And then they won’t keep emailing you to find out what’s going on. Win win.

Last summer, when I was finding locations for filming, I talked to a lot of people. I got quotes, photos, and details to share with my team. After a decision was made, I emailed every single one of them to let them know we wouldn’t be needing the space. That way they weren’t holding out hope that they’d have the job. They weren’t depending on the dates if something else came up. There are a whole number of reasons why I believe that kind of communication is the right thing to do. I don’t like delivering bad news, but it’s better than leaving someone hanging.

The thing is, unfortunately, it seems like ghosting is common practice now. It’s probably going to happen to you at some point if it hasn’t already. So we, as business owners, need to protect ourselves and do the best we can to make sure ghosters don’t put us in bad situations.

First, don’t take it personally when it happens. You don’t know what’s going on in their lives or why they decided not to continue. You can speculate all you want, but you’re never going to get an answer. So why not just assume it wasn’t you, it was them. Try not to think it’s a reflection on your work. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to figure out something you can never figure out.

Next, until you have a signed contract, be mindful of how much of yourself you’re putting into getting the work. We all want to give our full effort to getting new clients. We get excited about the prospect and come up with all these ideas and want to show people how awesome it would be to work with us. But it’s important to learn how to create an efficient proposal so you don’t waste precious hours on a job you’re not going to get. Templates are your friend. Starting with a ballpark budget range can help eliminate those potential clients who are never going to pay what you’re worth. Meaning before you go through all the line items and numbers to estimate a project, use your experience to say something like this would typically cost between x and y, depending on the specifics. If that fits in with your budget, let’s discuss further. Then if you never hear back, you haven’t wasted your time.

Finally, make sure your contract covers everything. The entire scope of work, in detail. Specific deliverables. Include dates and deadlines, both for you and the client, along with a clause that lays out what happens if they don’t get you what you need in time. It doesn’t mean you’re going to sit around waiting for them and when they finally get around to it, you’ll jump on it right away. Nope. If they do get it to you, and it’s beyond the time you had allotted for them per the contract, you’ll have to decide if you want to schedule a new time or if they’ve forfeited whatever they’ve paid. Set the payment schedule in clear terms. Collect a deposit before you start work. Explain that you own the work until it’s paid for in full. You won’t deliver final materials or files until the final payment is received (and cleared, if they pay by check). Outline the cancellation policy so they know that if they bail in the middle of a project, you’re not going to refund them. Your contract is what protects you from these unfortunate new business antics, so you want it to be as clear and detailed as possible . It’s like your own personal ghostbuster.

If you’ve ghosted someone, please let me know why. I really want to know the reasoning behind the decision. Are you uncomfortable with letting someone down, so you avoid the situation altogether? In that case, you know you’re letting them down but  you don’t have to see or hear the reaction so you’re okay with it? Do you think they’ll try to keep pushing or convincing you to work with them, so you’d rather not say anything at all? Or are you just telling them you want to move forward because it feels easier in the moment than saying no, I’m not interested at this time? Or do you think hey, it’s just business, not my problem? Or something else? Please enlighten to me. I always want to understand multiple points of view of a situation, but I’ve yet to hear the ghoster’s perspective.

I really hope ghosting isn’t something we should all just accept at this point. Part of being an adult is being able to have difficult conversations with people in a calm and respectful manner. All relationships deserve consideration and decency, whether they’re with romantic partners, friends, business partners, clients, vendors, or anyone else. It’s okay if you don’t want to work with someone. It doesn’t make you a bad person and even though they might be disappointed, it’s better to be honest and direct with them so you can both move on. Don’t be selfish. Don’t be a coward. And don’t be cruel. People deserve better.