Get the Money That’s Due to You AND Still Keep Your Clients


You’re about to discover how to face the one task that most freelancers probably dread–collecting a late payment.

When a client is late making a payment, it can set off a whole horrible negative train of thought starting with “I’m not going to be able to make my house payment/rent” and ending with “Did this client hate my work?”

But worse than the negative energy that a late payment creates is the very real fact that, like most freelancers, you rely on receiving your payments in a timely fashion so that you can live.

This is true, unless, of course:

  1. You’re independently wealthy and freelancing is your hobby.
  2. You live with mom and dad and freelancing provides your fun money.

If those two points apply to you, you probably won’t care much about this post. For the rest of us, though, a late payment is a serious thing and a seriously late payment is a dreaded thing.

In this post, I’ll explain how you can develop a proactive process to minimize the number of late payments that you face. I’ll also explain what to do after a payment is late.

Develop a Proactive Freelancing Process

The first thing you need to do to make sure that you get paid on time is to develop a proactive process. This means that you are taking steps to make sure that you get paid before you even start to work.

Here’s an example of a proactive freelancing process that works for me:

  1. Research new clients thoroughly. Chances are, if a company is in the habit of cheating freelancers, somebody has already complained about them.
  2. Make sure that you have a written agreement with every client even if it’s only an email. The agreement needs to be as specific as possible regarding payment terms. Include when you are to be paid, how you are to be paid, and the amount you are to be paid.
  3. Require new clients to submit a partial payment up front. This policy weeds out many scammers and others who are just trying to get you to work for free.
  4. Always invoice promptly. Don’t assume the client will pay if you don’t send a bill. Most clients need a bill to start their payment process.
  5. Have a plan in place. Don’t wait until a payment problem occurs and try to solve it in the heat of the moment. It’s best to draft a few late payment letter templates before you need to use them.

Here are a few additional tips that I’ve learned over the years:

  • Tip #1: Large companies often take much longer to pay. That is because payment approval goes through several departments.
  • Tip #2: If you have an especially large project, get the client to agree to break it into phases with a payment due at the end of each phase. This way you don’t have to go for a really long time without getting paid. This also gives you some leverage because if the client doesn’t pay for a phase, you can halt work until they do.

Of course, being proactive won’t completely protect you from late payments.

It’s Really Late–Now What?

The payment due date has come and gone and there’s still no sign of payment. Now what should you do?

While you may feel like sending an angry rant to the client and posting their name all over the Internet as a non-paying scumbag, this is NOT a good approach.

Rather, you should remain professional, but firm, in your communications with the client.

Remember, it’s possible that the late payment is due to an honest oversight. Clients are human too. If you lash out at the client, you will destroy a relationship and possibly your own reputation.

A good initial collection process follows:

  1. Start with a friendly reminder email. Keep your tone light. At this point, assume that the nonpayment is an oversight. Attach a copy of the bill you sent. For many clients, this reminder step is the only step that you will need to take. The nonpayment really is a simple error on the client’s part. Best case scenario: you get the money that’s due to you and you still keep the client.
  2. Send a firmer letter. If a few days have passed and there is still no response from your client, it is time to take a firmer stance. Without making threats or using emotional language, let the client know that this is a third billing and the payment is now seriously overdue.
  3. Make a call. Many freelancers hesitate to pick up the telephone to collect a late payment, but sometimes that is what it takes. Again, be polite and take a firm, but professional tone with your client.
  4. Send another firm letter. Repeat this as often as needed.

When it comes to collecting money, it is often the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. If the client sees that you aren’t going to let the matter drop, they may pay just to get you to stop bothering them.

Should I Get Help?

Many freelancers wonder whether they should sue a nonpaying client or hire a collection agency.

The answer is, that depends. I certainly wouldn’t turn to an attorney or an agency until I had followed the process above.

Consider how large the outstanding payment is. Most attorneys and collection agencies will not work with you for a small payment. But you may wish to bring in the “big guns” if the client owes you a lot of money.

This is where your client agreement becomes important. If you don’t have a written agreement of some type, you may not even be able to collect. (Although, emails sometimes count as a written agreement.)

Another factor to consider before getting collection help is that an attorney or collection agency will take a percentage of any money that is collected.

Your Turn

Have you had to deal with a client who was late in paying you? How did you handle it?

Share your tips and experiences (no client names please) in the comments.

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Comments

  1. says

    I have two clients whose payments are long overdue and of course no contract agreement. Its been almost 2-3 months now. I keep on sending payment reminder and now they have stopped answering. One of them look genuine and in some serious trouble but am not sure what to do…I have lost the hope to get the money to be frank and have moved on!

    Any suggestions Laura ?

  2. says

    Ameet–”no contract agreement.” That, of course, is the big problem. It’s very important to be proactive and set an agreement in place. Hopefully, for future clients, you’ll do this.

  3. says

    The first thing, before getting help, is to find out if the client has any money. If the client doesn’t, even if you win a court judgement, your not going to be paid and you still have to pay for whatever you did to get the judgement.
    A verbal contract is still a contract. Proving it is another story.
    Years ago I learned, one of many reasons, for success in the business is man’s trust in man!

  4. says

    Gold–That’s true. If you go to court and win a settlement and they have no money then it’s all a wasted effort. Good advice. I also agree that proving a verbal contract is very difficult. Great comment!

  5. Michelle says

    I have had two clients recently who have been late paying – the first time in years! One client I think will pay – turns out their accounts person has been on vacation (and as it’s a small company I believe this is true). I’ll give it a few more weeks before I start with the strongly-worded emails.
    The other – I have given up on. The work was completed in July and I have had no response at all to my last few emails. While I do have a written contract, the amount of money involved is probably not worth a collection agency. Unfortunately, I think this one is a lost cause.

  6. Dale says

    “I innocently posted this link to my FB feed for all my freelancing friends. Within five minutes, one of my FB friends, who also owes me freelancing $$, wrote me to apologize and say the $$ was on the way.

    Maybe I just stumbled on another method for freelancers to ask for late $$. We can call it the “Passive-Aggressive Facebook Guilt Trip”! LOL”

  7. says

    Dale–Your story made me smile. Thanks for the happy ending.

    I love the idea of the “Passive-Aggressive Facebook Guilt Trip” approach. Obviously this had been bothering your friend and your post was enough to nudge him (or her) into doing the right thing.

  8. says

    The thing is that…is not so simple!

    If a client didn’t pay us when we establish…something is not good. Of course that is better to have a polite approach, but it is all up to him.

    I have a client who didn’t pay my work..and I lost some serious time trying to receive my money by sending him all kinds of emails…polite emails. Finally I told him that I will make an online campaign to change people’s opinion about his business. – He still didn’t pay me. Are more than 3 months since then and my money are still at him.

    P.S. I didn’t start an online campaign to say bad things about his business.

  9. says

    I have one client that has not even responded back after seeing her website on my server. She said she liked it and wanted to set up a time to meet so I could help her set up hosting and get paid at the same time. Her site is no longer on my server and she has not gotten any files.

    My question is how do I get her to take the next step and commit to a meeting and finally get paid. It has been 3 months and I have all but cut my losses.

  10. says

    Cristian & Bryan Taylor–First of all, I’m sorry you’re going through this. From your comments, I’m not sure where you are in the process–but if you’ve already sent your reminders then it’s time to decide whether you should involve a professional.

    Of course, as Gold points out, you should try to determine if they actually have any money. If they have no money, even an attorney or collections professional won’t be able to help. For example, I once dealt with a company that went bankrupt. They owed me money at the time, but since there was a long list of creditors I never got paid. That would be an example of when even a professional can’t help.

    Unfortunately, there are still a small minority of instances when you won’t be able to do anything, but if you are proactive about who you accept you can minimize those cases.

  11. says

    I’ve been through this a couple of times – at the same time! It was a bad month. The first, I got the money four months late, the second, I never received. The first was the one I cared about – it was enough that not getting it would have been a bit of a hit at the time. The second was annoying, but not enough for me to pursue. What I learned was that the words ‘debt collection’ or ‘legal action’ have magic qualities. When a client has all but gone to ground despite sending repeated statements, tell them ‘You have 14 days to settle this account. If by X date it has not been paid the debt will be passed on to collection services’ and they’ll probably respond. (One thing to be aware of – make sure you have a clause in your contract or terms and conditions that fees associated with collection are passed onto the debtor or you’ll be stung.)

    It’s a lousy situation. What I learned from it was to get 50% upfront, don’t ignore the warning signs (and there were plenty from both clients), and warn them in your invoice that late payments (30 days or more for me) will incur fees. Most people are great, but you’ve really got to protect yourself against those who aren’t.

  12. says

    And if it’s still not getting any results, LEAVE IT and focus on your work.

    Don’t you waste time on some pitiful wreck of a client. But yeah, do make sure that you don’t do the same mistake from the next time.

    It’s all about the return on investment, isn’t it?

Trackbacks

  1. [...] You’re about to discover how to face the one task that most freelancers probably dread–collecting a late payment . When a client is late making a payment, it can set off a whole horrible negative train of thought starting with “I’m not going to be able to make my house payment/rent” and ending with “Did this client hate my work?” But worse than the negative energy that a late payment creates is the very real fact that, like most freelancers, you rely on receiving your payments in a timely fashion so that you can live. This is true, unless, of course: You’re independently wealthy and freelancing is your hobby. You live with mom and dad and freelancing provides your fun money Direct Link [...]

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