Ten Plus Ways to Help You Get Paid

call-clientIt’s the one thing that every freelancer dreads–collecting a payment from a delinquent clients. No freelancer ever wants to have to pick up the phone and call a client to ask about a late payment.

Yet, sooner or later, many of us are faced with a client who doesn’t pay us on time. It’s normal, I think, to procrastinate in such circumstances. You tell yourself that the check will be in tomorrow’s mail, but in your heart, you know it’s not really coming.

Getting paid is vital to a freelancer. In fact, the money we receive for our services is what enables us to keep doing what we love. It’s how we support our families and ourselves.

Fortunately, there are some steps a freelancer can take to prevent payment problems from occurring in the first place as well as some steps to follow when a payment is late. In this post, we’ll discuss ten of those steps.

How to Get Your Money

When a client is seriously late with a payment it’s not only a blow to the pocketbook, it’s a threat to our livelihood.

What can a freelancer do to avoid having problems getting paid?

We’ve talked about collecting late payments before at Freelance Folder. In the excellent post What To Do To Avoid Getting Ripped Off? Lois Knight suggests the following steps:

  1. Always send a formal invoice with a description of the work.
  2. Send a gentle reminder after 7-10 days.
  3. Send a second reminder in 15-30 days.
  4. Take the client to court.
  5. File a grievance with the Better Business Bureau.
  6. Require a retainer up front.

These suggestions are great, but there is even more that you can do to keep from losing money.

In addition to the steps listed above, try these steps:

  1. Investigate a client first–Learn everything you can about potential clients. Look at their website. Google their company name. Check the Better Business Bureau for complaints (if he or she treats his or her customers poorly, they will probably also treat their vendors poorly). While you can’t always tell whether a client will be a deadbeat from what you learn online, it’s amazing what you actually can learn. The more information you have up front, the better.
  2. Use a formal contract–A contract should spell out the agreement between you and your client. Having a contract may give you a little legal edge later on if there is trouble later on. Not only does having a contract serve as a record of your agreement, it also tells the client that your business with them is a serious matter.
  3. Offer a discount for early payment–In many industries it is customary for a vendor to offer a discount to customers who pay early. You can do the same thing to encourage your clients to pay you promptly. For example, if your invoices are normally due in a month, but you’d like to be paid sooner you can offer clients who pay within the week a small discount. On your invoice a 2% discount for payment within seven days would be written 2/7 net 30. (On a thousand dollar invoice, this is only $20.00.)
  4. Invoice promptly–It’s very important send an invoice as soon as a project is done. First of all, very few clients will pay you before they receive an invoice. Also, the longer the time period between when you turn in your work and when you invoice the client, the more likely it is that you will have trouble getting paid. Leaving a gap between project completion and invoicing opens the door to a lot of potential problems. Your contact for the project could leave the company. Or, the company may believe that they have already paid you due to the length of time that has passed. If you invoice a client monthly, try to do it on about the same date each month.
  5. Make that telephone call–Sometimes there’s no way around it. You have to call the client on the phone and ask for the money that you are owed. When you are faced with this challenge, it’s a good idea to plan in advance what you are going to say. Jot down some main points that you want to make with the client. If possible, rehearse the phone call. While you are on the phone keep your voice and language professional, but firm. Avoid yelling or cussing at the client, even if you feel angry or upset.

With careful planning, you should be able to reduce your number of unpaying clients and late paying clients.

What Do You Think?

Do you have steps that you take to ensure that you get paid on time? Share your tips.

Have you ever had a client that didn’t pay? Share your story (no names please).

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Comments

  1. Deb says

    Does it work to file a complaint with the BBB? Because when I tried to do that with a non-paying client, I was told it didn’t apply to failed business relationships? Only private customers.

    I’ve had very little problem with this, my gut feeling is very trustworthy. Unfortunately all my bad experiences follow a cultural pattern and has led to me simply not dealing with clients from certain countries. Sad but true. My biggest issue with myself in these situations is to stay on top of accounting and actually -check- when/if people pay or not.

  2. says

    Hi Deb!

    The Better Business Bureau suggestion was from Lois Knight’s post. Personally, I’ve never tried it, but I’d love to hear from someone who has.

    My feeling is that filing a complaint might be successful if the problem was a widespread scam, or if it involved a fee of some sort to get job listings.

    What do you think readers?

  3. says

    I only had one instance where I didn’t get paid and it was because the client dug his heels in and insisted that he wasn’t going to pay for work he wasn’t happy with (despite the fact that it met all the requirements outlined in the contract). It was pretty clear that he was never going to be happy, so I demanded he remove the content he hadn’t paid for from his website and I would agree not to take him to small claim’s court.

    The issue that comes up more often is that editors or clients sit on my copy for weeks or sometimes months before they approve it and I’m allowed to submit my invoice. I guess in those cases there’s little you can do except politely email a reminder every few weeks asking for an update.

  4. says

    I just recently “won” a battle for payment from a client. The project was completed in late December 2009 and I finally received payment in early March 2010. During that time I was send invoice reminders bi-weekly, weekly and then eventually daily. Calling the customer would hardly work as he would ignore the calls and never acknowledge or return a voicemail left. I would even drop by the office unannounced and demand to speak with the client, but he was always conveniently “out of the office”.

    I got so sick and tired of the situation that I threatened to report him the BBB and even the Chamber of Commerce in the city they work. Not sure if any of those routes would have worked, because he finally came through on the payment. I was also in talks with debt collectors to see what it would have cost me to hire them to collect the late payment on my behalf.

    Needless to say, I will never do any work for that client again.

  5. says

    It is a tough one this. Generally you have to have a hold over your clients. As a web designer I insist that the job is paid for BEFORE a site goes live. I learnt the hard way that you have to be tough and ignore promises of “money in the post” and get proactive.

    Get a sizable deposit upfront as well, that way your cashflow does not suffer. I’ve seen many colleagues get caught out with bad cashflow and ending up in a mountain of debt that the job does not eventually manage to cover at all.

  6. says

    Once things have gotten this difficult with a client, they soon become a former client regardless of whether they pay up or not.

    Unless certain extraordinary reasons play in, once the “late game” starts it never seems to end. And that is one game I do not wish to play.

    Regarding Deb’s comments, that is something freelancers should consider when taking on international clients–what leverage do you have if they fail to pay? Not much.

  7. says

    Really Interesting Post. It will come handy, definitely need to bookmark.

    Investigate a client first & Invoice promptly can solve this kind of problem up to a limit. But in some cases we have to use Plan C. :P

  8. says

    I don’t think one should worry about calling a client for a late payment – and you can take steps to making sure that it won’t happen – other than what’s described here.

    In the contract that I have, there is the option to have the client pay a certain percent up-front (maybe 25%), another percent once the design is done (25%), one when the programming is done (25%), and one when the project is implemented (25%).

    If you go by this payment guide, the client will be forced to pay, otherwise their site doesn’t launch on time, all the while you still have 75% of the payment, waiting on the small 25% chunk that’s left over.

    I feel like getting paid after-the-fact (not knowing when you’re going to be paid) is the cousin of doing spec work – since the client can walk away at any time for some BS arbitrary reason (though I doubt that happens much).

  9. says

    I agree with Matt, in the end, it’s often very difficult to get a client to pay if they simply don’t want to, and legal recourse many times is more expensive than what you’re actually owed anyway.

    I think a good practice is getting to know & trust your client before doing business. Also, I try to collect half of the project amount up front, or if it’s broken out into segments, full payment up to the first milestone before beginning work.

    Then it just takes doing a good job, staying on track, and being proactive about contacting the client with invoices for payment.

  10. says

    If it comes to it, people in the UK can use the Money Claim website from the government. A great service, you just complete a form. They then send a very offical looking document to the person explaining that if it’s not resolved the case will be taken to small claims court.

    The one time I had to use, the client couldn’t pay fast enough!

  11. says

    Great post Laura!

    I agree that the “Take the client to court” is out of the question. You never want it to come to this! More than likely, it would cost more money to take someone to court than the original invoice.

    Going the BBB route would probably be the best thing to do in a situation where the client refuses to return phone calls or emails. I’m interested to see what others have done in this situation.

    We have made a policy in our company that if we design a website for you, we host that website. This gives us a little leverage when the client decides to drag their feet on payment. A client is always going to be quick to pay when their website suddenly comes up with a splash page that says this website is down until further notice.

    Thankfully, I have a billing department (my wife), a master linguist, who can convince most anyone to pay their invoice!

    Anyone out there had any luck with filing complaints with the BBB. Anyone have some good examples of splash pages that they use when a client doesn’t pay and you take their website down?

  12. says

    Thanks for all the comments. I know payment is a crucial issue for freelancers and there’s some really excellent feedback here in the comments.

    I absolutely agree with Tony and Customized Web Design Studio that it’s undesirable to take a client to court. If a small amount of money is involved, it may not even be worth it. However, in a few circumstances, where an exceptionally large sum is involved or if you feel the client behaved in a particularly injurious fashion, I think a court action could be necessary.

    Alex, thanks for sharing about the Money Claim website. I didn’t know about it and I’m sure our U.K. readers will appreciate the tip. :-)

    Glen and Dover, I always get a partial payment up front. As a writer, however, I rarely deliver my work in installments. My two chances to get paid are usually up front and when I deliver. So, delaying payment until the work goes live would be essentially requiring 100% up front–a proposition that most clients reject. However, I have heard of writers who require as much as 50% up front and I think that is quite realistic.

    Thanks for all the good, thoughtful comments. Keep them coming!

  13. says

    These are such important tips especially in this economy. I work with a number of clients on retainer and require an up front deposit. I also use contracts and early pay discounts.

  14. says

    All good stuff, here, especially about forestalling problems by nailing things up front. It’s always better than chasing.

    I hate doing this, but sometimes it helps to prick the client’s ego a bit.

    “We had talked about settling the final payment with ten days of delivery. Haven’t seen it so far. I trust you’re not in any financial difficulty at the moment?

    Please let me know.”

    Most entreprenueurial types will have a hard time admitting to that, and pay up. At least sometimes.

  15. says

    I’ve been having trouble with late payments lately myself. I do most of my work for other agencies, and what really gets me heated is when the client says, “We’re still waiting for payment from our client, we’ll pay you as soon as they pay us.” To which I respond, “They aren’t my client, you are. If I’m supposed to wait for _them_ to get paid, then my name should have been on their invoice instead of yours.” That problem bites me a lot.

    With all of my newer clients though, I work on a 50% up front, 50% before delivery system. And I always use my own development server, not the clients, so they don’t have _anything_ except for access to view the dev site until they are paid up. If they want their site live, they have to pay first. The only problem has been moving my older clients to this system.

  16. says

    I did have to resort to taking a client to court just last year. I’d tried everything else for months and just kept getting put off.

    When I saw a “For Sale” sign on the door (it was a restaurant) less than a year after it opened, I knew I’d better take action or run the risk of never seeing the money they owed me.

    I filed in small claims court for the amount they owed (which was significant) plus the cost of filing. They responded with a request to pay half then and the rest by the end of the year. I agreed, but kept the court date lest I lose my place on the docket and when I got to the judge, I scheduled a follow-up hearing two weeks after they were to have sent me the final payment. They did come through with the rest of the money in time.

    It was a hassle, but worth it in the end. That was the worst experience I’ve had in 5 years of freelancing, but virtually everyone I know who freelances has at least one horror story.

    Good article!

  17. odlc says

    i keep my rates relatively low – compared to the standard market prices . i discuss the project with the client , get as much data as i can and then tell him a price-range for the project .

    i charge more than i actually want but in keeping with what other people would charge for the same project ( i can do this because i usually want 30-40% lower than what other people charge but i tell him i will charge 30% higher than i actually want ).

    then i demand a 25% advance payment after i deliver a sketch to the client featuring the design .

    i get my 25% advance , obviously i will give him the money back if somehow he is not satisfied , and then i start work.

    the minute i finish the project i send him an invoice and in that invoice i tell him that he will get a 30% discount if he pays me within a certain amount of time ( depending on the amount of money ).

    if i get a $60 project i will tell the client that it will cost him $100 . i get $25 in advance and if he doesn’t pay me , after he hears of the 30-40% discount , i still receive almost half of the amount . and i take the design and sell it on stock sites .

    if i do a site i will simply turn it into a template and i will still , eventually , get all my money for my work , and even more in most of the cases .

    obviously i do this only for first time customers or people i don’t really trust and obviously i can do this because i consider my work to be worth less than what others are charging ( it’s not that i don’t consider my work good, it’s just that this is simply the price i think is right )

  18. says

    Great tips everyone!

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. I think getting paid is a struggle that all of us freelancers face, and it is even more difficult now that the economy is tight and more and more businesses are failing.

    Walt K–It sounds like you have a clever approach for getting clients to pay. ;-)

    David, I hear what you’re saying and I do some work for agencies so I’ve been told the same thing. Like you, I look at that as their problem. They should charge clients enough of an up-front fee to ensure that they can pay their freelancers. Sadly, I suspect that some of them are using the up-front fee to pay themselves and holding off on paying the freelancer until they get the balance–bad business, but probably a reality.

    Rebecca it sounds like you made that right call about going to court (and in the nick of time too). I definitely don’t recommend it for very small amounts, but if one has a lot of money on the line it may be necessary. I’m glad that your case worked out.

    odlc–You’re right, inflating prices and getting money up front are good ways to make sure that you get paid.

  19. says

    Another element that you might want to consider adding to the list is using technology to make it as easy as possible for the client to pay. Online invoicing tools like Freshbooks make it easy to identify and actively follow up on overdue payments. Also, online work environments like Mavenlink (www.mavenlink.com) provide easy ways to complete the work, keep the client up to speed as to progress during the project, and very importantly, allow the client to pay with a single click once the work is done (after you’ve submitted them an invoice).

  20. says

    Hey All,

    We generally do not have a problem with our clients because everything is spelled out in our contract. We make them understand that the payment terms are set and the reasoning as to why they are set.

    We also use a combination of “flat fee” and hourly billing that seems to make the clients happy while getting us the money we deserve for the work that was done.

  21. says

    I recently had a similar experience. Payment was due December, and only just got paid March 2! 3 months late!

    I went out and got a Pre-Paid Legal plan because of it. Now, instead of just me making phone calls and writing letters, my lawyer will do it on my behalf. This is great for small amounts that people wouldn’t normally expect you to hire a lawyer to collect. Suddenly, your bill goes to the top of their ToDo pile.

    Plus, be the squeaky wheel! Call and complain endlessly! Let them know that you won’t just go away. People who are obnoxious in their pursuit of payment typically get what they want, which is why the FTC has laws to prevent large companies from bullying consumers with their endless supply of cheap foreign labor and VoIP.

  22. says

    I’m having this problem right now with a past client. I invoiced him for his remainder when the work was done. He didn’t pay when the invoice was sent to him right away. A week later I called him and he said he was out of town and would pay when he got back. It’s now been a month later and he still hasn’t paid. In the contract we let them know that we can take down any work we’ve done (he’s changed all login information so we don’t have that access) and I’m not debating whether to take it to small claims court. Its not a big amount, but in this line of work every amount matters. I’m not sure what to do, what would you suggest?

  23. says

    @Amy: I would contact his web host and inform them that he has your copyrighted work on their servers, and that you request they take it down. Cite your contract if necessary.

    Copyright of work-for-hire material only transfers when payment is made. Try that. If they work with you, you might see him making payment to get the mess resolved.

  24. says

    Great advice guys! A friend and colleague of mine once told me that when he had trouble with his delinquent clients, he brings their site down until payment is received.
    I’ve never done that… it seemed a little radical to me. But apparently, it worked for him.
    Would that be too harsh? what do you think?

  25. says

    An invoicing tool to make sure you get paid on time is Sage Software’s Billing Boss (www.billingboss.com). It’s a free online invoicing tool that allows you to create invoices in a minute, or quickly convert your quote into an invoice. You can also quickly track who paid you, and who hasn’t – allowing you to track when to make that email reminder. Plus, if you add on their payment option, your customers can pay immediately online when they receive the invoice.

    I own my own business (and I’m also a contractor for Sage), and I’ve found that some customers don’t necessarily want to hold off from paying me. They are just so busy that by the time they receive my invoice, they don’t have time to actively call me back with their CC number or write a cheque. Having the online payment option linked to the invoice just makes things easier for the client.

    Note: This author has been compensated by Sage.

  26. says

    @Amy, IANAL but tread carefully if you send a take down request to a hosting company. If the hosting company considers your request a DMCA take down notice then things could be proceed further than you want/need to go. The DMCA gives your client the opportunity to file a “frivolous claim” counter-suit, which holds you liable for perjury. Not fun!

    @BebopDesigner, I’ve only tried that once, and it was specifically because a client wasn’t paying hosting. (Taking down a website due to not paying a hosting bill seems more straightforward than for design/development work to me.) It did work, as a last resort, but please be cautious.

    If you do this for a late design/development project, then you need to make ABSOLUTELY certain that you’re not taking down anything of theirs outside of what you’re trying to recoup payment for. e.g. if you just added a blog to an existing site, then you can’t take their whole domain down, only the blog portion. Or, if they are up-to-date on paying hosting and rely on their server for email, then I don’t think you should take the whole domain down either because they could sue you for disabling lines of communication that they’ve paid for, and hurting their ability to do business with their customers.

    The best advice, of course, is simply not get in that situation to begin with. Stagger the payments of a project during development. If you can, do all of the development on your own server and only transfer to their live server once the final payment has been made. Anything you can do to maintain leverage until they’re all paid up.

  27. says

    I had a client not pay for 2 years (I’m still collecting small monthly amounts).

    I worked with them for about 7 years, they were my first client, and the recession had hit them hard. They had 4 outstanding invoices totaling around $3k.

    I started re-sending them the invoices monthly, with no response. I tried calling, their phones had been disconnected. I finally sent an email indicating that they need to set up a payment plan with me, even if it meant paying in 6 months, i just needed to know the intention was there. I got no response.

    So I sent them an email indicating that if I didn’t hear from them, I would have to take it to small claims AND social networking if necessary.

    Sure enough I got a response from that! They were pissed off, saying they had plenty of other unpaid suppliers who weren’t resorting to threats and angrily offered me a small monthly sum to start. I accepted, and within a week I had an electronic money transfer for slightly more than the monthly amount they offered initially.

    So sometimes threatening with Small Claims (and reputation?) is enough to do the trick… ;)

  28. says

    I wouldn’t [necessarily] recommend this, but @marie your post just reminded me of a story my father-in-law told me once. He had a client that was quite late on his payment too. This was some time ago, back when fax machines were norm for sending invoices and most fax machines were fed through the slot (as opposed to read on a scanner bed).

    He made four or five copies of the invoice, and taped them end-to-end. He fed the first one into the fax machine and let it start scanning. After a page-length of the long sheet went through, he folded it over and tapes the ends together into a loop, so that the fax was virtually an infinite # of pages long!

    I should also mention, this was on a Friday afternoon! :-) When the client returned to their office on Monday, they were greeted with a small mountain of invoices and a sudden need for ink and paper.

    The best part is, it worked. He was paid fairly promptly after that!

  29. says

    I’m a virtual assistant whose work is more of an on-going partnership with a client as opposed to one-off projects although occasionally, I will do the latter as well.

    When I take on a new client who has no payment history I ask for a 3-6 month upfront deposit. I hold that deposit and then either return it to them if the relationship is terminated or apply it to the next 3-6 months. I then bill them weekly by PayPal invoice. They pay me by e-check using PayPal but that takes up to a week to be deposited into my account and by then I have started to work another week without having been paid.

    Since my terms are payable upon receipt or work doesn’t continue, those who pay by echeck (with the delay) can still have continuous work being done but I am protected by the deposit I hold if the weekly echeck does not clear.

    My most popular option is PayPal payments using a credit card which is immediate into my bank account. I do pay for fees but that is a part of the convenience of being paid immediately. For these clients I take 50 percent up front at the beginning of the month and then 50 percent at completion at the end of the month. I do this for 3 months until a history is established of good payment.

    Then I just go to weekly invoicing through PayPal. if they don’t pay me for the week, I don’t work the next week. I only had this problem one time. I sent several emails with a copy of my policy and mentioned that I would let my peers know about this issue on the internet. (I never said what I would state or if I would use their company name but that was enough to make them finally pay.) I never worked with them again.

    It is important to have payment and late payment policies in place and in writing before starting any work. I state my policy during the client consultation, in my welcome packet and in my contract.

    I bill weekly so that any unpaid problems are minimized. If they don’t pay one week of VA services, then it is better than losing 2 weeks or more.

    Lots of good ideas here!

    Thank you!

    Janine Gregor
    http://www.YourVirtualWizard.com
    Virtual Assistant

  30. Chris Greenberg says

    Great article!

    It’s always frustrating when people decide to pay for services on there own time. One productive way I’ve found to deal with this problem is to turn to a collection agency. Let the professionals handle it, and honestly I don’t have the time or stomach for these type of things. I’ve had success with Wheycor Capital Group. It was inexpensive 15-30% and they welcome freelancers or find a collection agency near you. You can find them at wheycor.com I highly reccommend them.

  31. Chris Greenberg says

    Great article!

    It’s always frustrating when people decide to pay for services on there own time. One productive way I’ve found to deal with this problem is to turn to a collection agency. Let the professionals handle it, and honestly I don’t have the time or stomach for these type of things. I’ve had success with Wheycor Capital Group. It was inexpensive 15-30% and they welcome freelancers or find a collection agency near you. You can find them at wheycor.com I highly recommend them.

  32. Curious says

    As a freelance web designer, can a client who I created a website for successfully report ME to the BBB? I mean, considering it’s freelance work and I’m technically not a “business”.

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