The freelancer’s short guide to getting paid
Recently, I wrote about freelance contracts, the point being to weed out bad clients at the beginning of a project and improve the odds of getting paid.
But what happens when a client doesn’t pay on time or refuses to pay altogether?
Let’s begin by looking at the right way to invoice for your freelance services.
After you’ve completed your work, make sure the client is happy and has received everything you have promised. This is important because you may think you’re finished when, actually, the client has a few extra changes to make.
Also, if you send documents by email, there’s always the chance they will get caught in a spam filter or may get lost in a client’s in-box.
Once you’ve confirmed the project is truly finished and your client is satisfied, send your invoice within a few days. There’s something irritating about sending a bill too soon, but you don’t want to drag it out either.
I create my invoices in OpenOffice from a template, save them as a PDF, and email them as an attachment. I add the words “Please confirm receipt” at the top of my email message and use the delivery status notification and return receipt features in my Thunderbird email program. Again, you want to be sure the email gets through.
In most cases, your invoice will be paid on time. But if it’s not, here are some tips:
1. Don’t get mad. Generally late payment is just that, late payment. Your client could be busy or may have misplaced or failed to submit your invoice to the accounting department.
2. Don’t call the day after the deadline. Give your client a couple weeks or up to a month past the deadline, depending on the client. You don’t want to let it go too long, but you also don’t want to jump on a client too soon. Also, make sure you know the payment cycle of your client, which could be anywhere up to three months.
3. Send a reminder email. Be nice and assume the late payment is just an oversight. What I usually do is wait for two to four weeks, then resend the invoice with a message that says, “I just wanted to make sure you received my invoice.” This is enough to nudge your client.
If after a couple weeks you still don’t receive payment, it’s time to …
4. Pick up the phone. Again, be nice and assume your client is busy or forgetful. Just say that your invoice is overdue and you want to see when you can expect payment. Don’t be pushy. The client will usually get the message.
If after another couple weeks, you still don’t receive payment, things get a little more difficult and it’s time to …
5. Start the official collection process. Here’s where you have to be more firm. By now, your invoice is a month and a half to two months past due. Contact your client and ask for a date when you can expect payment. Explain that you need to get your invoice paid soon.
If the date your client promised passes without payment, you’re probably in trouble. You’ve sent the invoice multiple times. They’ve reneged on their promise to pay. And now it’s time to …
6. Ask for immediate payment. Say you want to avoid any hassles like legal action. This is difficult to do. You won’t like it and the client won’t like it. But it has to be done. Still, be professional and don’t say anything you’ll regret. It’s at this point, you may lose your client forever. But then, a client who doesn’t pay is not a client you want. And a client who owes you money will never hire you again.
If the client does not respond or gives you an excuse …
7. Pick up the phone one more time. Have a last conversation with the client and try to work things out. Offer a payment plan. Ask your client how to resolve the issue. And if this doesn’t work, your next call should be to a collection agency or lawyer so you can …
8. Take legal action. If you opt for a collection agency, try to find one near your client. This seems to have more impact. If you opt for a lawyer, try to find one who specializes in collections and who can follow through with a suit if it comes to that.
9. Be realistic. In the end, if clients don’t want to pay, they won’t pay. Collection agencies can work, but not always. And if you file suit, remember that clients can always file a counter suit and claim you didn’t do the work you promised. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not, you can sue anyone for anything. So consider the pros and cons carefully before you begin any legal action.
If you’re sweating bullets right now, relax. Most clients pay. When they’re late, there’s usually a reason. One or two reminders generally shakes things loose and you’ll get paid.
In my career, I’ve only been stiffed three times. In one case, I reached a settlement through a collection agency. In the other two, the business owners made up a bogus excuse for not paying and I ended up dropping the issue since legal action would have cost more than I would have collected.
There was also one case where a client couldn’t pay because he was having financial issues. He had been a loyal client for several years, so we worked out a payment plan. This is a good example of why you need to see things from your client’s perspective. Sometimes, being flexible and professional can make you a hero.
As a freelancer, you’re running a business. Late payment or no payment is a fact of life. Get a signed contract. Be prompt and firm about collecting your pay. In the long run, you’ll be fine with most of your clients despite the rare bad apple.
- Are you losing thousands in freelance fees to PayPal?
- Can freelancers REALLY make 6 figures a year?
- The freelance guide to working with clients that SUCK