Last week I clearly disappointed some readers.
They thought I was going to give them a few quick tips on how to handle non-paying clients. Instead, I asked them to take a good look at their relationship with money.
“I’m not the one to blame,” said one colleague. “Why should I feel guilty when a client refuses to pay me when the invoice is due? I delivered my work on time. Don’t make me the bad guy!”
I wasn’t trying to guilt-trip anyone, but there’s a reason why I wanted you to take a look in the mirror when it comes to finances. As a freelancer, you are responsible for how you run your business. If you’ve done everything right and your client still isn’t paying, remember this:
It’s not your fault, but it is your problem.
“Doing everything right” means being on top of your finances. To you that might be a given. That’s because you are a pro. However, you’d be surprised how many freelancers don’t keep track of how much goes out and how much is coming in. They’re simply not that interested in money. Yes, they’d like to get paid, but that’s not the reason why they do what they do.
Every year, wonderful, sweet, talented, creative, intelligent and trusting people go bankrupt because their finances are a mess.
Not being on top of your finances can lead to embarrassing situations.
One colleague got mad at a non-paying customer and wrote a rather firm email. In response, the client told him they were still waiting for the invoice that was never sent.
Another colleague got all worked up because he thought he’d be paid within a month. Before he contacted the client, he looked at the contract he had signed. It said he’d be paid within 90 days.
“What’s the big deal?” said one of my voice-over friends. “One client owes me $250 and another $300. I’m not losing any sleep over these small amounts. It’s just money, anyway.”
The last time I heard from him, he was selling some of his equipment on eBay. Small amounts do add up, and apparently, quite a few clients had taken advantage of his happy-go-lucky attitude.
So, before you moan and groan about your deadbeat clients, think about what you can do to decrease the chance that you’ll be taken advantage of.
MANAGING YOUR MONEY
Now, we all have our strengths and weaknesses. I’m pretty good with words, but numbers do not thrill me. They never have. My wife on the other hand, is a great bookkeeper. She’s efficient and organized and that’s why she’s my Chief Financial Officer. When a client needs a gentle reminder, she usually takes care of it. That way, I don’t have to be the enforcer and potentially sour a relationship with a late-paying customer.
You cannot manage what you don’t measure. Should you decide to be your own CFO, then you must choose a system suited to your business that clearly shows your income and expenses. Services such as FreshBooks, ZoHoBooks or Invoicera are meant to make accounting and invoicing less intimidating. Secondly, you have to develop the discipline to keep your records up to date. Reserve one day a week to do the books. That way you’ll know exactly where you stand.
TERMS & CONDITIONS
With an accounting system in place, you need to figure out how you’d like to get paid and when. The only way you can be sure you get your money, is to require payment up front. That sounds great in theory, but not every client is going to say yes to that. Unless you have a unique, rock solid position in the market place, or your customer is desperate to hire you, you don’t have a lot of leverage to get paid before handing over the goods.
Second best is the 50-50 system. Ask for half of your fee as a deposit, and for the other half when the job is done. Once the invoice is paid in full, you release your work. Not a day earlier. If the client wants proof before paying the remainder of the balance, simply send a sample of the completed project.
If the client insists on paying after the fact, you must decide how quickly you want your money: net 7, net 14, net 30. Some clients will ask you to sign a contract with different terms. Let’s say company X reserves the right to pay you after 90 days and your policy is net 30. Try to meet in the middle and get to net 60.
Whatever you agree upon, always put things in writing and have the client sign on the dotted line or confirm via email. A verbal agreement only carries weight if you can prove it in court. That usually means that witnesses need to be present when you shake hands. Otherwise you might end up in a costly he-said-she-said situation.
Even with a written agreement in place, there’s no absolute guarantee that you’ll be paid on time. That’s where incentives come in. You have two options to motivate your client: the carrot or the stick. You can either offer a discount for early payment in full, or institute a penalty for those who pay late. If you decide to take 10% off for good behavior, I would raise rates by 10% before instituting that policy.
In general, I’m all for reinforcing desired behavior. If a client has been systematically ignoring your requests to be paid, a late fee might not make a huge impression.
EASY DOES IT
And finally, remove all obstacles and possible excuses clients may come up with to not pay your bill. Make it easy for them to send you money. Sometimes it means educating your clients. For instance, I require international customers to use PayPal. One of my clients was hesitant because she thought she’d have to sign up for that service. Once I told her membership was optional, the client asked me to send a money request. Thirty minutes later, I got paid.
Quite often, the person who hired you is not in charge of payments. Always ask to whom you should send your invoice and deal with that person directly. You don’t want to hear that the department that processes payments never received your invoice.
Whenever you send the finished product, always ask the client to confirm receipt. That way they cannot claim they never got it. If your rate includes a limited number of retakes or corrections, be explicit about it. You don’t want to end up recording more versions every time a copywriter has a new idea, and not get paid until everyone is satisfied.
In a perfect world, every client could be trusted and everyone would always pay on time. We all know that reality is not like that. So, what to do when a client keeps you waiting or does not pay you at all?
There’s no straight answer because I think it depends on your relationship with your client. Here’s what I do:
1. I am willing to cut returning clients with a solid payment history a lot of slack. They’ve been there for me. I’ve been there for them. We’ll work it out.
New clients, on the other hand, still need to prove themselves before I give them any credit. I’m not going to trust someone just because he or she sounds nice on the phone.
2. I tend to build in more safeguards with clients outside of my geographical area or jurisdiction. It’s much harder to recoup money from clients on the other end of the globe than from those in my back yard. The more money is at stake, the more guarantees I’ll need.
3. When a client owes me, I refuse to get emotional. I usually send a few polite and understanding reminders. I’ll send the first one a week after the invoice was due, and the other a week after that. Nine out of ten times I get an apology and a check. If that’s not the case, I get on the phone to find out what’s going on.
4. The more flexible I am, the greater the chance that I’ll see my money. Flexible doesn’t mean letting someone off the hook. It could mean offering a payment plan. By being willing to work with these clients, I can save the professional relationship and create some goodwill. I would hate to lose a good client over something as stupid as money.
When things go downhill, it helps to have some leverage, A few weeks ago, a client who still owed me asked if I could record a second video in a series for a specific client. I told him I’d be happy to do that once the outstanding invoice was paid. That same day the situation was resolved.
5. If nothing seems to work, I will notify the client in an official, certified letter that I have no other option but to turn them over to collections. Most of the time that will do the trick for domestic clients.
So far so good, but what to do when things get out of hand and the client isn’t open to reason?
At this time it’s fair to say that your relationship is pretty much ruined. It’s time to put your foot down and apply some pressure.
6. Sometimes it helps to contact the end-client. Let me give you an example.
A few years ago, I voiced a video for a small Scandinavian production house. They were hired by a manufacturer of appliances to produce promos for the European market. Months went by and I had yet to be paid. My friendly reminders fell on deaf ears. Meanwhile, the videos with my voice were all over cyberspace. Not cool.
I decided to write an email to the CEO of the appliance manufacturer explaining the situation. He apologized profusely, and promised to get in touch with the production company. Two days later I received my payment. Needless to say, the Scandinavian production house never contacted me for other work and that was just fine with me.
7. Of course you can hand your case over to a collection agency. If you’re in the U.S., companies like the Media Recovery Group, Inc. and Cambridge Receivable Solutions, LLC, specialize in debt collection for freelancers and small businesses.
ZenCash offers a collection solution that connects to your current invoicing software (such as Quickbooks, FreshBooks and others) to automatically send out notices to your customers when they are late on a payment. This is not a free service, but you only pay for what you use.
Business technology writer Michele Nachum reviewed ZenCash and wrote:
“You have the ability to control when “reminder” notices go out (let’s say at 70 days the first “nice” note is distributed) and then stipulate when the polite notices become polite phone calls – which the ZenCash team will implement when necessary (and on your schedule). By connecting with your invoicing tool, ZenCash will then have your client and invoice information. ZenCash also includes the ability to utilize a local attorney in your area if need be — basically as a last resort when all other attempts have failed.”
Nachum gave ZenCash five out of five stars for ease of use, features, value and ease of deployment.
Please note that I have never had to use any of the above services.
GOING TO COURT
8. If the non-paying client is in your jurisdiction, you can take him or her to small claims court. Depending on where you file, your claim may not exceed between $3,000 and $10,000.
Attorney, actor and voice talent Robert Sciglimpaglia Jr. -author of VoiceOver Legal (a book every voice-over should own) – notes that you can put a clause in your contract saying that your client agrees to submit to the jurisdiction of the state court where you are located. Should you have to sue, you can sue them in your own court, without having to travel to them. You could also pursue a lawsuit out-of-state and include filing costs and travel expenses in your claim.
One word of warning. Winning your case in small claims court does not mean that you’ll see your money. The court rules but does not collect. Click here to read about how one freelancer won her case. It will give you a good idea of what’s involved.
Before you decide to go to court, figure out whether or not the amount owed is worth your time, energy and money collecting it. One colleague told me that anything under $1,000 isn’t worth the trouble and aggravation. This brings me to your last option.
FORGET ABOUT IT
9. You can decide not to collect the money; never work for those deadbeat clients again, and tell the world about how you’ve been treated. Shame your non-paying clients publicly and warn your colleagues. Social media can be devastatingly powerful.
The Freelancers Union has a client scorecard where businesses are rated by members. Bear in mind that this is a work in progress. Many companies have only been evaluated by one person. When more contributions come in, this could become a very useful tool. By the way, membership of the Freelancers Union is free.
Personally, I’m not afraid to share my stories. When Newspapers for the Blind refused to pay me a few years ago, I wrote about it in my blog. Click here for part one and click here for part two. Believe me, I learned a costly lesson.
THE FINAL WORD
In closing I’d like to suggest that it’s easy to talk and think about money in abstract terms. But money is more than a bunch of boring numbers in a bank account. By charging a decent rate, you tell the world that you firmly believe your service is valuable. By paying you, clients show that they value and respect your work.
Those who use your work without paying for it, are thieves and deserve to face the consequences.
The bottom line is that you are not powerless. You can protect yourself against crooks and criminals. In order to do that, you need to organize and guard your business to the best of your abilities.
As a freelancer, you put a lot more hours into your business compared to people with a regular job. You also run a bigger risk. For that, you deserve to be well compensated.
You owe it to yourself.
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
PS The European Union is cracking down on late payments with new legislation. If you work in the EU or you have European clients, click here to read the full story!
PPS Be sweet. Please retweet.