What To Do When a Client Can't or Won't Pay
Alex, I have a serious problem. I am a freelance graphic artist. After doing a ton of work for a client, they now refuse to pay. At first they just avoided me. But now they are telling me that they changed their minds, don’t want to work with me, and won’t pay their bill! I can’t afford to work and not get paid. Any advice? Diane
Hi Diane, I feel for you. I have only had two situations in the past eight years where a client didn’t pay their bill. In one instance, the client went under and closed their business. In the other, despite having a contract, they just stopped communications. No matter what the reason, small businesses are particularly vulnerable to the economic fluctuations and the whims of clients and customers.
It is important that you understand, contract or not, you really can’t “MAKE” them pay. Yes you can sue, you can even win, but that doesn’t guarantee that you can collect and even if you do, it could be months, or years from now. So before you write them off or race down to small claims court, let’s do some investigation.
Do you know why they don’t want to pay?
ARE THEY HAVING FINANCIAL DIFFICULTY?
If a client is having financial difficulties, calm and non-judgmental communications can be the difference between getting paid and getting nothing and between maintaining a customer and creating an angry big mouth who damages your reputation. Maybe they need time or a payment plan. People who are having financial difficulties can react by ignoring creditors, often they are embarrassed or simply don’t know when their situation will change. If they can’t control the situation, you contacting them with threats or blame won’t help either party.
ARE THEY BARGAIN SHOPPING?
Most of us have had an experience where what we do is undervalued. The world is full of people who believe that they can build that web site, create that graphic, edit that book, write that article, build that house, etc etc. Problems can emerge when this comes after a contract has been signed.
If you haven’t started much work, I would issue them a cancellation statement and move on. Having a hostile client won’t be much fun for either of you and in the end, no matter how great the work, they will resent you.
If you have done a lot of work and/or have received some payments, calm, but firm communication reminding the client of the contract terms and amount of work completed can be effective. If they still refuse, to complete the contract you should investigate small claims court. Often the mediation program is effective in getting back on track.
HAVE YOU HAD A DIFFICULT RELATIONSHIP?
No matter the reason, if you and the client have had a difficult relationship, whether because of miscommunication, lack of cohesive of vision, or you simply can’t seem to get on the same page, sometimes it’s best to cut your losses and move on.
So How do you protect yourself from a non-paying client in the future?
GET IT ALL IN WRITING
Your contract should include a scope of services that you are providing, a timeline of production, and payment dates.
A scope allows you to show exactly what services you will be performing for the client. That way there is no misunderstanding. A scope provides both parties a reference document and a punch list. When the contract is complete, or at set intervals, you should be able to go back and check off everything that you were contracted to complete.
A timeline of production gives clear indications of how long each phase of a project will take. But be realistic. If you promise first draft graphics for a logo two weeks after the contract is signed, make sure that you deliver.
Establishing payment dates will help protect you and keep everyone on track. For people who work in creative fields, a retainer is an established way to protect yourself from just such a situation. I would recommend that you create payment dates that match milestones in the project. For a web designer that might be 1/3 at commencement, 1/3rd at approval of concept, and 1/3rd at launch.
If the project doesn’t have natural milestones, and you expect the project to take under two months, I would suggest half at the commencement of the project and half on completion. If the project is for a longer period, I would divide the payments into monthly segments. In all circumstances, I would start with a retainer. This way, you aren’t out any money if things fall apart during the contract.
At Orndee we have “Monday Sheets” that we provide all clients, every Monday. The Monday sheet details what we accomplished last week and lays out the goals for the week to come. If clients feel connected to the process and can see that you are working on their behalf, they feel more positive about the experience. Keep clients in the loop.
SEND INVOICES PROMPTLY
Most companies, require some time to process payments. If you wait until the last minute to issue invoices, you may find that your sense of urgency doesn’t match your client’s process. If you have scheduled due dates, send invoices out two weeks or more before payment is due. If you have 30 day payment terms, make sure that the invoice is sent out prior to the start of those 30 days.
If you have clients with longer contracts, consider automatic payments.
update from October 2017 original article