Hell To Pay: What To Do With Deadbeat Clients
When Clients From Hell teamed up with The Freelancers Union to support The World’s Longest Invoice, millions upon millions in unpaid invoices underlined a serious issue facing freelancers: what can be done about deadbeats?
Create a contract. Contracts should exist for every project and every client you work with. It should include a description of work, payment information, and the explicit (as possible) obligations of both client and freelancers. Make sure it’s signed by both parties and that everyone’s contact information is accurate.
Do down-payments. I don’t know a single professional freelancers who doesn’t insist on down-payments. Most suggest 25-50% of the final project cost, with the remainder paid out on delivery or as progress is made. Not only does this help with the feast-and-famine style of payment that comes with freelancing, it shows the client intends to pay (at least a portion of) the freelancer’s fee.
Set the standard. Along with contracts, billing clients on time and notifying them about non-payment should be standard practice. There are dozens of online invoicing services that almost completely automate this practice. I personally use Ballpark. Do not let unpaid invoices sit there; always follow up and make regular contact with the client until they’re cleared. The more intimate the communication (face to face), the less likely you are to be ignored.
Stand up for yourself. If you’re not getting paid, it should be policy to stop work until unpaid invoices are cleared (I give 15 to 45 days, depending on the client and project type). An additional insurance is payment-on-delivery. Like down-payments, payment-on-delivery is a great way for freelancers to ensure that their work has value attached. Keeping the keys to the resulting project ensures that client’s can’t simply ignore their final invoice.
Know your rights and educate both yourself and your client. Know the legal circumstances surrounding your situation, and share that information with the client. Start pursuing late-payment as soon as its overdue, and know what you’re going to do in the worst-case scenario before you reach that point. Be professional, be persistent, and be firm.
Assuming you’ve put a contract in place (which should always be done, regardless of the client or project), the simple steps to collecting payment from a deadbeat are as follows:
- Send an invoice with clear instructions for how to pay and when payment is due.
- Follow-up as soon as payment is overdue. An email can prod a client to action, but a face-to-face meeting is the most difficult to ignore
- Be firm. If a client is well-overdue, it may be time to send a collection note, halt work, or hold the project until the cheque clears.
- Turn to a collection agency or small claims court. You likely won’t get the entirety of what you’re owed, but you will get something.
Collecting from deadbeats is never fun, but taking the aforementioned steps, it can be less painful — and hopefully, less likely to occur.