“Help! My client refused to pay for my work.”
If you haven’t started working yet and you need help negotiating a fair rate, check out my previous blog on setting your rates as a freelancer.
If you have started and even finished the scoped work, and your client randomly drops your contract (or is way overdue on their bill), you have a totally different concern.
While I can’t provide professional legal counsel, I do have some advice based on my personal experience. Here’s what you should do if a client doesn’t pay.
Send friendly reminders
Maybe they haven’t responded in a few days, or even 24 hours. Instead of assuming the worst, send a few friendly emails to remind them about your invoice. The graph below shows the best days of the week to send an email.
If you have not finished the assigned work, send a reminder that the project is nearing completion. If it’s your first couple of interactions with the client, ensure they have the means to pay you. Ask for their preferred payment method. Depending on the project, you may want to do installments instead of a final sum.
If you have finished the assigned work, send an invoice immediately. If it’s your first time, it’s good to have certain rules to enforce timely payment. Some like to include a late fee past a certain number of days. Add a little note letting them know the work is complete and the invoice is sent.
How many follow-ups is too many? In my experience, most clients respond before the third email. It’s your call how many emails you would like to send, but after a certain point, it may be time to consider escalating the issue.The best time to send an email to a client is on Tuesday at 10am. Click To Tweet
Check your contract and communication
Revisit your contract. What terms did you and the client agree on regarding payment? Does the client have written consent of the agreement? Is there proof that the client is in violation?
At the same time, start going through your previous email and text interactions with the client. Is it reasonable to assume that the client intended to pay you for your work? Do you have evidence of trying to communicate with the client?
This may not be easy, but it’s important to be cognizant of the evidence in your favor. Everything adds up to help your case later down the line.
Send a warning
After the reminders don’t work, it may be time to start changing your tone in communications. This doesn’t mean you can start throwing around insults or threats. It means taking on a serious approach.
One popular approach is to reach out via social media. For some businesses, it acts as their customer service front. Calling out poor work practices publicly can be a ballsy move, but it can also drive faster action than any follow-up email.
Clearly state that you have tried multiple attempts at reaching out, and that you are sending one final warning before taking legal action.
After that, do not contact the client further. Do not respond to negotiation- consult your local attorney and have he or she contact them in your place.
Consider the rights to your work as well. Now that the client has not paid, you should have total control over your work.
Web developers and ad specialists have the ability to suspend or turn off any active projects, whether it’s a webpage, a website, or an online ad. This can be the best way to get the client’s attention.
For writers, photographers, graphic artists, and other freelancers that deal with deliverable work, you may simply refuse to submit future work or work in progress.
Evaluate your options
If the client has consistently refused contact, even with work not delivered or set offline, determine the value of pursuing them further. Here are your options.
Drop it and learn from it. For small-time clients, it may simply be counted as a loss leader, something sold at a loss. The potential hours, dollars, and effort that could go into further escalation may simply not be worth it. Determine how valuable the company is before choosing this route.
Consult a collections agency. Instead of going to court, send the unpaid invoices to a collection agency. They’ll either take a percentage of the debt or buy it completely at a significant loss. Sure, you might get less money back, but at least it’s one less headache of a process to go through. Check out the Better Business Bureau’s list of collection agencies for both the United States and Canada.
Hire a law firm. I wouldn’t recommend this unless the contract is at least in the tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands. Don’t just settle for self-representation or a public lawyer. Get the best firm in town. If you really want to catch their attention, nothing says “listen up” quite like a law firm’s reputation in town. Again, this is a freelancer’s last resort.
Preventing the next late or unpaid invoice
It may be too late for your previous clients, but it’s never too late for the next one. Here are a few things to remember to prevent these scenarios.
Amend your contract agreement
Add late fees, expected payment timelines, and warnings for unpaid work. Revisit your payment method – whether it’s a lump sum, retainer, or in multiple installments, or if there’s an escrow account. Your contract is typically the first line of defense against troublesome clients.
Avoid sending work without payment
Make sure your client can pay, even if it’s just 50% for half of the project. It’s important to have some power over the final product, whether it’s the requested edits or a watermark over an unfinished image. Never send something that the client has not paid for. If they haven’t bought it, it still belongs to you.
Use software that makes payment easier
Maybe neither party is at fault, and the payment process is simply too cumbersome. Try to use software that makes contract signing and payment much more simple.
For contracts, check out DocuSign or HelloSign. Not only does it feature electronic document signing, but it records copies and confirmations that a contract has been signed. If you’re unsure what a contract should have, check out this template from PandaDoc.How to prevent unpaid freelance invoices: 1. Amend your contract 2. Avoid sending work without payment 3. Use software to make payment easier. Click To Tweet
Chasing clients for overdue payments is never fun and the situation can cause a severe migraine and hours of wasted work. I know what that’s like and I’m here to help.
Feel free to reach out to me regarding any questions about dealing with difficult clients, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.
Leo Herrera is a freelance writer based in Chicago, IL. His writing has been featured in Profile, Chicago Mag, Buffer, and more. When he’s not writing, Leo spends his time designing video games, producing music, and working on short films.