What to Do When a Client Doesn’t Pay
I know the freelance industry standard is to collect 1/3 to 1/2 of the cost of a project upfront. I also know that many of my clients are beginning writers or students, so I don't do that.
My rates are reasonable, in fact a bit on the low side, and I'm comfortable trusting clients to pay me when a job is complete. Only rarely has that mentality gotten me into trouble. My terms are "Net 15," but my invoices usually come winging back with checks attached in a matter of days.
Still, there are times when I send an invoice out into the world and receive nothing in return. For the rare occasions when this happens, I've put together a "collections" protocol.
First, in accordance with the terms on my invoice, I give clients two weeks to pay up or contact me on their own. After two weeks, I send a friendly email asking if the client received the materials I sent them and if they were happy with the way the project turned out. I also add a polite reminder that payment for my services is now due, and I attach another invoice.
This email usually provokes at least some response, often and apology and an explanation as to why the payment is late and when I can expect it to arrive. I acknowledge all the responses that I get, and I wait. If the money comes in, no harm, no foul.
If a month goes by with no contact and no payment, I send the client a registered letter and another copy of the invoice. If the registered letter doesn't produce a response within a week, I give the client a phone call.
Luckily, I've never had to pursue a bill past the phone call stage. The clients that I've dealt with are almost universally embarrassed that I've had to go to such lengths to track them down, and they either send payment in full or make and comply with payment arrangements.
I've thought about what my next step would be if a client continued to blow me off, but I'm not sure what I actually would do. Some of my friends who freelance post information about deadbeat clients on their blogs or websites. Others report deadbeats to writer's organizations and publications, such as the "Whispers and Warnings" section of Writer's Weekly. I've seen this shame some clients into paying, and I've seen it backfire and irritate some clients so much that they never pay.
Another option, of course, is small claims court, but pursuing a case that usually amounts to $500 or less across state lines seems an imprudent use of my time.
Unfortunately, the day will probably come when I have to decide to stop collection attempts on an unpaid bill, write it off, and move on with my career. Do I have an ideal system? Probably not, but so far I've been paid in a timely manner for all the work I've done. I guess you can't ask for much more than that.
How do you handle slow-paying or non-paying clients?