Unpaid Invoice? 5 Tips to Get Your Flaky Freelance Client to Pay
Carol Tice | 25 Comments
Unpaid Invoice? 5 Tips to Get Paid

Has this happened to you? You slave away meeting a freelance client’s deadline. Get an editor’s approval on you work. And weeks later you’ve still got an unpaid invoice.

Your client is smelling like a deadbeat.

FYI…great clients don’t string writers along and leave you hanging with an unpaid invoice. Why? Because they know they need your help, and they value your writing skills.

Some places are slow to pay because there’s inner turmoil within their organization. Maybe it’s management. Maybe it’s accounting or the HR office holding up a check. And sometimes it’s a sign of impending doom.

When you have an unpaid invoice from a flaky freelance client, you might think there’s isn’t a whole lot you can do. But that’s just not the case.

In fact, I’ve had my share of freelance clients that drag their heels on payment and leave me hanging with an unpaid invoice for weeks or months.

Over the years, I’ve developed a system for giving flaky clients a wake-up call about an unpaid invoice. And it works.

Here are my 5 best tips for rounding up those stray checks:

1. Friendly email reminder

I like to begin on the assumption that my unpaid invoice is a simple oversight or mistake. The day after the payment was due, I send a friendly email:

“Hi, I’m just checking in because my final payment on this project was due yesterday. I know you got my final draft a couple weeks ago — are we all set? Please let me know if you need anything from me, and do let me know when I can expect payment. Let me know if you need another copy of the invoice.”

Sometimes, that’s all it takes. The unpaid invoice was mislaid, or the accountant was out sick a couple days, and your nudge will send the check or payment your way.

2. Make the call

No response to this friendly email about an unpaid invoice? It’s time to try to get them live on the phone.

Many people are less evasive if you can get them on a call. They may give you a sob story about why it’s late (set phasers to ‘ignore’), but hopefully they’ll tell you when you can expect the check or payment.

If you’re too chicken to confront a client about an unpaid invoice…

Consider hiring a collections agency to help you, or enlist a friend to do it. Invoicing tools like FreshBooks can help, too (and yes, I use this and proudly affiliate sell it).

3. Go up the chain

After a live chat, if the unpaid invoice fails to get taken care of by the new (late) date they promised, I usually conclude I’m talking to the wrong person. It’s time to try someone else.

  • If you’re talking to an editor, try the managing editor or editor-in-chief.
  • Better yet, try the accounting department. Often, the bean-counters will tell you an editor who failed to follow their paperwork protocol is responsible for an unpaid invoice. Or they’ll reveal that the invoice came too late for this month’s cycle, so it’ll pay out in 30 days.
  • If you’ve been working with a marketing manager at a company, try the chief finance offer (CFO) or their right hand.

Now, you at least know the problem, and can get back to the editor if it’s their mistake and they need to supply paperwork.

Note: Editors will sometimes dodge these calls because they feel frustrated and helpless — they don’t sign the checks, and are often deeply unhappy that their writers are being jerked around. Hopefully, if it’s an oversight on their part, they’ll help.

4. Bill a late fee

In the absence of any satisfying responses on steps 1-3, I will sometimes re-submit my bill with a 2% monthly late fee (compounding) applied for the first month.

  • For those of you who aren’t math dorks, that means next month, I’ll take this new larger amount and charge them 2% more based on that amount, not the original, lower fee. And so on.

Often, the late-fee bill will wake up the client and they’ll send a check.

They may only send the regular amount and not the late fee, but they decide it’s time to pay. The late fee makes them see that not only are you not going away, but you will actually expect more money from them, the longer they drag this out.

Once it’s clear that they can’t sit on the bill forever without consequence, it’s amazing how often deadbeats suddenly find the money they need to pay you.

5. Social shaming

I know — I feel ashamed to mention this. It’s a little bit mean, I admit. But it often works like a charm.

Publicly ‘outing’ a deadbeat client in social media can really get them off the dime. Every company is paranoid about social-media reputation damage. So you’ll usually get a rapid response about an unpaid invoice from a tweet like these:

 “@magazine — Still looking for my $1,000 article fee due 3 weeks ago. When may I expect it?”

OR

“@company — Turned in my final draft 3 weeks ago. Payment now overdue. Please advise when I will see my check?”

OR, possibly worst:

“@writers — anyone else writing for @X company? Having trouble getting paid? Would like to connect…

3 tips for social-shaming

  1. Keep it professional.
  2. Don’t be rude or call names.
  3. Stick to the facts.

Once they see that word of their irresponsibility may spread to their own clients, they’ll probably overnight you a check or send you and electronic payment.

They owe you money, and it’s overdue. If you start flaming them, you may hurt your chances of getting paid instead of helping them.

Stop working

The other thing to do to protect yourself from deadbeat clients is to stop working on any ongoing assignments you have from that client.

Slow payers earn a trip to the bottom of your priority list

You might choose to let them know that this work stoppage has occurred, or you may decide to keep it under your hat. But you should move on immediately to either do other client work or to do marketing to find more clients.

After all, this payment may never arrive

Don’t get in deeper and rack up more bills with a client who may be getting ready to stiff you. I hear too many sad stories from writers who end up with $10,000 or more outstanding from a client who’s gone belly-up.

Preventing the problem

If you’d like to prevent the late-payment scenario in the future, there are THREE key steps to getting prompt payments. You need to:

  1. Have a contract that defines when you get paid
  2. Bill clients promptly, and
  3. Act immediately if payments are late

One big pitfall many freelance writers fall into is they don’t have a contract at all. Or if they do, it doesn’t define how long the client has to pay you after you turn in your work.

I prefer terms like this:

“Final payment due on finalization or 14 days after receipt of final draft, whichever is sooner.”

Get in the habit of invoicing clients immediately

That’s right — don’t wait around to hear that your draft has been accepted — send the bill with the first draft, so it gets in their payment cycle right away.

Some companies will take 30-60 days to cut a check and only pay contractors once a month. You don’t want any delays on your end that might cause you to miss a week they cut checks and leave you waiting another month.

You also need to set up a payment calendar so that you’re aware of the exact due date for each unpaid invoice. The day after it’s due, if it isn’t in your hand or in your bank account, you should be using one of the five steps above to let the client know you noticed and care deeply that your payment arrive.

Why suing is not the answer

You’ll note one of my tips is NOT ‘take them to court.’ It’s increasingly rare that pursuing payment via a lawsuit is a sane choice.

Why? Freelancing is increasingly a global business, and often, your deadbeat client will be in a different state or even a different country. This makes applying the law extremely difficult, as you might have to appear in court where they’re located.

But more importantly, suing does two bad things:

  1. It costs you money, and
  2. It messes with your head.

Unless you have at least $10,000 owed you, even going to small claims court, it’s not going to be worth it, between your lost work time and lawyer costs.

Worse, thinking about how this client screwed you all the time as you prep and pursue your lawsuit is very bad. This is not a climate that fosters productivity, creativity, or finding great new clients.

If you try every approach and there’s still no payment, I offer one final option:

Consider this lost money tuition in the school of freelance life.

Instead of thinking: “He ripped me off for $X thousands!” realize that this happened because of your own poor freelance business choices…and learn from it.

Qualify better clients to get paid on time

Want to avoid the hassle of an unpaid invoice? It’s starts long before you finish an assignment.

It starts with your marketing. You need to qualify clients better in the future and go after more reputable companies and publications. That way, you’ll be working with clients that pay their contractors — on time, and well.

How do you deal with flaky freelance clients?  Let’s discuss in the comments.

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25 comments on “Unpaid Invoice? 5 Tips to Get Your Flaky Freelance Client to Pay

  1. Linda June on

    What about copyrights? If you remind them (and have something in your contract about it) that you own the copyright until they pay, would that work, too? Also, another coach says to get paid the entire fee up front or write nothing for the client. I suppose, when you’re a big name in the freelance industry, that would work, but for us little guys? What are your thoughts?

    Reply
    • Carol Tice on

      If it’s in your contract, might be a good reminder.

      I know few clients willing to pay 100% upfront… something we do with international clients, but otherwise not usual in my world.

      If you’re following another coach, why not ask them the question?

      Reply
      • Linda June on

        The other coach is the one who doesn’t do 50/50. It’s all upfront, but allows as to how new writers may want to go the 50/50 route until they’re more established.

        This particular coach is all about copywriting for businesses and not about pitching editors for more journalistic articles. I suppose there may be a difference in how magazines pay versus product marketing departments.

        Reply
  2. Bianca on

    Hi, Carol!

    Very valuable topic, especially for those Like me, who haven’t freelanced before!

    I read also the comments on this post, seems like charging upfront a part or full amount is common practice for established writers.

    But for the first 1-2 clients? Is it ok to just state my terms (x% upfront As non-negotiable), or take the risk of maybe not being paid, but having those first two clips of published work for other clients?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Angie Mansfield on

      Hi, Bianca –

      Unless you’re purposely writing a pro bono piece for a client in exchange for the clip and a testimonial (make SURE you get those for free samples), you absolutely should require an up-front payment. And don’t fall into the trap of starting the work on a promise that the payment’s on its way – my rule with new clients is always that I don’t start work until the deposit is in my hands.

      If you have zero clips right now, then it’s totally fine to do one or two free projects for smaller clients to have something to show – but again, those should be your choice and should come with a testimonial.

      Reply
  3. Linda+Hamilton on

    What about those clients who pay 50% down, then pay the remaining balance only to turn around and want a full refund? Even if you have something in the contract that you will provide x number of edits and they claim they like it then do a 180 and claim it’s trash. How do you deal with those who want full refunds for everything, even though you’ve done the work. And if they have a copy of the project, they end up keeping that but demand money back. How does that stand up in court?

    Reply
    • Kimberly Rotter on

      Linda,
      It stands up in court if they have agreed to hire you and you deliver what you promised. If they are dissatisfied, they never have to hire you again. They don’t get to claim that they don’t like it and just not pay. It’s all in your contract wording. My contract says I invoice on delivery and I offer unlimited revisions. If more than one revision is needed, you’ll both know right away that it’s not a good fit. They can’t claim the product is bad because you’ve already offered to make it anything they want and all they need to do is give direction.

      Contract contract contract. 🙂

      Never never make pay dependent on approval. Because even without malicious intent, some projects might never get approved, for any number of reasons.
      Kimberly Rotter recently posted…Credit Sesame case studyMy Profile

      Reply
      • Linda+Hamilton on

        I never wrote a project without a signed contract that included what I’d provide, how many edits and the due date. And the client had to read and sign the contract to make it valid BEFORE I started the work. Then depending on the size of the project, I either got 50% down or 100% payment up front.

        I learned from Carol long ago never to write a project without a signed contract outlining what I’d provide and what the client would provide.

        Even had an attorney review it for validity and clarity to be sure. And the payment was never based upon approval.

        That’s what I thought would be the answer. Unfortunately, even well-vetted clients tried this tactic several times. Reiterates to me that they weren’t value clients and definitely didn’t value my writing. I’m done with that now. Just sad that clients can be that way to some writers.

        Reply
        • Angie Mansfield on

          Well, I hope you didn’t honor their requests for refunds, Linda. That’s what edits are for – unless you REALLY flubbed something, and it’s definitely your fault, I would not issue a refund. They can either give you direction for edits, or they can just not hire you again. And yeah – definitely sounds like you need a better class of clients. 🙂

          Reply
          • Linda+Hamilton on

            I was using PayPal for payment method, Angie, and they did not provide any security against such actions against me. I had to provide a lot of paperwork that showed what I’d done and the outcome. I’d win the argument and no refund was made. A few good talkers got refunds based on false information, which infuriated me.

            Then these people gave me horrid reviews on Yelp, which is now gone. It was interesting because I got reviews from people I’d never even worked with. It was easy for people to post false information. As much as I tried my best to vet each client, sometimes it just didn’t work. I finally got tired of it all and quit doing it. Now people are coming back begging me to help them and I don’t. Vetting clients is huge and you do your best with what you’ve been trained to do.

  4. Pedro G on

    Carol, thank you very much for your tips.

    The best method to avoid an unpaid invoice is Charging in Advance. I use it for every project. Believe me, It works!

    Reply
    • Angie Mansfield on

      Hi, Pedro –

      Yes, quite a few freelancers use that tactic. At the very least, we urge everyone to get a 50% up-front deposit before starting work. That way, you at least get SOMETHING out of the project.

      Reply
      • Linda+Hamilton on

        I’ve done that many times for clients I don’t know and have small writing projects that aren’t too costly. They often pay in advance and I make every effort to beat the deadline. Works well on many clients.

        Reply
  5. Raven on

    I want to share a not-funny/funny story about your #5 social shaming. I wrote for a magazine once that was a bit notorious for not paying people, but I was lucky that I got paid every time. However, one person who just could not get paid, took out a website: XXowesmemoney.com . It was kind of funny, kind of sad, and I don’t know if it worked, but I’m sure it was satisfying.
    Thanks for your tips!

    Reply
    • Angie Mansfield on

      Ha – I’m sure it was satisfying! Not a recommended course, though – might make you look a little off to potential clients. 😉

      Reply
    • Carol Tice on

      That sort of thing is pretty common with bad clients and platforms — which is why I suggest Googling for that before signing on with a new client. If you see a whole site dedicated to venting about how awful they are to work with, you can just see the red flag and run.

      Reply
  6. Jenn on

    Hi Carol,
    Such an informative post you wrote like ever!!
    I used to work for free at the start to get some freelance reviews but then I felt that some people just scam and take work in the name of the sample.
    I regret working with those clients who took my work and never came back to pay.
    As a freelancer, I thought that it is good to establish trust and deliver some work before payment but there are only a few who actually paid.
    Now, I do sample work only for trusted clients and for new freelancers, I suggest not to work without payment.

    Reply
    • Angie Mansfield on

      Yeah, there’s a way to go about doing pro bono work to get a few clips, but just taking any free project isn’t it. The idea is to do one or two pro bono pieces in your niche to get the clips and testimonials, and then start pitching paid work. You also need to qualify clients to ensure they’re going to have the budget to pay and will be less likely to stiff you.

      Reply
  7. Linda+Hamilton on

    I agree 100% with how you handle late paying clients. For my clients I always required a signed contract with details about payment, responsibilities on my part and their part, and when payment was due. That worked well for majority of my clients. When they paid I could pay my bills and that made all of us happy.

    Reply
  8. Patricia on

    Until I know a client is reliable about payments, I use a policy of half payment up front and half on delivery. That way, if they stiff me, it’s not for the full amount of the work. I don’t usually tell them this in the first email when I’m still trying to get hired. It comes up when we get down to payment amounts and deadlines. I simply tell them that’s my policy for new clients (“I’m sure as a business you understand.”). Then, I tell them that once their payment clears, I’ll get started immediately on their project.

    I find if a company balks at this because of billing cycles (e.g., “We only pay net 30 days in full.”), they haven’t asked the right person. If they really want or need you to do the work, they’ll find someone who can approve a quick deposit payment. Most marketing departments have discretionary funds they can use for this–they just don’t advertise it.

    Reply
    • Carol Tice on

      Totally agree — I’ve had major corporations overnight me a check to get me started writing. If somebody is motivated enough, they can get off-cycle checks written, I don’t care what they SAY their rules and billing cycles are.

      Reply
  9. Ebla Wadreft on

    Very good article! I agree. I also have came across slow payers. Its not good for my rent. Its all about keeping carefull track of all the pubischers and remember the ones that pays !

    Ebla Wadreft

    Reply

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