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?”
“@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
- Keep it professional.
- Don’t be rude or call names.
- 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.
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:
- Have a contract that defines when you get paid
- Bill clients promptly, and
- 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:
- It costs you money, and
- 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.