Help! My Client Hasn’t Paid!

Client hasn't paid final revby Ted Leonhardt

Arrrgh! I hate this. I did all the work—great work, I might add—and now they haven’t paid. Non-payment is a huge problem for freelancers. Check out Freelancers Union’s “World’s Longest Invoice” for a sense of how many go unpaid.

When I learn a client hasn’t paid me, all my feelings surge up and threaten to overwhelm me. Why? Pure, raw fear.

  • Fear that I did something wrong.
  • Fear that my work wasn’t really all that great.
  • Fear that I’m not good enough.

I just want to curl up into a ball and hide—and somehow slip quietly into denial to forget the pain. (I once stupidly sued a client rather than deal with why he wasn’t paying.)

Or, worse, I become super angry and indignant, and want to tell everybody what a jerk the client is.

When these feelings overcome me, I have to remind myself that I’m human. And because I’m human, I naturally react with emotion when I’m under stress. Money is a subject that always stresses me out. Especially when there already isn’t enough of it, and somebody isn’t paying.

What to do about it

When you discover a client hasn’t paid, give yourself time to let the first, worst wave of feelings pass. You can’t make good decisions or communicate effectively while you’re in the thrall of intense emotions.

Once you’ve gotten past the emotions, you’re ready to act.

The first thing you need to do is ask the client why you haven’t been paid. But in my experience, it’s far better to get someone other than you to do that asking.

Why? Because the client may feel embarrassed to tell you because they:

  • don’t want to hurt your feelings;
  • are having money problems themselves;
  • didn’t have the authority to launch the project in the first place.

It is even possible they are a total con artist, though that’s pretty unlikely—it’s never happened to me, and I’ve been around the block way more than one time.

In any case, finding out why is crucial to eventual success. When you know what’s wrong, you might be able to fix it, collect your fee, and retain a client. It takes money, time and luck to land new clients, so hanging onto the old ones is essential to building your business.

Who should call them?

You’ll need someone in neutral role, a business role, to make the call. If you are operating a bigger firm with an accounting department, you likely have someone who already chases down unpaid invoices. If you’re a solo contractor, ask your bookkeeper, spouse, significant other, or a close professional colleague to call your contact at the firm.

Your helper can state that the invoice has not yet been paid and ask what needs to happen to expedite payment. I’ve seen four possible scenarios:

1. It’s a large organization and your contact is not involved in paying invoices.

In that case, either you or the person helping you can call the organization’s accounts payable. It’s possible your invoice just fell through the cracks.

2. The client says they ended up not needing the work, or admits they never had the personal authority to launch the project.

In these situations, you’ll be glad you have a signed contract which clearly states your payment milestones. Because that’s how you wrote the contract, right? Read on for my contract tips.

3. The client admits they’re having money problems.

While it can be stress-inducing to hear this from a client, it’s not the worst scenario to be in (the previous one is). You’re now in a position to offer a monthly payment plan. That will eventually get your invoice paid. I’ve also seen it make develop trust and lead to a stronger client relationship.

4. It turns out something is actually wrong with the work.

No one wants to hear something is wrong with their work! As you’ll recall, the worry that the work might not be good enough is certainly a big fear of mine. But you can get past this too, and work with your client to address the problem. I’ve also seen this process cement a client relationship.

Still at an impasse

If they refuse to pay, I’d consider taking one or more of the following steps:

  • have a lawyer write them a letter;
  • turn your invoice over to a collection agency;
  • take them to small claims court.

How to avoid non-paying clients

Once I learned what I’m about to tell you, I rarely had a non-payment problem.

First, be very clear, before doing any work, in describing what you will do, how long it will take, what it will cost, and when you expect payment.

Once you and your client have verbal agreement on these basics, write a one-page contract that describes what you agreed to in person, and send them a copy, asking them to sign and return it to you.

Get money upfront

If this is a new client relationship, I hate to tell you this, but they will probably never like you as much as they do in the beginning. You might feel the same way about them—that “first date” excitement wears off. That means you have to get contract terms in place right away and ask for as much as possible upfront. Getting paid half of the agreed-upon total at the outset of the job is customary in creative services, but if you can get full payment, do so. I’ve often successfully contracted for full payment with a signed contract and still do.

If they resist making any advance payment, remind them that you’re in the business of providing creative services, not credit. If they still resist, consider how badly you need the work.

Past the feelings

Once I realized that I wasn’t alone in experiencing these anxieties, and that there were simple, clear steps I could take to avoid getting “stiffed,” life got easier. Then I learned to shift my stressful energy from denial to focusing on the work itself, where stress helps me improve. Not only did I feel better, but I was far more financially successful.

Ted Leonhardt is a designer and illustrator, and former global creative director of FITCH Worldwide. He grew The Leonhardt Group into a powerhouse design agency that employed over forty people and annually billed $10 million to clients including Nissan, Nordstrom, Charles Schwab, Electronic Arts, and Microsoft before selling the firm to FITCH. He is a graduate of Burnley School of Professional Art in Seattle. His specialized approach to negotiation helps creative workers build on their strengths and own their value in the marketplace.

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