When a client won’t pay

Natalia Perez Wahlberg did a rush job for a new client, and now the client isn't paying up. Here's the question she asked on the CFC LinkedIn Group:
In October I did a job for a client I had approached through cold calling. The whole thing was a rush job and, to tell you the truth, a nightmare. I made the mistake of not writing a contract, as it was all so quick… I guess I lost focus.

I sent him the invoice for the work, and when 30 days were approaching, I sent him a reminder that the cheque was due soon.
He replied saying that his clients hadn't paid him yet, so no cheque.

I spoke to another graphic designer who told me that that was not right, and to send him another invoice with terms where I'd charge him a percentage for delayed payment.

So, what do I do now? I should get paid regardless of him getting paid, how do I say this tactfully? Any ideas?

What do you think she should do?

8 thoughts on “When a client won’t pay

  1. Lynne Venart

    I’ve heard of large design firms, web firms, etc. who subcontract work not paying until they get paid simply as a matter of bookkeeping. I don’t personally think it’s a good practice, but they may have every intention of paying, and may just have a longer billing cycle than you. I would not jump to any conclusions of nonpayment, but just ask them about their billing cycle and when they expect payment from the third party. If 30 day payment wasn’t in any contract, then I don’t see how you can bill them an overdue charge, especially right away. I’ve found 30 days is often too short to expect payment from large companies because it takes awhile to get the invoice to the accounting department and through the process. I request payment in 45 days.

  2. Donny Epp

    I would agree with Lynne, it’s tough to charge a late fee after 30 days with no contract. I did a freelance job recently for a client, and the billing cycle was different. They operate on a 60 day cycle, which is SO slow, but I DID get my money before those 60 days were up. I had a contract stating late fees after 30 days.. but we worked it out. Without a contract, you really don’t have much leverage unfortunately. I don’t think the client will agree to any form of contract with late payment fees AFTER the work has been completed. I would be up front with them and just ask when you can expect payment and just hope that you do get paid. Often times these situations don’t turn out well for the designer… Good luck with this, it’s a really stressful and annoying process to go through.

  3. jon

    I’ve had the same problem with a client. This is someone I’d done quite a bit of work for and he asked if I could rush out something for him. I agreed and didn’t make a contract due to our history of working together. Short story is his business partner in the end pulled out and they weren’t going to launch this little splash page I created. The bill was about $1000, so not a ton of cash.
    I sent a follow-up email after 30 days and no response. 15 days later I followed up with a phone call where he told me they didn’t end up using it. I explained to him I had already paid my coder and while I was sorry the site was going ahead I did need to be paid for my time. He said he’d try. I told him it would be great to be paid within the next 15 days.
    15 days passed and nothing. So, I sent him one final request stating that if the invoice wasn’t paid I hope he understands I would not be able to work on any further projects for him. That was in April, it’s now Dec. I haven’t heard a peep.
    In the end I got screwed out of some money which sucks, but I think the most important thing to remember is to just remain professional. Don’t write anything in an email that you wouldn’t want coming back to you. With that said, it’s important to get all your requests in writing. It’s awkward to be in a position to have to ask people for money, but it’s sometimes necessary when you freelance.
    You see a lot of things going around the web about designers telling clients to f-off or whatever and while I really wanted to it’s a small world out there. It’s easy to get a bad reputation. I’d rather he have it rather than me.

  4. wendy wetherbee

    This doesn’t help you now, of course – but you might want to think about insisting on a start work deposit in the future. you can decide what price range requires one, and how much it should be. A 33% or 50% start work deposit is not uncommon for design work. especially for work estimated to total $1000 or more. In doing so, it might force you into the routine of writing up the contract and getting a signature. as most clients want a contract with deliverables spelled out before they issue a check.

  5. Rebecca Rice

    When I was on my own, I used to send the bill with a tagline: “2% discount if paid in 10 days.” It was surprising to me how many corporations would pay early just to get that small discount. That was years ago in a different economy, but when I was on the paying end with a company, accounting requested we send invoices down early if there was ANY discount noted so they could take advantage of it. I like the positive note it adds while getting the message to them tactfully. Again, need a contract or written agreement. I also found it was not uncommon even then to have a 90 day cycle from ad agencies. Corporations were much more prompt about paying in a timely manner.

  6. Rebecca M.

    I picked about a great idea about offering a 5% discount for the full amount paid in advance.
    It’s something I use all the time now. So far, it’s only been with somewhat smaller projects, but the companies love it and I figure I’m ahead by the fact that I don’t even have to bill them at then end, and I never have to worry about chasing them down!

  7. Luis Maimoni

    Patience may be the only thing that’ll work in her unfortunate situation. With no contract, she has no real leverage. Moreover, unless the sums involved are significant, she can waste more time in collections than the invoice is worth.
    I’d suggest making a business decision about the value of the invoice, the likelihood that it will be paid no matter what she does, and then decide how much time and effort she’d like to put in to it.
    For me, it’s usually more positive to put time and energy into new business development than chasing down bad debt. So, I write small stuff off and move on.
    FWIW, I once got a check from an account I’d written off. The check was more than a year past due, but I cashed it – and it cleared!

  8. Jean Feingold

    When a client dragged her feet in paying me, I e-mailed indicating the matter would be turned over to a collection agency if it were not paid by a set date. I got my check promptly, though I doubt there will be any future work from this client (which is fine, as she was consistently hard to work with). This was not an empty threat, as I know a collection agent who charges a reasonable fee (about $15) and had discussed the possibility with her. Even if the delayed payment is only a few hundred dollars, that much might be worth spending to collect it.