This month, for the first time in my career, I’m taking a non-paying client to small claims court.
I’m terrified. I hate adversarial relationships and confrontations and the thought of court alone just brings out a lot of fear … but I also need to do it for a plethora of reasons, two of which include a) the fact that I held up my end of the bargain and b) the fact that I need the money.
Now, don’t think that just because this is the first time I’m taking someone to court that it’s the first time I haven’t been paid! It’s actually simply the first time that anyone in my geographic area hasn’t paid me. More often than not, the client is half the planet away and it would cost more in time and effort and sometimes money to do anything about it.
I don’t know any freelancer who doesn’t have a few “client didn’t pay me” stories to tell. For them, for myself, for all of you, here are some ways to at least make it less probable:
- Use a contract. I don’t care if it’s a $50 gig, write up a contract and get the client to sign it. Will it make them come through if they’re determined not to pay? Of course not; but it will give you more leverage when you attempt to collect the money. I once had an attorney give a call to a client who didn’t wish to pay, and that contract was what made this person pay up. Make sure that your contract is extremely detailed—there’s no consideration too small here.
- Get a retainer. Not every company or publisher will do this; they like working with invoices. It’s much easier to do if you work with individuals (I generally ask for one-third upfront before any work begins). Whenever you can, get some of your money upfront. It shows that you’re serious and makes it easier for them to pay you the balance, as there’s already a file open.
- Invoice, invoice, invoice. Be professional—but persistent. Don’t give up. Keep sending that invoice.
- Make it easy for them to pay. I offer clients options: check, bank transfer, PayPal. Whatever works for you … works for me.
We all have horror stories, and sharing them over a beer can be amusing, but they still represent lost income that freelancers can ill afford. Being as professional as possible will show your client that you mean to be treated that way as well.
What about you? How do you get recalcitrant clients to pay up?