A Practical Approach to Dealing with Late Payers
Whether you’re a freelancer or a small business owner, you’re going to come across a few trouble clients. It’s par for the course, unfortunately. And one of the rapscallions you’re going to come across is The Late Payer (or his ugly stepsister, The Non-Payer).
You know who I’m talking about. You’ve been working with them for a few weeks, everything was going just fine, but as soon as you sent them your invoice – nothing.
Dealing with late payers and non-payers can be tricky. But, as with all things in business, it’s best to approach the matter with professionalism and a hefty dose of practicality.
When Your Client is a Little Late
You thought everything was going swimmingly until you checked your calendar and noticed that the payment due date has come and gone… and you haven’t seen a dime! What gives?
If your client is a tad late, do this:
It can be all-too-easy to let your anxieties get the best of you, especially if you’ve been burned by a client before. But you’ll have to trust me on this: not all clients are out to get you. In fact, if you’ve been choosing your work wisely, most clients are good people. Rather than thinking of your slightly late client stroking a cat and laughing manically while sitting on a throne made of money – money that should be yours! – try to think of them as a fellow human being. Have you ever forgotten something because you were insanely busy? Or had a family emergency throw you off schedule? Something along those lines may have happened to your client. They may just need a gentle nudge to bring them back to the right business mindset.
Contact Your Client Immediately
Once 24 hours have gone by without hide nor hair of the money you’re owed, contact your client. Don’t wait. Don’t worry about “bugging” them. You need to jump on this issue right away, before it gets any worse.Once you make contact, try to nail down 3 things:
- Were they happy with the work you did? If they were, proceed to the next question to get the payment process rolling; if they weren’t, fix whatever needs fixing so you can get paid.
- Are they having an issue paying, technical or otherwise?
- When will you be paid? Make sure you nail down a specific date. This will become the “new” due date. If they still don’t pay you, start the process over again, or take stronger action.
Make It Easy for Them to Pay You
If you’re not already accepting online payments, start. I recommend PayPal. Yes, they take a percentage of the profits, but it’s well worth it for the speed, convenience, and never having to hear “the check’s in the mail” from a slow-to-pay client ever again. (Plus, you can deduct the usage fees at the end of the year as a business expense).
Keep It Light… At First
When you first contact your late-paying client, keep it simple.
Mention that they missed their payment deadline, remind them how much they owe you, and wish them well (remember, they could be in the midst of a crisis – you have no way of knowing). If you’re lucky, that’s all you’ll need. Most clients will do a forehead slap for forgetting, apologize, and send you your money. No harm done.
If your client doesn’t reply or still hasn’t paid you within a couple days, nudge them again. Gradually increase the firmness of your tone. Mention how long they’re overdue. And remind them that you retain the rights to their project until final payment is received (always a nice clause to have in your contract). But, no matter how “firm” you get, remain polite. Don’t raise your voice, don’t threaten your client, and never do anything that would be deemed unprofessional.
Thank Them When They Pay
Always thank your clients after they’ve paid you, even if they were a little late. Not just because you’re genuinely grateful (and you should be! – They chose you, out of everyone in the world, to do business with!), but because it makes them feel good. People remember when something made them feel good, and they’ll want to feel that way again. In this case, the act of thanking your client is positive reinforcement for the action you’d most like them to perform again in the future: paying you.
Having a client that pays a little late is an unnecessary annoyance, but it’s not the end of the world. We’ve all had times in our life when we’ve had to be a tad late, for one reason or another. It happens. Handle the situation as quickly as you can and move on.
On the other hand…
When Your Client is Really Late
It’s been a few weeks and your client still hasn’t paid? All right. Quash your rage and let’s handle this:
Don’t give up on communicating with your client. That’s the worst thing you can do. Continue to send them polite, yet firm, messages. At this stage, I recommend contacting your client via phone or in person. E-mails are too easily ignored and don’t require the immediate response more personal methods do. Make it impossible for them to forget you. As the saying goes, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Your client may end up paying you just to shut you up.
If you haven’t already done this, do so now. Refuse to provide any products or services until you’ve been paid for the ones already rendered. If the project is already completed, and not ongoing, once again remind the client that you retain the rights until you receive the final payment. (Like I said, this is a great addition to your contact).
Now’s the time to break out any late fee policies you have written into your contract. Remind your client that if they continue to not pay you, they’ll be penalized. If the client doesn’t like the idea of paying you what you’re owed, they’re going to like the idea of paying what you’re owed plus interest even less. In this case, you’re giving them negative reinforcement for a behavior you’d like them to stop.
You might be tempted to set up a payment plan. Don’t. If they’re this late with the initial payment, they’re likely going to be late with every payment. Do you really want to go through this process every month? It’s a waste of time. Which brings me to…
When It’s Time to Cut Your Losses
It’s been forever and your client still hasn’t ponied up. That sucks.
Yes, you can sue your client. Of course you can. You could also enlist a collection agency to chase them down.
But is that really practical?
In most cases, the answer to that question is “no.”
Don’t throw good money after bad in an attempt to get what you’re owed – or for revenge. You’ll end up wasting valuable time. Time you could have been using to find a client who will pay you.
As much as it hurts, cut your losses. Move on.
On the plus side, if you kept track of your attempts to collect what you were due, you can write off this project as a bad debt at the end of the year. It’s not the same as getting paid, but at least you won’t take as big a hit.
In the future, remember that the best offense is a good defense. Always have a well-defined contract in place, try to get a deposit up front (and if they offer to pay in full, say “yes!”), and always treat your business like a business. No matter who you’re working with – even if it’s a friend or family member – keep your payment policies the same. Be a practical professional, always.
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