The perfect project -- the one with a decent budget, and a wonderful project manager or editor -- is finally complete. You send an invoice to the person in charge. The contract stated "payment on acceptance/ completion," and you have their signature on file, so there is nothing to worry about. Besides, they sent you a deposit. Of course they'll want to send you the remaining balance as soon as possible.
A week goes by and the check hasn't arrived. Alarm bells go off in your head, but you decide to give your client the benefit of the doubt. The check is in the mail, you're sure, and the new Anthrax-prevention equipment at the post office sure has slowed the mail.
By week two your bills are arriving on time, so you decide your client may have cut the checks late. You promise yourself that at the beginning of next week, you'll make sure you give a friendly reminder call, if the check isn't here. When you call, your contact person isn't there to take it. You leave a message for him to call you, although you don't want to sound like a collection agency.
Days go by with no return call. You send an email that goes unanswered. Those alarm bells go off again. Did you do something wrong? Are they going out of business?
How can you retain your client relationship and get paid?
We all like to think the best of our clients, and sometimes, in earnest, we gloss over some of the fine details.
It's important to "check out" our clients before we begin working for them. Retailers and suppliers always do credit checks on new customers. Most freelancers can't afford the time or money to do this. However, if the company is publicly traded you can always look them up on the web. In fact, always do a quick check on the search engines for any press releases the client has put out, bad publicity, etc. If your client is a day away from bankruptcy and you're their last hope, they're not going to tell you that. If something looks unstable, go with your gut and ask for a larger deposit, or pass on the job altogether.
You can also check the warning reports for writers and consumers to see if other writers have had problems with your client. If they're listed, steer clear!
A legally binding contract is a must for any freelancer. You can change the contract to reflect the time allotted, deposit, and completion date. I always include the number of allowed revisions, a kill fee, and a statement explaining that the copyright for the project transfers after I receive the final payment.
Nothing makes a freelancer panic more than an unpaid invoice. The thought of Ramen noodles and Tang is terrifying -- or at least humbling.
Approaching your client about a delinquent account isn't difficult. You can send a "thank you for the project" email and a short note saying, "By the way, the check hasn't arrived in the mail yet, I was wondering when you mailed it?" If you don't get a response, call the main office phone number and ask for the fax number to the Accounts Payable department. Send a polite note to the AP office explaining, "I'm afraid that this invoice may have been lost in the shuffle. It's several days past due. Please update me on the status when you have time." Usually this will do the trick, and you'll get a polite phone call or email with a notation about the "paid" status. Make sure you note all of the dates and times you've called and keep copies of all of your correspondence.
What if your client won't return your email or phone calls and the Accounts Payable department only has a voice mailbox? (This is a sure sign of trouble!)
Make sure your contact person is actually in town. Once an editor left for three weeks without any notice and the accounting department couldn't pay me without his approval. If this happens, call (or leave a message for) the accounting department and fax a copy of the invoice and initial contract. Explain that the copyright doesn't transfer to their company until you're paid and that the signature on the contract authorizes your payment. It's a matter of CYA for them -- cover your assets.
If you're still being ignored, and it's been a month, it's time to get serious. Before you report them to the Better Business Bureau, or decide to sever your relationship, make sure it's worth losing their business in the future.
If you do more work for this client in the future, make sure that you ask for a larger up-front deposit, just in case.
Once you've figured out that you're not getting paid without some outside interference, don't panic, harass, or spread vicious rumors about your client. There are steps you can take, but it's wise to tread lightly and remain civil, in order to stay out of court.
If you're a member of the National Writer's Union or another organization for writers, it's time to make a phone call. Your union representative can help mediate disputes with clients. If you're not a union member, you can contact Angela Hoy. She publishes reports on non-paying clients in her newsletter, Writer's Weekly.
If your client is a member of the Better Business Bureau, you can contact the local branch. Consider hiring a collection agency, or you can start sending snail-mail collection letters with 30, 60, and 90 days "past due" notices.
Download sample collection letters here: http://www.bizfilings.com/toolkit/tools-forms/finance/business-finances/sample-collection-letters.aspx
If you handled transactions solely online, you can also consider reporting the client to the FBI's Internet fraud department: http://www.fbi.gov
Sometimes, no matter what you do, your client won't pay. They may skip town or go directly into bankruptcy, absolving themselves of debt. Unfortunately, as a freelancer you can't write this off as a loss against your taxes. What you can do is go to court and try to collect as much as you can. As long as you keep records of all your correspondence, you'll have a decent court case. However, even if you go to court and a judgment is entered against the client, the chances are still slim that you will be paid.
The only certainty about a non-paying client is that you can learn from your experience. Luckily the paying clients usually outnumber the non-paying and late-paying clients about 30-to-1. They make freelancing worthwhile.
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Copyright © 2002 Melissa Brewer
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.