A non-paying client is easily the worst thing that can happen to a freelancer. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that all freelancers have, at one point or another, had this kind of an experience. Everybody, meets a non-paying client at least once. But what can you do in case someone “forgets” to pay you? Don’t worry, your options for dealing with unresponsive clients are not limited to giving up on your money. There’s actually a lot you can do to deal with a non-paying client.
Don’t Work Without a Contract
Most new freelancers commit a big mistake by agreeing to work without a contract. This usually comes from not considering freelancing their business, which is of course wrong. You are providing a certain service, whether it’s content writing, app development or web design, and you should be paid for that service. Hence, you’re running a business, so stop treating freelancing as a hobby.
Having a freelance contract is something I advocate over and over on this blog and making sure you get paid for your work is the main reason behind it. Not only that, but a contract is also good for establishing some other payment rules such as how much you will be paid in the end, will you be paid all at once at the end of the job or in milestones/increments and when you will get paid (at the end of the month, on the 1st of the month and so on).
On the other hand, working without a contract only invites the sort of clientele looking to take advantage of freelancers by not paying for their services. Make sure you are not among them.
Determine Why You Didn’t Get Paid
Let’s not jump to conclusions here. There may, after all, be a perfectly good explanation why a client didn’t reply to your invoice. For one, they may have gone on a vacation or are attending some personal or other business matter. While it is generally rude to a freelancer when a client decides to take a vacation before they finish dealing with them, at least you get a some kind of explanation. Not that it does much to defend the non-paying client.
But wait, I hear you say. Why should it matter to me that a client has decided to go enjoy themselves while I still haven’t gotten my money? And you are absolutely right. It shouldn’t. Which is why I remind you once again to establish those ground rules, draft a good contract and send your invoices BEFORE the client goes on a vacation.
Oh, and of course, be sure that you don’t have one of those clients that keep disappearing at the most inopportune times (like when they’re supposed to pay you). This is okay once, but if they keep doing it, without prior warning stop working with them. A simple “hey, I’m going out of town Monday for the next two weeks” will suffice.
How to Invoice Your Clients
Hopefully, you’re sending your invoices with the draft and didn’t wait for it to get accepted or your article published. Most companies you’ll be dealing with as a freelancer have an established payment cycle, so it’s important to get in it, or you are doomed to wait for the next one. Which could be next month. This means, that you only have a short amount of time, usually a week, to send your invoice.
However, let’s say you did send your invoice on time, but for whatever reason didn’t get a reply from a client. What should you do then? It’s easy. Send it again. Only this time, I recommend adding a late fee to the original amount. It’s amazing how quickly some non-paying client will “locate” the money in the fear that they might have to pay you more the longer this goes on and that you are also not giving up.
Remind a Non-Paying Client. Politely
Always follow-up on your invoice the day after the payment is due by sending a friendly email reminder to the client. Be sure to be polite in your email. Something like:
“Hi, I’m just checking to confirm if my invoice has reached you. The final payment for the project we did was due (date) and I sent the final draft 3 weeks ago. Please let me know if you need another copy of the invoice and also when can I expect payment.”
Usually, that’s all you need. A little nudge to the client to wake them up and remind them to pay you. What you can also do is is send a message on their social media. For instance, you can send them a message on Facebook or an InMail on LinkedIn, gently reminding them of the due payment.
Remind a Non-Paying Client. Firmly
If reminding a non-paying client politely doesn’t provide the desired result, then it’s time to remind them firmly. It’s important to have a limit to what you will allow. So, a week or even less after the first “friendly” email, send another one, less friendly and more firm. Make sure the client knows by now that you mean business.
What should a warning email look like? First and foremost – keep the tone professional! I know you might be angry and frustrated at this point, but refrain from name-calling. That will only make you look weak. Instead, adopt a no-nonsense type of language. The type that, when they read it, the client knows not to mess with you any longer.
List all the methods you have used to (unsuccessfully) contact the client to pay you. Including: when the payment was due according to your contract agreement, when did you send and re-send your invoice to them and so on. Then, on top of all of that, explain what further action you will take against the non-paying client, such as legal action. It’s amazing how quickly clients will call you back when they know you don’t allow to be pushed around.
Another way to firmly remind the client to respond to your invoice is a bit controversial. However, as Carol Tice, author of Make A Living Writing says, you can also use “social shaming” to reach your goal. This is different from what I mentioned earlier about politely reminding the client on their Facebook or LinkedIn profile about the late payment. Instead, you’ll be going public, mentioning the company or the client so that everyone sees what’s going on. Fear of losing their image can make clients do wonderful things, such as remembering to pay freelancers finally.
Should You Hire a Lawyer or Go to Court?
Personally, I’m not a fan of going to court to get your money from a non-paying client. There are several reasons for this. First and foremost, there may be thousands of kilometers between you and your client. You can be in Japan and he can be in Spain for example. Maybe your emails and invoices can reach the client in momentarily. A court process, especially if you have to go to another state or even country, takes much, much longer. Provided the court will even consider your claim (depending on the freelancing laws for instance).
That’s not to say, that you shouldn’t hire a lawyer to help you out. Hopefully, a lawyer friend already helped you draft a contract or go over the one the client provided. You should also give them a call again, hire them to write a professional letter and send it to the client. By now, of course, we are well past emails and such, and using physical letters, envelope, stamp and all. The letter should once again remind the client how much they are overdue with payment and how much they owe you. Finally, the letter should also state what further action you plan to take, such as going to court on this.
If it comes to it, I’m not saying you shouldn’t consider a small claims court. What I am saying is that, depending on the amount the client owes you, it may not be worth it. Sometimes, it’s just better to focus on the clients who you don’t have a payment problem with.
Stop Working with a Non-Paying Client Immediately
I probably don’t have to tell you this, but if you have a non-paying client, stop working with them until you get your money. Hit the pause button on the project and don’t accept any more assignments before you see the funds in your bank or PayPal account from them.
Focus on clients who are actually paying you on time for your services. They deserve your attention, not the deadbeat ones. You shouldn’t waste your time and energy on doing more work for a client until they pay you.
And, if the client asks why they’re suddenly a low-priority and why you have stopped sending articles, explain them that they are on hold currently. Tell them you’ll be turning your attention to other clients or finding new ones until you receive payment from them.
Consider it a Lesson Learned
Finally, bear in mind that, after all doing all of the above, maybe you still won’t see your money. Don’t beat yourself over it. Instead, think of it as a “lesson learned”. Apply what you learned here to the next client to prevent the same happening again. Don’t complain about freelancing being unfair, but start making better choices and choose better clients.
This is a lesson I learned myself early on in my freelancing career, after a client on Odesk left without paying me about $1,000 for a month of work I did for her. After this experience, I have become much more careful in who I work with.
How do you deal with a non-paying client? Share your experiences and advice in the comments below.