The life of a freelancer is a precarious one. You're never quite sure if you're charging clients enough or too much. You can't say no because you never know when your next gig will be. And you constantly worry that you won't be able to pay your bills from one month to the next.
Of course, the worst thing that can happen to a freelancer is having to deal with a client who won't pay. This rolls all the issues above into one gigantic problem, as you worry about paying bills, burning bridges and the value of your work. Even worse, it often feels like there is very little you can do, since you aren't protected under the usual employment laws.
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After you've sent the tenth email reminding your client that they haven't paid and after they've told you they won't pay, this is what you need to do.
01. Lay your groundwork
There are three steps to use with clients, says Josh Wedekind (opens in new tab).
- Step 1: Force all clients to sign a NET 15 contract with late fees starting on day 16.
- Step 2: Set up online payment options and automatic email reminders.
- Step 3: Don’t work with clients who fail to follow the above.
02. Don't stress
You live, you learn is an old adage that many self-employed have probably picked up the hard way. Accepting the fact that sometimes things don’t pan out is simply part of the game, says @kreativbeetle (opens in new tab).
"Make peace with the loss. Mitigate it by putting in place preventions moving forward. After making peace with the loss, remind the client of their obligation (and hopefully a signed notarised contract). Perhaps show empathy and make a payment plan."
03. Get advice
There are lots of people who’ve been there and done it when it comes to trying to get clients to pay up; look to them for advice. Darren Parlett (opens in new tab) says: “@Malarkey‘s (opens in new tab) example of a debt collecting email (opens in new tab) is great, personal and without the usual business formality.”
04. Send a clarification email
This email should be clear, stern and polite, but don't threaten legal action. You need to find out why exactly the client is refusing to pay. If the service or product isn't up to scratch, you need to offer to fix the problem. If they no longer want to use the product or pay for the service, then that's tough for them. They still have to pay.
Keep copies of all the interactions you have with the client, and any time you speak on the phone, send a follow-up email that outlines the points you discussed and what you agreed. That way, you start to build a paper trail if you need to look at your legal options.
05. Try to get clarification again
Send another email, this time both seeking clarification about their grievances and suggesting compromises that you would be happy with.
Offer to amend your work. Perhaps offer to reduce the fee as a goodwill gesture. Suggest payment plans. After all, they may have run out of money and are too embarrassed to admit it. These compromises will ideally get your client thinking about how to resolve the issue, rather than steadfastly refusing to pay.
At this point you still want to try to reach an amicable agreement, if that is at all possible. Again, keep copies of your correspondence in case you need it.
06. Decide if this is worth the hassle
You should always value your work. You deserve to get paid for anything you've done. Sometimes, however, you can spend so long chasing up payment that it's no longer worth it. Think of it this way: you get paid a certain amount per hour, like £20. If the invoice is for £50, you could think of it as two and a half hours to spend chasing up. If you spend three hours on it, you've made a loss. If the invoice is for £1000, you could chase the invoice for six days or more.
Of course, there is also the principle of the matter. You did the work, so you should get paid. It is that simple. Besides, ignoring a £50 invoice here and there isn't too bad, but it doesn't take long for it to add up. Suddenly you'll realise you're not hitting your targets because you can't be bothered to chase up invoices. Basically, at this point you have to decide what "worth it" means to you.
07. Send a legal action warning
If you are still getting nowhere with your client, it is time to let them know that you are willing to pursue this in court. Do not threaten legal action if you have no intention of following through, though.
Call or send another email, this time explicitly stating that you will be seeking legal advice if the payment issue hasn't been resolved in a certain period of time. Then be prepared to follow through.
08. Send a letter on legal letterhead
Most of the time, a legally worded letter on paper with a law firm's name on it is more than enough to get a client to pay. See if you can get some free or cheap legal advice (available in the UK from the Citizens Advice Bureau (opens in new tab)). Or ask around to see if any of your legal friends (or friends of friends) can help you out. Since this does the trick usually, you can just wait for your client to come to their senses and pay you. (Make sure you save copies of your correspondence in secure cloud storage.)
09. Go to court
Legal warnings usually get clients to pay up, but they don't always. In that case, you may have to go to court. In the UK the small claims court deals with disputes worth £5000 or lower. You can also make a claim through Money Claim Online (opens in new tab), a website set up by government to help settle claims of up to £100,000.
When you make a claim, you will need to be able to show that you provided the service or product the client requested, to the standard they expected, and they still refused to pay. You will need to show too that you made every effort possible to settle the issue amongst yourselves, and the client has been unduly slow or unreasonable.
Gather together any contracts and paid invoices and other documentation that shows there was a written or verbal contract in place – including emails where you outlined your fees and the client agreed to them. These demonstrate what is called reasonable expectation, which is that you had a reason to think that you would get paid by that client for the work that you did.
Once you go to court, you will get a decision one way or the other. Hopefully you'll win, but you do have to be prepared to lose, especially if you can't find proof that they agreed to pay you for your work.
10. Don't give up!
Dealing with a client who refuses to pay is not fun. No part of it is going to be fun. But don't feel tempted to give up. You did the work; you deserve to be paid.
And remember, most of the time, clients aren't paying because they're mean; they aren't paying because they forgot to or because they need to delay payment for invoicing reasons. Thankfully, it is rare to have to threaten legal action or go to court. It's just nice to know that you can if you need to.