Help! My Client Won’t Pay! What Do I Do Now?
You’ve done all this work, poured your heart and soul into your product and presented it to your client who was so happy with what you did for them.
Next you crafted a very thoughtful invoice being so careful to charge only what you felt was fair and reasonable and sent it off to them.
A week went by and you were happily waiting (but not expecting) for the money to show up in your account.
Another week went by and you are starting to get concerned but not worrying terribly yet.
A month goes by and your heart has dropped, your palms are sweating and you feel sick to your stomach. No. Surely not.
You start negotiating with yourself. “I’ll give them a few more days”, “I’m sure they’ll send it soon I’ll just wait to the end of the week”
That was months ago.
What on earth do you do now?
It’s a horribly devastating feeling and as a freelancer this won’t be the only time this will happen in your life.
It’s so tricky though.
You don’t want to cut off any future work but at the same time you’re not a charity and can’t just let clients take your work for free.
How do you strike a professional balance between service provider and debt collector?
Here are 3 tips I’ve used in my business that I hope will help you:
Depersonalise the Debt
By far the hardest of the steps!
You are so mad you’re crying angry tears. Disappointed and hurt.
Shocked and horrified they would do this to you!
You have bent over backwards for them and they have essentially stolen your work because they haven’t paid.
I totally get it. I’ve been there too.
I had a client in my early freelancing days who owed my $1000’s. Then he decided he wouldn’t pay for reasons that changed every day and he couldn’t or wouldn’t substantiate.
I was pregnant with my child at the time and this horrible man caused me so much distress I nearly miscarried.
Turns out he did this to everyone. It didn’t matter what I did to try to help reach an agreement he just never had any intention of paying me from the get go.
Key take away from that experience is, it’s not usually you. It’s something that’s going on for them. (In my case he had a black heart, lol)
While it stings a bit, your client really has only their own interests at heart. They aren’t generally thinking of you and your beautiful invoice sadly.
They’ve got their own problems that come with being a small business owner and it maybe that your invoice has just been forgotten.
It might be they have had a family emergency and haven’t been going into work much.
They may have their own customers that aren’t paying and their cash flow is tight.
It might be absolutely nothing to do with you.
While you feel fully triggered and a little personally violated, hold off on going nuclear on them initially.
Try to zoom out and look at the big picture.
- How much this client is worth to you long term? What is their lifetime customer value?
- What % of your overall income are they?
- Is this the first time they’ve missed a payment?
- Do you enjoy working with them?
- Do they value you?
- Are there other opportunities / referrals they can provide?
Be wary about cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Statistically the odds are that you’ll have the odd bad payers and if you haven’t done so already this should be factored into your rates.
In accounting we always allow a % of sales for doubtful debts and you should too.
This client you’re dealing with is one of those %.
It’s not a measure of your self worth. Because we both know how awesome you are 🙂
Ask Nicely but Don’t Take their Crap Either
Giving the benefit of the doubt is the first place to start.
This is good for two reasons:
- They may have a genuine reason and it stops you from making an ass of yourself!
- It assists with setting the professional business tone for your future discussions.
Your initial approach may look something like this:
Email#1 – Polite
Email #2 –Polite & Firm
Email #3 – Firm & Consequence
Get the exact words I use in these emails here:
If you have children this is exactly the same technique you use when changing undesirable behaviour with your kids.
What you’re doing is:
- Calling out bad behaviour and clearly stating your expectations
- Patrol the boundary, reaffirm the new expectations and state potential consequence
- Time to follow through
Keep emotion out of all correspondence. You are not happy with the client’s behaviour so don’t let things descend into personal attacks.
You’re going to get better results with a professional and businesslike approach.
The way the client responds will tell you a lot about them and may even make the decision for you.
If they are warm and genuinely sorry and try to work out a solution that’s win-win. Great!
If they are aggressive and push back and show no interest in substantiating their claims then you need to think whether you want this negative person in your life. Is their business really worth it in the long term?
If you keep working for them and they aren’t paying you, you are teaching them that it’s okay to treat you this way when that’s not the case. At all!
You can employ debt collection services however, you’ll need to determine whether the amount of the debt is:
- More than the cost of debt collection service and your time providing evidence
- Worth the emotional cost to you
Put the boundary up and stick to it.
They’ll pay you or they won’t.
If they don’t, then you’ve limited your losses and you can move on.
Quite often it’s just a case of marking down to experience (like I did)
Learn from Experience
Oh my god. Don’t let this happen again!
Learn to spot the signs early on and respond lightning fast. You won’t be able to prevent this 100% but you can certainly limit your losses so tighten up your contracts and make sure your payment terms are crystal clear.
Spell out exactly what will happen if payment is late. Eg once payment is x days overdue services will cease until debt is paid in full.
Always politely guide your client’s attention back to your terms of engagement as soon as the debt is overdue. (Which they signed didn’t they??)
Make sure they really know you are a professional business and will conduct yourself as such. You can still be a lovely, clever and customer service orientated freelancer but you are not a charity, my dear.
Don’t ever forget that.
Depersonalise the debt
- Don’t go nuclear. Clarify what the exact problem is and deal with it. Step forward with understanding and goodwill initially. Zoom out and look at the big picture and see if you want these clients in your life long term.
- It’s a numbers game. There’s going to be a certain % of people that won’t pay you. It’s not personal that’s just how it is in business.
Ask nicely but don’t take their crap
- Send 3 emails that escalate.
- Clarify expectations and get firm with them if required.
- Don’t be afraid to pull the trigger and deploy consequences.
- These people have no intention of paying you once you’ve arrived at this point. Don’t feel guilty babe.
Learn quickly from experience
- Quickly tighten your terms of engagement and use them.
- When sending your invoice draw attention to your payment terms.
- Act as soon as debt is overdue.
So there you have it. I hope you’ve found this post helpful. Debt collection is one of the suckiest parts about working for yourself however it does get easier with practice.
The key is filtering the bad clients out quickly and not dwelling on the negativity.
I have clients today that pay me within 24hrs of service. They’re the ones you want to make room for 🙂
Has this happened to you? How did you deal with it? Let us know in the comments below.