Getting Paid 101
What do you do when a client won’t pay?
It’s a question we get asked a lot at AIR, but not one we’ve ever answered in a tip sheet. Often, folks start with a lot of context: “it’s just that I have to pay my rent and …” Our first piece of advice? “Stop right there!” They should pay you because you did the work. It doesn’t matter what you need the money for.
While we do have colleagues who have bartered deals, we also know that when a professional takes a pro-bono client, they agree to work uncompensated (or in trade) before they do the work. Unless you agreed at the outset that you’re going to do this work pro-bono, the client should be paying the rate they agreed to pay.
What if they won’t? Here are some tips:
Always be polite and specific when you’re following up on missed invoices. Don’t get into the details of why you need to get paid. You need to get paid because you did the work and they agreed to pay you. That’s all there is to it. Don’t apologize for wanting payment. Your goal is to get paid.
Whether your client is shirking their bills because they’re unmotivated, disorganized, or dishonest, your goal is to get paid for your work.
Focus on that goal.
If you have already invoiced the client and you haven’t heard anything at all within two weeks of submitting your invoice, you can and should politely reach out with a duplicate invoice and a note. Something to the effect of: “Contact, I submitted my invoice for $500 on June 28, 2021. Can you confirm that you received my invoice, and let me know when I should expect payment.” Accounts payable and your primary contact should both be cc’d on that email.
This email has two functions: one, it helps surface any problems. Maybe your invoice is not being processed. Maybe accounts payable reached out to your editor to let them know there was an issue with the invoice but that issue was never conveyed to you. And two, it establishes that you didn’t just send your invoice into the void.
Start a timeline of communications as you find yourself chasing the invoice. Start with rough dates if you don’t have specific ones, but look at your call log, calendar, and email archives to reconstruct dates.
If it’s been more than a month, “I’m hoping you can tell me where my money is.” email is still your first message, though you might want to make it clear that you’re concerned, as it has been more than 30 days since you submitted your invoice and you still have not been paid “Contact, I submitted my invoice for $500 on June 28, 2021. It has been more than 30 days and I still have not been paid. Please confirm that you received my invoice, and let me know when I should expect payment.” If your contract included a late fee, and it has been more than 30 days, you should include an updated invoice, including the late fee.
(If your contract didn’t include a late fee or you didn’t get around to signing a contract, you can still add one to the bill. But be prepared for the client to object to it.)
If it’s been more than a month and you already reached out at least once to ask what the hold up is, there are a few additional steps you can take:
Track down a phone number for accounts payable -- if you don’t already have one, the AIR forums are a great place to ask. Call, and politely ask for an update on your invoice. It helps to have some details in front of you: who did you send the invoice to, when did you send it, when did you follow up?
If you leave a message, give them a day or two before you try again.
Send an email with a complete timeline. Start off with something along the lines of “I’m concerned that I still have not been paid and it has been X days since I submitted my invoice.” Then include a timeline that covers everything:
- What is the work you agreed to do?
- How was the rate agreed upon?
- When was the rate agreed upon?
- When did you deliver the work?
- When did you submit your invoice?
- When did you follow up? Include the dates of every email and phone call, and any outcomes.
Send the email, but also print it, sign it, and put a stamp on it. Send it by first class mail.
In most cases you'll manage to get the client to pay you long before you get to this point, but if they still haven't paid you, it's time to start researching small claims court in your jurisdiction. Luckily, you've already done the bulk of the work: you have what you need to document the fact that you have made a good faith effort to get paid and they just aren't paying you.
If you’re in New York (or your client is), you should definitely read up on the Freelance isn’t Free act. Freelancers Union has a great post on how the law protects you and what it takes to file a non-payment claim.
What If It’s More Complicated?
All of this advice assumes that your client is just avoiding you. Sometimes that’s not quite the situation.
Sometimes a client will drop a project halfway through, or just disappear. If they’ve left you sitting with a half-finished project and no way to finish it, you should invoice them for the time you have put into the project and let them know what it will take to finish the work.
If your client is refusing to pay because they don’t like the work, or because they disagree about whether you delivered what you promised, you need to resolve that question first. Blanket advice isn’t as useful in those situations, but the AIRster Slack and Community Forums are two good places to workshop strategies for navigating more complicated situations.
Set Yourself Up for Success
Always make sure you know who to submit invoices to. Should they go to your editor? Or to a general “[email protected]” email? Both? Is there any kind of billing code you need to include? Get that information upfront.
Complete and send a W9 with your first invoice, to ensure that the client has the correct address and name for payment. Some freelancers want to be paid under a business name while others prefer to be paid under their personal name. But most clients will need a W9 on file before they can pay you.
Include both late fees and payment terms in your standard contract. Freelancers Union suggests a late fee of 1.5% and Net 30 payments (ie. you will be paid within 30 days of receipt of your invoice) is standard practice. Most clients process bills more frequently. A client who can’t commit to paying you within 30 days, or won’t commit to a late fee if they don’t pay you on time, is a red flag.
Even if you didn’t put a late fee in your standard contract, following up on non-payment by politely reminding the client that the invoice is overdue and letting them know that you’ll be charging a late fee is sometimes enough to snap a client out of their stupor.
Always sign a contract. Even if you trust the client and it’s a quick project, it is always a good idea to put the final terms, including deliverables and payment expectations, into a contract that you both sign. The absence of a contract is never, ever an excuse for withholding payment, but sign one anyway.
And as ever, if you’ve got a question about getting paid, please reach out to AIR staff at [email protected]