Ask FreelanceSwitch #12
Ask FreelanceSwitch is a regular column here that allows us to help beginners get a grip on freelancing. If you have a question about freelancing that you want answered, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let’s get ready to rumble!
I’ve finished the project and sent the final invoice for the second half payment. But the client won’t answer my calls and doesn’t return any emails. It’s been 2 weeks. The site is operating and he is using it.
How should I proceed?
I’ve thought about showing up at their office and demanding to be paid. I can turn the site off by renaming a few key config files that no one will be able to figure out. So it shuts his site down. How should I handle a client that won’t make the final payment?
Thursday: It sounds like the client is local, which can make a situation like this significantly easier. The first step I would suggest is to send a certified letter to the client, with another copy of the invoice and a letter informing him that if the invoice is not paid, you will shut down the site and proceed to small claims court. If, in your contract, you listed any charges that would go with late fees, add those on to the invoice as well.
Using certified mail is important in this sort of situation, so don’t email this copy of the invoice or take it by the office yourself. You want to have your client’s signature on file with the post office as having received the final invoice. In many cases, a client will respond at this point.
If not, I would suggest reading up on the small claims court in your area. How small claims court operates can vary significantly from state to state. Depending on how much the client owes you and where you live, it’s not entirely out of the question that you aren’t eligible to use the small claims court. If that’s the case, I’d suggest taking the matter to a lawyer. If you’ don’t receive payment and are ready to take the matter to small claims court, that’s the right time to turn off the client’s website, provided it’s on hosting you control. There is some question of whether you can turn off a client’s website, if it isn’t on hosting you’re providing — if they’re hosting it and you access it without authorization, courts tend to see that along the same lines as breaking into a client’s office and stealing back a physical product they sold to you. But if you’re hosting the website, turning it off can get a client to respond very quickly, hopefully fast enough so that you can avoid fees in small claims court. I’d be very careful proceeding, otherwise.
After that, small claims court is, unfortunately, your best bet.
It may seem like you should wait more than two weeks and, in many cases, I wait four weeks before I start sending aggressive letters like the one described above. But the fact that the client isn’t responding would lead me to move forward faster than I might if I’d gotten an email or a phone call to discuss the invoice.
Travis: Before you do anything Nick, let me tell you the experience I read recently from a Web development firm.
They, like you, had a secret kill switch built into the client’s site, and when things went bad they threw the switch and wiped the website’s memory.
But it didn’t stop there. The website started its own personal mission to find out who it was and who wiped its memory. And as the website moved through exotic European locations, the Firm sent out developer after developer to bring it in.
None of them ever came back.
It’s quite an experience isn’t it…(or was it was Robert Ludlum novel)? Either way, I’m sure your blood runs cold just thinking about it.
The truth is Nick, your real problem started when you handed over the files to the client before you were fully paid for them. Here is where you lost all your leveraging power. Now you’re trying to play a game of high stakes poker with your cards facing the wrong way. You’re trying to bluff your client with a flush when he can clearly see you’re holding nothing but a flush-down-the-toilet.
Whatever you do Nick, don’t try and bring down the site. You never know when that knock on your door is going to be that client’s website. And it’s ticked…
I charge my clients 50% upfront – with the remaining 50% due on delivery. This system has always worked – I always get paid.
What doesn’t work is how to be clear on 50% upfront while being polite about it. I have clients that have clearly not understood it and delayed their project because work will not commence until this fee is paid (to save time-wasters).
My question is: How do you tell them politely that it’s 50% upfront?
Thursday: What constitutes being polite when dealing with clients tends to depend on the client you’re working with. If you’re working with clients who have worked with other freelancers in the past, simply adding a line to your estimate saying that 50 percent is due, up front, before you start the project, is absolutely fine. You may have to remind them to send the check along, but it’s generally not an issue.
On the other hand, if you’re working with a client who has never before worked with a freelancer, things can be very different. What I usually do is provide a basic explanation of how I operate, laying out when I would expect payments, how I need to receive specific information before starting and so on. Then, once we start talking about time lines, I say something about how a specific deadline is acceptable, provided the client can get that first 50 percent to me by a specific date. Mentioning that payment several times can be necessary to get a client to realize that he needs to submit a payment before the project will start.
Educating your clients on how you do business is made harder by the fact that not all clients ask a lot of questions. The best thing to remember is that the more information you can provide to your client, the better equipped your clients will be to work with you.
Travis: You know Leah, when I used to dance tables for a living, people knew that I charged half upfront and I needed the remainder before I would even think of getting off the table. Although my career was short lived, and no one actually ever paid me to dance for them, my potential clients appreciated my open candor.
Your best course of action is to not make an issue of it. I detail my payment terms clearly in my contract and let my clients know well in advance each step of the dancing process including signing the contract and collecting the deposit.
Just don’t shilly-shally when you mention the deposit. When you speak about your process in a straight forward manner, clients will realize right away that it is the way business is done in the freelance world. Remember, lack of confidence is killer for designers and dancers alike.