The Freelancer’s Cheat Sheet for Collections
Collections — even the mention of that word puts a sad look on any freelancer’s face. We’ve all wound up with a client who simply failed to pay up. The simple truth is that we’ll probably see more down the road, as well.
There’s no set signals that we can look for that will tell us if a given client will pay or not. There are certainly plenty of jerks out there, but there are also plenty of people who just find that their own cash flow didn’t work out the way they expected. You’ve got to be willing to act on the problem, either way, rather than sitting around hoping that they’ll cut you a check some day. Here are concrete options that you can take.
- Keep contacting your client: It’s true that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. If you keep calling, sending notices of unpaid invoices and generally staying in close contact, you may get money just to make you go away. Provided that you’re polite about it, feel free to make a nuisance of yourself — such as by calling their office every day until you get paid.
- Offer new payment terms: If the situation is such that you know your client is willing to pay but just can’t right now, offer new payment terms. Tell the client that you’ll take payments spread out over time or some other arrangement. Don’t make it a habit, though.
- Ask a lawyer to write a letter: While you have to be able to back up a lawyer’s letter to make it truly effective, just hearing that you’re willing to get a lawyer involved can be very motivating to clients who need to send you money.
- Visit your client’s office: It’s much harder to tell someone that they’re not going to get their money in a fact-to-face situation and, if you’re willing to sit down and refuse to move until you receive payment, you may be able to get it. Be careful how you handle such situations, however — depending on the circumstances, the owner of the office you’re visiting can call the cops and report you for trespassing or causing a disturbance.
- Take them to small claims court: Provided that your client is located fairly near to you, it may make sense to simply take the matter to court. If it’s a sizable project, it may be worth traveling in order to bring the matter in front of a judge.
- Ask the client to return the work: If the client hasn’t paid for the work, he shouldn’t be using it. Some clients will continuing using work anyhow, but that opens them up to questions of copyright infringement since they haven’t properly licensed the work. I wouldn’t do it except in extreme cases, but that means that you can send a take down notice to their ISP if they’re using your work online.
No matter how frustrated you are about an unpaid invoice, you never want to open yourself up for legal action. You absolutely have to take the high road: don’t bad mouth your client, take any of their property or even make a scene at their offices. All those situations open you up to legal action — you may get your payment, but it could get eaten up by your own legal fees. The trick is to be persistent but polite, no matter what.