Every freelancer’s fear (apart from not finding work) is that their clients won’t pay them. For the record, it’s very, very rare that a client will just never pay you. In the course of my nearly 20-year copywriting career, it’s never happened.
Remember: clients are human. And, as such, it does happen from time to time that they put off paying invoices longer than they should. Sometimes they simply forget.
So, let’s go over what to do just in case payments aren’t forthcoming.
Step 1: Ask Your Clients If They Have an Existing Payment Process
The first step is to know what you’re working with. Some of your clients may have a formal payment process, particularly with organizations that have a finance department. Many established organizations that work with various service providers and/or vendors (like copywriters) will be used to paying invoices.
After you’ve completed the project and are ready to invoice, you can say, “Hi [client name], I am prepping my invoice for [insert project] and wanted to quickly check to see if you have a certain process for invoicing. Is there anything in particular you need me to include on the invoice that’s specific to your organization? If not, I’ll use my standard invoice template. Should I send you that invoice directly, or someone else? And, finally, do you have standard payment terms? I generally include “Net 15″ on my invoices, but please let me know if you have a different process. Thanks!”
Net 15 (or Net 30, Net 60, etc.) simply means the payment is expected within that number of days after the invoice is sent.
Some clients may have you cc the person you’re working directly with, but include someone on their finance team on the “To” line. Some clients may have you include a specific work order number on your invoice. Some clients may pay invoices immediately upon receipt. Some may pay bi weekly, monthly, or even net 120! Some clients may have no process at all.
Knowing what you’re working with up front can save a lot of anxiety about where your invoice stands, especially if you know they have set payment cycles.
Step 2: Send a Gentle Reminder Email
Unless your client has a track record of not paying your invoices (in which case, why are they still your client?), you want to give them the benefit of the doubt. We’ve all forgotten something from time to time and your clients are busy. If your client does not have an established payment process and if you haven’t heard anything about a week after you’ve sent your invoice, you can send them a gentle reminder email.
If you know they generally pay monthly and a week into the month you don’t see a payment, you can send a reminder, too. Basically, you want to take into account what you know, and then send a gentle reminder if they’ve missed the deadline by a week.
Your email can be as simple as, “Hi [insert name of client], I just wanted to check in about that invoice I sent you on [insert date]. Please let me know if you have any questions.”
You can even reply using the original email you sent them so it’s all part of the same thread and simply pops back to the top of their inbox.
For most clients, that will be enough to jog their memories and remind them that they need to pay you.
Again, most clients are good people, so you want to be polite your first email. There’s no need to get tough.
Step 3: Send a More Direct Follow-Up
Now, let’s say that another week goes by and you still haven’t heard anything. Or, more likely, they promised to pay, but haven’t sent you a payment yet.
At this point, you can be a bit more direct. Still, though, you don’t want to burn bridges. So be straightforward, but polite.
This email could say, “Hi Jim, it’s been two weeks since I sent my invoice and I haven’t seen payment come through. Could you let me know when I can expect it?”
When they receive this email, the majority of the small percentage of clients who haven’t paid you after your first email will feel embarrassed and send out payment right away.
Step 4: Pick Up the Phone
Let’s say, just to cover all bases, your client still doesn’t pay you after the two reminder emails.
Again, let me emphasize, this is exceedingly rare.
Your next step is to get in contact and let your client know that you won’t be able to do any further work for them until your invoice is paid. This is tough, but fair.
You could send this as an email, but if you’re feeling brave, it will be even more effective if you pick up the phone and make a call. Stay calm and stay polite, but be direct.
You can’t do work if you don’t get paid, right?
At this point, you may be wondering what you can do to get your money. Do you threaten them with small claims court? Have an attorney send a letter?
Well…you could…but I wouldn’t recommend it. Small claims court takes a lot of time and isn’t especially effective. And hiring an attorney is expensive. Basically, you’d be spending more time and money; throwing good money after bad.
Look at it this way: It’s not worth paying $400 to get paid for a $300 invoice. And it’s not worth five hours of your time to get paid for a $300 invoice. That’s five hours you could spend working and earning money.
Your best course of action, instead of trying to revenge or force a payment, is just to focus on finding new clients and new work. It will be hard to let it go, but do it anyway.
You won’t gain any advantage by trying to exact revenge. But you will by moving on and finding new work. And you never know… one of these days, you might just find that check in your mailbox, after all.
If you’re worried about a client not paying you, bookmark this page so you have it for later. That way, you’re ready with a game plan if it does happen.
Your turn! Have you ever had a client that took especially long to pay you? How long? And what did you do? Let us know in the comments below!
Last Updated on August 18, 2022
Alison Judge says
Such a useful resource – thank you so much. I have a client at present who is late in payment. I have followed each step in the process, with the recommended timescales, up to step 3. Having assured me that he would pay yesterday, he didn’t.
So now I am at step 4. Moving on to focus on new clients, and formulating my polite, professional and unequivocal response to him for if/when he wants to try using my services again.
Thank you once again! Warmest wishes from Cambridge UK!
The Filthy Rich Writer Team says
I’m glad you found this timely and useful (although I’m sorry to hear you’re dealing with this situation)!