By Monica Davidson
Oh, that sinking feeling – when you realise that the payment your client was supposed to make has not appeared in your bank account. It doesn’t appear the next day, or the next. You, my friend, have not been paid.
There are a few steps you can take at this point, but let’s press the rewind button. The best way to ensure that a client pays you on time is to establish clear boundaries about money right from the beginning of the relationship.
Step One: Have the Talk
Make sure you have a conversation, followed by an email, about the expectations of payment before the work has begun. Create a payment schedule and share it, with clear amounts and payment dates, so that any confusion can be cleared up before you start. This can be uncomfortable, but it’s a professional approach that establishes good communication and will make the whole process easier.
Step Two: Know Who is Who
Make sure you know who the invoice (the request for payment) should go to. Sometimes clients don’t honour invoices because the person you have a working relationship with is NOT the person who pays you. That is most likely a mysterious stranger in a magical place called “accounts”. Find out the details of that stranger early on, including name and email. Also establish if a purchase order is required before payment – that’s a document issued by the client that can make the whole process smoother.
Step Three: Get a Contract
Steps 1 and 2 can also be turned into a contract, or legally binding agreement, that includes things like the details of the project or services, how much the client owes you and when payment is due. The contact should also include information about late fees. Review the contract with the client at the beginning of your relationship and require them to sign it before you begin any work.
Step Four: Send Reminders
If you’re really worried, send the client a reminder about any upcoming invoices, say a week before, so there’s really no confusion. You might want to add an incentive, such as a discount, for paying on or before the due date.
Step Five: Use a System
Consider using a cloud account system, like Rounded, which can issue professional-looking invoices, send payment reminders, and add a late fee if necessary. Make sure you send invoices on time – they are much more likely to be paid.
If you take these steps, the chances of a client not paying are greatly reduced. However, sometimes it’s too late to rewind a relationship, or things have escalated beyond these measures. Time for the next steps.
Step Six: Contact the Client
Email or call the one you’re dealing with, AND the person in accounts, if they’re separate. Be friendly, and send them any outstanding invoices, contracts or previous correspondence about the money owing. This usually works, but if it doesn’t, onwards.
Step Seven: Letter of Demand
This is a letter, sent via email, to use when you’ve tried unsuccessfully to get your invoice paid and it’s time to take more serious action. The letter allows you to put your concerns in writing, and gives the other party a chance to fix it before further action is taken. You can find more info, and a free template, here.
Step Eight: Mediation
You might not want this step, but mediation is a process of dispute resolution which encourages you and the other parties to isolate the issues, and (hopefully) negotiate a resolution that suits everyone. If the client is disputing the payment or if you’re being accused of something problematic (or both), this can be a possible solution. You can find out more at the Arts Law Centre of Australia.
Step Nine: Debt Collection
If you’ve tried the methods above to recover what you’re owed, it may be time to use a debt collection service. This is a business that tries to recover the money for you, for a fee, and it signals that you have handed the matter over to professionals. This could further strain your business relationship, but if you haven’t yet been paid, it’s pretty bloody strained at this point. You can find out more at Business.gov.au
Step 10: Get a Lawyer
This is the most expensive option, and probably your last resort. You can find a list of lawyers working in creative industries here.
Best of luck – and next time, start at Step 1 and see if it makes a difference!