How to Handle Non-Paying Clients
One of the benefits of writing for B2B clients is that they usually pay their invoices regularly. It’s an imperfect world, though. We have all heard stories of — if not experienced — renegade clients that just don’t pay up as expected.
Savvy freelancers use plenty of strategies to avoid collections hassles, such as always using a contract and invoicing promptly. However, unless you are very lucky, chances are that sometime in your B2B writing career you will run into a rogue client. Here’s what to do if it happens.
Hold the Emotion
First things first, get control of yourself. Yes, you have a right to be upset. But anger can cloud your judgment and cause you to do things you later regret. Before you attempt to deal with difficult clients of any kind, clear your emotions. Take a few deep breaths, go for a run, or scrub the tub — anything that helps you come to a point of balance.
Once you’re sure you have yourself under control, proceed with calm composure and crystal clarity of purpose. Your task is to get paid fairly, not to wage war. Retaining your cool will help you achieve this goal with your professional reputation intact. It may even strengthen your relationship with your client!
Keep Good Records
In the event that you will have to argue your case, you will need proof. Hopefully, you are already in the habit of documenting all communications with clients. If not, then start now. Keep files of all communication between you and the client, including signed contracts, emails, and letters — even recordings of voice mails and phone conversations, if possible. Wiretapping laws vary according to location, so check to be sure you’re within your legal rights before recording phone calls. A good alternative is to send your client a recap of the conversation via email after each call. End it with a question, if you can, to encourage them to respond — proof that they’ve received your message!
At First, Give Your Client the Benefit of the Doubt
There are many reasons clients don’t pay — including simple oversights, misunderstandings, and incorrectly addressed mail. Assume the best to start. One tactful way to let them know you haven’t received your payment is to call to verify that they have your correct contact information. It may in fact be as simple as updating their records! If not, then say something like, “Oh, that’s odd. I’ve been expecting a check from you for Invoice #123. It hasn’t arrived yet, and I’m wondering if there’s anything else you need from me.”
Ask If They Have Any Concerns
Chances are, a quick call to their accounts receivable department will clear up the issue. If not, then it’s time to put your communication skills into high gear.
If they are hesitating to pay because they’re not happy with your work, you definitely need to know! Ask them for feedback. Let them know their satisfaction is important to you and if there is a problem, you’d like the chance to make it right.
Chances are, though, the problem won’t be with your work. There might be something going on with the company that you don’t know about. Maybe the accounts payable person quit and bookkeeping is in a shambles. Perhaps they are having cash flow problems. See if you can find out what the issue is. You may be able to work out a solution that is acceptable to both of you.
That is what UK copywriter Gareth Jones did when a small business client wanted to pay in four installments instead of two. “I didn’t begrudge it … as it was a family friend who was referred to me, and a very nice person — so I was willing to take the hit on that one and help them out WAY above and beyond what the … initial fee allowed for.”
In the end, it is your call how far you want to go to accommodate a client. We all know that some people will take advantage of kindness. But many times, a little understanding and flexibility on your part can turn around an otherwise ugly situation.
Make it Easy for Them to Pay
Sometimes it’s not the amount, but the process of payment delivery that’s the problem. I generally prefer to receive checks because I’d rather avoid paying credit card merchant account fees. Most companies are fine with this, but I had one less-than-organized small business client who just couldn’t seem to ever pay on time. We talked about it, and she admitted that she had become so used to paying for everything digitally that she found it hard to adapt to sending checks. I installed a Dwolla payment form on my website for her to pay all future projects up front. End of problem.
Stop All Work on the Client’s Account
I knew a copywriter once who was working for a client whom we both knew had burned other writers in the past. He said he was having no trouble with her. Then one day he called me up, incensed. She’d stopped paying — and he’d kept writing another month for her even after she missed a payment. He should have known better, especially since he was aware of her history with other writers.
Threaten to Quit for Good
If you have a regular client who suddenly stops paying, consider trying B2B content copywriter Steve Maurer’s approach. Steve had a regular client who had been paying him regularly. Then he sent them a bill for a press release and heard nothing back. He emailed at least twice a month for three months. Finally, he let them know that if they couldn’t pay, he would just write it off as bad debt and would not write for them again. “(I was) friendly, but firm,” he says. Two days later, the check arrived.
If They Still Don’t Respond, Be Firm and Direct
If all your attempts at reason fail, it’s time to start playing hardball. Let them know you’ve delivered your end of the bargain, and expect them to follow through on theirs. If your contract states that you charge a fee for late payments, remind them of this fact and let them know they can avoid the fee by submitting payment by a particular date.
At this time, you will want to systematize your collections actions. Don’t let up. Send a series of snail mail collections letters, and follow up via email and phone. Each letter should be progressively more firm. Don’t make idle threats, but if you’re willing to take legal action, it’s a good idea to mention this after a few attempts to collect.
Bring in the Big Guns
So you’ve done everything you can think of and still no check. You’re probably not going to see that money without a little help from your friends.
Your attorney is an option. Hiring a lawyer can be expensive, so consider the cost before taking this route. However, sometimes just a letter from an attorney is enough to prompt a non-paying client to cough up your fee. You might even be able to convince a lawyer to trade writing services!
Or, if your client’s unpaid invoices total no more than $10,000, another recourse is to sue them in small claims court. This can be effective, but it will probably eat up a lot of time that you could be spending working for other clients. Ask yourself if it is worth it.
If all else fails, send your problem client to collections. Many copywriters are surprised to learn that collection agencies aren’t just for big companies. Many will collect on amounts as low as $500 or even less. Yes, they’ll retain a large percentage as their fee, but whatever they can get back for you is better than nothing.
No matter which “big gun” you choose to use, you’ll need to supply proof that your client owes you the money. Good thing you did all that documentation from the start, right?
Keep it in Perspective
Dealing with non-paying clients is no fun. But keep in mind that they represent a very small minority of B2B clients. Most of the time, being a B2B copywriter is a pretty good gig. It’s good pay, rewarding and interesting work, and best of all, it gives you the freedom and flexibility to work when and where you want. A few bad apples are not enough to spoil the barrel for this writer. How about you?
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