Ah, yes – the freedom of being a freelancer. The carefree life of the consultant. The pain-in-the-ass clients who pay late.
With the exception of ravenous otters gnawing on your extremities during a dip in the ol’ swimming hole, nothing sucks more than waiting for an invoice to finally be paid. Sure, patience is a virtue. And politely standing by without making waves will maintain a good client relationship.
So we wait. We endure. We tolerate.
This is familiar territory for me. I know what it’s like around the 90-day mark when you are convinced the client completely forgot about the invoice. You’re eating Government Cheese Helper for the third day in a row. A guy from the power company just got out of his truck, and he’s walking toward your meter for the disconnect. It’s time to draw a line in the sand.
Like you, I’ve asked myself the question: Is it worth the effort to make a fuss?
Often, when you're freelancing or consulting, you may find it is simply just not worth the extra effort. Sadly, that invoice ends up as “bad debt.”
On the other hand, there are times when the invoice is large and directly affects people downstream. You know the type of invoice I'm talking about. It’s the first domino that has to fall so you can pay a developer for a mobile app. Then you have a copywriter who wrote a compelling story, the SEO professional who prepped for the launch of your campaign, and an account service representative maintaining client relationships.
Along with the overly sensitive creatives arguing about why you need five concepts, you have to pay for that Keurig on the counter, the new MacBook Air you’re taking on next week’s trip, the roof over your head – and, of course, there is the matter of the work-booted feet clomping menacingly toward your power meter.
Lights are one thing. But how are you going to run the Keurig and charge the MacBook without electricity? This is serious shit.
Now the rubber meets the road. You have a stable full of good people waiting for a payment, and you don’t want to disappoint them.
What's the best way to get it done? Here is a list of strategies for you to consider on a case-by-case basis. Your application of these ideas depends on the client, the nature of your relationship, and a needs assessment based on the project.
1) R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Regardless of billing, always treat your contacts with the utmost professionalism and respect. It will help you now, and serve in your favor later.
2) Documentation: An important component in your billing process is to have the scope of work, contract and other necessary legal paperwork in place. The client must agree to it AND sign. Make sure you keep both digital and physical paperwork in redundant locations. This will protect you should you ever have a loss of data and need to prove outstanding billing.
In my experience, it is uber important to work with professional legal representation on your initial contracts. You can use those papers as boilerplate to progressively develeop contracts with varying types of clients. Remember, this is all to protect you. For my money Greg Galloway is the best in the business.
As a side note: Find an attorney with a background in not just advertising, but copyright, royalties, and a rich understanding of social media and its potential legalities.
3) Communication: Maintain a very detailed “digital paper trail” regarding all of your correspondence with the players in charge of getting you paid. In addition to e-mails, be sure to keep (or take screenshots of) any text communication with your contact.
4) Collecting: Let's get down to the brass tacks of asking for money: Always keep it professional, and don't follow-up on an invoice until it's late based on your contract.
Start by invoicing your direct contact on a weekly basis. Do not e-mail on Monday. People are consumed with an array of items at the beginning of the week, and you might get lost in the mix. Simply state that you are checking the status of the outstanding invoice (note your job number), and ask for an expected pay date.
Keep in mind that e-mail can be a bad representation of your actual temperament. Therefore, make sure your e-mail sounds bright, positive and respectful. Kill them with kindness, folks. You want to maintain this relationship. More often than not, your client is busy with other responsibilities and unknowingly went past the contractual billing cycle.
Always CC your correspondence to an external e-mail account that is a holding spot for your client records.
5) Escalation: After an invoice remains unpaid for an additional 30 days. it's time to bring more attention to the matter. At this point, one of the things you can do is add more contacts to the follow-up communications. Often by simply copying your contact’s superior, it will motivate closure. Remember throughout this process to maintain a consistent temperament and advocate agreeable resolution.
6) Frustration: Now you sit an additional 30 days out. Are you at 90? Are you at 120? You will again reach the line of demarcation where you need to determine what you're willing to do for the invoice.
This might go without saying, but I'm going to tell you anyway.
If you are still doing work for the client, you can probably inflict some pain by no longer performing tasks for them. Be sure it states within your contractual documentation that without payment, you can suspend services. Now you have directly connected the invoice to possible external success for the client.
7) Termination: One of the biggest questions you need to ask yourself at this point is: Are you willing to terminate the relationship with your client? This goes beyond just not being paid for one job. You may very well have to “fire” your client, or agree to a termination of the relationship.
I'm going to assume you have legally vetted contracts, and an attorney who will support them. If that’s the case, you can have a legal document drawn up requesting payments of the contract, with the caveat that without payment, you will pursue legal action. This communication should not only be sent to your point of contact and their superior, but also anyone at the decision-making level within the corporation.
In the past 20 years, I have been on the wrong end of countless late invoices. The best thing to do is treat your client with as much respect as possible in order to maintain the relationship. While you should expect clients to pay in a timely manner, you shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t.
Expect delays, and know that cash flow will affect your own billing, forecasting, and group schedules.
The sad truth is that this is simply one of the hurdles we face. However, if you plan appropriately for it, you can weather the storm in spite of long billing cycles.