Basic Business Studies for Photographers: Credit Control and Invoicing.

Or, How to get Paid as soon as Humanly Possible.

Some of this article may overlap with “Good Habits” but that’s no bad thing. Here, in as simple a form as I can present it, is the mystery of getting your money out of companies you work for.  That comes down to invoicing, and credit control.

Invoicing – Things to Do.

Invest in an accounts package such as Quickbooks or Sage, whilst I don’t make full use of mine (Quickbooks) I find it indispensable for keeping tabs on invoices that are outstanding, as well as preparing VAT returns in a very short time. With a couple of clicks you can bring up tables that show you precisely how much you’re owed, by whom, in a useful summary form, plus you can usually “zoom in” to specific invoices to check dates/numbers etc.
Make sure your invoices are very clear and contain all the information required, but not so much that they become hard to follow. As an absolute minimum an invoice should contain the following info:

  • Date
  • Job Reference
  • Client’s Full Address
  • Invoice Number
  • Your full name, address and contact details.
  • Itemised fees and expenses, totalled at the bottom
  • Your Schedule D Number (evidence of self-employment)
  • Your VAT number (if registered)
  • If VAT is applied, it needs to be listed separately.

You may also wish to add payment terms, usage terms for the images, and bank details for electronic payment. You may also need to attach copies of any receipts to your invoices, though this depends on the client. It’s common sense here, but if your invoices are scruffy, hard to follow or illegible, they’re not going to get paid quickly, and are more likely to go missing.

Invoice Close Up - Invoicing
Invoice. Exciting

How to get the Invoices paid, or what happens to your Invoice when it takes the Magical Journey to the Faraway Land called “The Accounts Department”.

Always find out from the person who commissioned you, precisely where you need to send the invoice, and if any extra details are required, such as the issue of the magazine it’s aimed at, or the name of the commissioner. Every company works differently, but in my experience (mostly within the magazine world) it’s normal to provide your invoice to the editorial staff who commissioned the work, and they will then approve it, and pass it on to accounts, who will then “put it on the system”* for a while, and then pay you in the next cheque run/scheduled bank transfer. Sometimes this method works backwards, and your invoices go off to accounts first, but clearly, as with sending your invoices as soon as possible, the more accurate you can be with this procedure, the quicker you’ll get paid.

Find out who you need to speak to within the company when it comes to late payment – there’s usually very little point in calling the editorial staff of a magazine, for example. Once you have a name and a department, make a note of every time you call them to chase up outstanding money (record date, time, who you spoke to, which invoice number and what was “promised” – as in, “we’ll get you a cheque in 7 days”) You will need this record if you ever go to the small claims court, as it shows the efforts you have made to recover your money. It’s not a legal requirement, but every little helps in building up your case.

On the issue of personnel, there’s often little point in harassing the editorial staff of a magazine, or the creative part of an Ad/design Agency for your outstanding money – all large companies have departments which deal with paying freelancers/outside contractors. These are often called “bought/purchase ledger department” or simply “accounts” (duh). The personnel in these departments are often quite removed from the people commissioning you for work, so while there’s never any need to be rude when chasing an outstanding payment, don’t be too afraid of stepping on toes. In my experience it’s quite common for the commissioning personnel (art directors/creatives/journalists etc) to want you to get paid as swiftly as possible. Although it may seem like they’re the ones with all the power, most people who commission me recognise that having a good freelancer on their side is very helpful when they want something done in a hurry, and will often fight your corner within their company. However, I wouldn’t take this for granted, and whatever you do, don’t start whinging all the time. Occasionally of course, the hold up may be on the commissioning end, and your invoice may still be sitting on the commissioners desk, waiting for signed approval. If this is the case it’s time to use your sweetest, politest voice and remind them to pass it on to accounts.

If you really are getting nowhere and have been pursuing an outstanding debt for what you feel to be an inordinately long time, well in excess of your usual credit period, then you need to issue a final reminder before proceeding to the small claims court (UK only obviously – your country may well be a bit different). Obviously I’m not a solicitor, and can’t offer legal advice, but my understanding of the small claims process is that you have to show evidence that you have made every effort to recover the money, and the final reminder is the last stage before filling in the court forms. You can find suitable examples at: Pay on Time. I’ve had recourse to use the final reminder twice, with the simple wording added that unless payment is received within 7 days of the letter’s date, court action will be an automatic consequence. Thus far it’s always been enough to jerk people into action and payment has been received. Suffice to say, such clients get added to my “black list” and henceforth any work for them has to be paid for up front. This may seem quite an abrasive approach for someone freelance and self-employed, since surely we should all be bending over backwards to get whatever work we can? All I can say is that companies that behave like this are simply not worth wasting time with, you don’t need the hassle and when you start to factor in how much time you’ve spent chasing them for money you realise that you could have spent the time so much more profitably. For example you could have been out gathering new work, or even shooting, and once you calculate your basic hourly rate and factor that in, it’s very realistic indeed to write these clients off as bad news.

*leave it on a pile on their desk.


Other Posts in “Basic Business Studies for Photographers”: Intro, Break Even and Your Money, Tax, Accountants and registering as Self Employed, Good Business Habits, Equipment and Insurance, Credit Control and Invoicing.

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