Welcome to the bane of the self-employed person’s life – getting paid by your clients.
Having been officially self-employed since 1998 (and, cough, informally before that) I’ve had my fair share of late payments and defaults as well as lots of very reliable, well behaved clients. Here are a few suggestions for getting the money out of people smoothly, as well as some anecdotal advice on what to do when things start to go wrong. I’ve touched on this in the dim and distant past, but have decided to update it since so many clients now have more complicated systems.
On average I get paid in around 60 days. Some clients pay almost immediately, and my very worst was over 2 years (although there were extenuating circumstances in that instance). Some clients have a very predictable schedule, others need to be checked up on all the time, and at least one of my regular clients needs to be bluntly reminded, otherwise they just won’t pay.
All the businesses I invoice have different systems in place for paying invoices, and as such, different things I need to do. The only people who don’t have complicated requirements are Joe Public, who I deal with once in a blue moon. Some clients need just the invoice, emailed to editorial/commissioner. Some need just the invoice emailed to an automated accounts email address. Some need the commissioner to raise a PO (Purchase Order) first – which usually entails me sending over if not the full invoice first, then at least a breakdown of fees and costs, then adding the PO number later. Some need copies of any and all receipts I’ve incurred. Some require that I sign a contract for each job before getting paid, and attach it along with my invoice.
I’ve found these wildly varying methods are a great excuse to use a checklist – and I have one for each client that has fussy requirements. I’d highly recommend this tactic, as otherwise each time you invoice it becomes like something out of a Kafka novel, as you try and untangle just who exactly you need to badger, and what exact documents they need. Generally though I’ve found that many of these new automated systems are pretty thorough – as long as you’ve ticked all the boxes.
If things go wrong, make sure you’re chasing the right person. This is probably not the automated email (it will usually say at the bottom who you’re supposed to contact in the event of any queries). Make sure you’ve done everything you’re supposed to, and that you’ve got all the documentation you need to hand, along with emails you’ve sent and received in relation to the invoice.
Don’t be afraid to get the person who commissioned you to fight your corner. Or be surprised if they turn out to be the weak link in the chain. Since the person commissioning you will often be in a totally different department to the person authorising the payment, you may well find that your contact will be more than happy to chase up the accounts department for you – they want you to get paid promptly, as unless you’ve been a dickhead, they want to keep you on side in case they ever need a favour. However, don’t be surprised if you find that they’re actually what’s holding payment up. They might not match your superhuman organisational skills, and your invoice may still be sitting on their desktop, or they may not have created a PO yet. When this happens, take a deep breath, and politely ask them to pull their finger out of their lazy backside and get on with it. Politely. Really politely. Whilst gently reminding them how inconvenient it would be for them if their own wages were accidentally unpaid one month.
When it really goes wrong
If you really encounter a delinquent payer, your best option is to start a small claims court action. The first step on this process is to issue them a letter (an outline copy is here, you may want to change some details) that gives them a final warning before proceedings will commence. All this letter says is that if you don’t receive payment within 7 days, small claims court action will be automatic.
Don’t do this unless all your polite and “normal” approaches have failed – you don’t want to get in the habit of using it simply after 31 days. However, don’t be afraid of using it, or allow yourself to be brow beaten by the classic “You’ll never work for us again if you take us to court” line. I’ve heard this once, and the magazine in question hadn’t paid me in something like 120 days. After exhausting all the usual channels, and realising that I was on a road to nowhere, I sent this letter, only to get a very threatening email from the CEO of the company warning me how much damage he could do to my career if I took them to court.
I took a deep breath – always a good idea before replying to a snotty email – and simply restated my case – I’d supplied the images, done the shoot, the mag had been published, and they owed me money. If it went to court they’d end up paying me the fee, plus the court costs. The CEO then made the obvious threat of “You’ll never work for us again.” At this point I really had to bite my tongue, as of course, why would I want to work for a company that never pays me? What sort of a threat is that? – “Do this, and we’ll stop treating you like our bitch – so there!”
Not long after, they paid up. Then, about 6 months down the line, I got an email from the art director at the magazine (most of my financial dealings had been with the CEO) who asked if I would do another shoot for them. I said yes, I’d be happy to, but under the circumstances I’d need at least 50% of the money up front. He replied they weren’t able to do this, and that was that. Never shot for them again.
Before you get too paranoid about missing out on work, losing jobs, damaging your reputation and all the rest, ask yourself what value there is in working for people who don’t pay you? Before you come back with “It’s OK if you’re just starting out” I’ll argue that it’s most certainly not, as it’s almost impossible to build a career from nothing, and you’re setting yourself a very bad precedent if you start working for people who don’t respect you and the work you do. I must distinguish here between work you choose to do for free, work for the portfolio or Pro Bono work, as opposed to commercial work for which you are supposed to be paid. One is your choice, the other is effectively theft!
So, unless you work primarily for the general public, and are invoicing businesses on a regular basis, get used to the fact that you’ll always be in a position where you’re owed money by clients. It shouldn’t worry you, and as long as you stay organised, should never be a big problem. And don’t be afraid to reach for the big stick if you really need to.