We all want to get paid for our work, but some of us don’t. Even I had to learn that the hard way.
I’m not talking about situations where the freelancer delivers bad or unpunctual work. I take it for granted that you always give your best and adhere to what you and the client have agreed upon. I’m talking about those situations where you acted professionally, but still don’t get paid. Sure, you can always try to sue a client, but nobody wants that. It’s time-consuming, nerve-racking, it can be very expensive, and when it comes to clients in a foreign country, it’s usually very complicated and sometimes virtually impossible.
Here is my gist from more than 20 years of freelancing:
Step 1: If you get an email from accounts like Yahoo or gmail – be cautious. Trustworthy clients should either email from their company account or at least give complete contact details – up front. If they don’t, go to step 10.
Step 2: Does the potential client have a company web site? If not, go to step 10.
Step 3: Check the potential client out as well as you can: What can you find about them on the internet? Google their name together with expressions like “late payment” or “never paid”. If it’s a translation job, check if they have a blue board entry on ProZ.com or similar web sites. If it’s not good, go to step 10.
Step 4: Always ask for a written purchase order, ideally in a dedicated document where all the job information, payment terms and contact details of the client are listed, or at least a specific email. If you don’t get that, go to step 10.
Step 5: If you are asked to sign a company agreement, especially check the payment terms and your and the client’s duties.
Step 6: If the client is late with payment, don’t wait and don’t be shy. Send them a polite reminder. Set a short payment date, a week, for example. Ask for your note to be forwarded to the accounts department or put them in cc. Ask for a reply.
Step 7: If the reminder does not help, send a second reminder right after your deadline. Follow up with a phone call. Do not – I repeat – do not accept new jobs from this client until they have paid you!
Step 8: If your follow-up still doesn’t help, it’s very likely that you’ve run into a trouble client. In those cases, I simply threaten them. If it’s an agency, I tell them that I will contact their client (the one I have been working for them) and inform them about the situation. Sometimes I even have the relevant information to do that – forwarded emails from the final client or data in the file attributes. Or I threaten them with an adequate blue board entry. I usually don’t have to do that. I guess they sense how serious I am
Step 9: If everything fails, don’t hesitate to sue the client. Get a lawyer, tell your story and provide him with all the evidence you have – then forget about it. Legal actions take time. It’s absolutely no use to think and ponder the whole thing all the time as it takes away your energy. The few times I had to sue clients, I did my best to prepare the lawyer and then got back to work. In one case, I had to wait two years until the client was finally made to pay. You don’t want to rack your brain for two years, do you?
Step 10: Ask for complete advance payment or on staged payments for large projects. I usually tell them something like “Because of negative experiences in the past, I require advance payment for the first job of a new client. Thank you for your understanding.” If they don’t want to do that, go to step 11. I have a few clients with which I had payment problems in the past. I still work with them, but I always insist on advance payment. It works fine.
Step 11: Forget the client.
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