Every freelancer has faced the problem of a client who doesn’t pay. It’s a lesson few know how to resolve. Court, and collection take time, and effort, give you a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach, and often you still go unpaid. Is there a secret answer to always getting paid? Yes!
There are several reasons a client won’t pay:
- They don’t use the finished project, and feel they don’t have to pay for it.
- They pay by the hour, and don’t pay attention to the mounting fees. In the end, they are shocked by the total.
- They keep changing and adding to the scope, but don’t consider the extra fees.
- They just don’t want to pay, and feel a freelancer will go away.
Image credit: Bigstockphoto
Chances are, every freelancer has experienced all of these reasons. Fighting to get paid can take more time than working on the actual project, and going the legal route of court, and collection doesn’t add the time spent trying to collect.*
*You can request your hourly fee from a judge for the time spent off “normal” working hours, but courts don’t recognize non-working hours, such as weekends, and evenings as “working hours.” As freelancers, we all know that work never stops, 24/7, but it’s a legal hurdle that’s almost impossible to overcome.
How to Collect from Bad Paying Clients
Personally, I take non-payment very personally, and very hard. The thought of a business making money off my hard work, for which I’m not paid, makes me angry – very angry!
Reasons to be angry
When I first started in the design industry, I was a young hothead, spoiling for a fight. I suspected clients who smiled too much when the issue of getting paid for my work came up. My art school teachers, who were all working professionals, were great at explaining professional practices, so I had a good idea of the red flags from clients – perhaps I anticipated them a bit too much. The promises of “opportunities,” “having my work seen by a wide audience,” or the insult of my accepting the project , or it would be given to an art student if I turned it down made my blood boil. The only worst thing was doing the job, and not getting paid.
Chasing a client kept me up at night. My mind raced with images of clients, sitting on their yachts, smoking cigars lit from one-hundred dollar bills, surrounded by half-naked women, all of them laughing at how I was cheated. I plotted a revenge scenario in my mind where the client, covered in their own blood, crawled toward me, begging for a mercy bullet in the head… and I complied. Yes, I had a real psychological problem!
As the co-chair of the Graphic Artists Guild in New York City, listening to my co-chair, a successful designer with years in the business, and the Guild’s attorney, we went over many cases. It was a great legal education, but my solution to every case was a mercy bullet in the head for the client. Before long, I was nicknamed “The Hitman.” Some chuckled at the joke. I didn’t laugh one bit.
To Settle or Not to Settle
As I gained experience, I was used as an expert witness by other creatives when they went to small claims court. In these courts, crowded beyond the judge’s ability to handle all cases piled up in one evening, the bailiff would often run between parties, trying to arrange a settlement through negotiations, so the case would be settled by the time the judge was ready for both parties.
I was not one to negotiate, insisting on full payment, and exasperated bailiffs, would usually ask me to step away from the discussion. In one case, the attorney for a magazine one illustrator was suing for his completed project (not paid because the work was not used as the article was being dropped), who was unusually small, almost the size of a twelve year-old, insulted my suit, asking what kind of expert witness would wear such a cheap suit. I responded that at least I didn’t have to buy my suit in the boy’s department. All hell broke loose. The illustrator did win the case, and was eventually paid his full fee. Upon leaving, I pointed to the diminutive attorney, smiled, and drew my finger across my throat.
It was wrong to do such a thing, and had the case not been settled already, that gesture would have had the case thrown out of court. Still, I hadn’t learned my lesson.
After a one-person company refused to pay my fee because he never used the material I created, refused to answer emails requesting payment and hung up on multiple phone calls, I went to his office, stood outside his window, and tapped on it with a baseball bat. When he turned around and saw me holding a bat, he ran for his office door and locked it then picked up the phone, I assume to call the police. I pointed at the bat, and then at his head, then I rubbed my fingers together in the international symbol for money. I walked away, and didn’t have a visit from the police. A week later, I received a check in the mail.
Going back a few months later, while in the area, his office was empty. I guess he screwed too many people, including his landlord, according to the building janitor.
Friends in high places
A magazine owed me about a thousand dollars for a project done through a studio I owned. I was told to show up to pick up the check on a Monday. When I got there, the office was empty. A building janitor, came by, and asked what I wanted, I guess because of my yelling obscenities, and kicking the door. He told me they had moved out on Friday. He also mentioned that the finance office, on another floor was still there.
I composed myself, and went down to that office, which had no sign on the door. I knocked and an older woman answered the door. I smiled and apologized for bothering her, but mentioned I was there to see about the check I was supposed to pick up. She looked around but couldn’t find any check. I figured I was one of the people who wasn’t going to be paid. She told me the name of the head of accounts payable and suggested I give her a call later as she was not in that day. I thanked her, and told her how sorry I was the magazine was closing, and I hoped she and the other staff would land on their feet somewhere. She mentioned that the head of accounts payable was going to start working at American Express Publishing.
I thanked her, and walked away with a huge smile on my face. American Express was a good client of the studio, and I knew everyone who worked in their publishing division. I went back the next day, knocked on the door, and asked for the woman whose name I was given. She was the one at the door. I introduced myself, and told her I was there to pick up the check I was promised. She asked how I had found out about the unmarked office, and I just said I was told I could get the check there.
She fumbled about, pretending to look for a check, while I casually mentioned that she would love working at her new job, and then I dropped some big names at the division, asking if she had met them, and what good clients they were. I guess that made her nervous that I might foul her chances to start work there because she promised a check would be ready in a few hours. Sure enough, I got paid, and ran to the bank to deposit it.
The power of the press
A mess of a disorganized art director for an advertising industry magazine was a good client, although it took several invoices to get paid as he kept losing them in a messy pile on his desk hadn’t returned any of the original artwork that belonged to an illustrator in my studio. When he opened the flat file draw in which he kept original art, several pieces of art got mashed as the file drawer was stuffed beyond capacity. We went through the entire drawer but couldn’t find one piece of cover art. He admitted, after arguing he must have returned it, that he had probably lost it.
Not wanting to get him fired by billing for the art (see, I could be reasonable), I negotiated a higher fee for future illustrations for that illustrator. Everything went smoothly until half of the fee for the art was paid, and suddenly assignments stopped coming in.
“I figured I’ve paid enough,” he said over the phone and hung up. I called and left several messages, begging him to honor our agreement, but none of the calls were returned.
I was contributing to an industry advertising news magazine, in a sort of “John Doe” column of nasty news from around the industry, and found out he had lost lots of original art, so I wrote an article about the cost of losing original art, mentioning his name, magazine, and his reputation for losing art. When the article was published, I faxed the page to every fax machine in the company, twice a day for a week. The right person must have finally seen the article because I received a teary call from the art director, asking why I would do such a thing, and that he had been fired.
“You broke our agreement, and wouldn’t discuss it any further,” I told him. “Now I can deal with the new art director.”
The new art director was a pleasure, professional, put through invoices right away (the fired art director let thousands of dollars in invoices pile up before I had to go to their accounts payable department. They claimed they never received them, but paid them once I delivered copies, with tear sheet of the articles), and we got along very well. To this day, the past art director hasn’t showed up on any search through Google, or LinkedIn.
A woman who met me at a networking event asked me to meet her at a local book store, where we sat down to discuss my doing the marketing material for her new business. She, and a partner were going to run a professional networking company but, as she begged, she was a “widow with three kids,” and I should price the fee accordingly.
She talked me into taking a basic, low fee, and accepting a percentage of the door fee for all attendees to her events. It was easy to do the math in my head, and I realized that after three events, I would end up being paid more than my original, full-price fee, so I agreed, and did the project. Sure enough, after three events, which I had free access to as part of my fee, the numbers added up, and I was eager to get paid the large amount.
I sent her an invoice, based on the original fee, and attendance numbers. Her partner had even given me the numbers of a larger event to which I didn’t receive an invitation. Instead of the usual 20-25 attendees, this event had 200. I gather that this woman had time to do the math after she received my invoice, and realized she had made a bad deal. Although I was promised a check, it never arrived.
After several calls, and emails, requesting the check, there were no more responses. I emailed her partner, who was a professional real estate agent, and explained that she was also on the line as the partner, and should pay the invoice, rather than face the problems of a collection agency. That’s when I received an email from the woman with whom I had originally met. The email dared me to take her to court. She said no judge would find against a widow with three kids, and punctuated it with, “you’ll never get paid. LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL!”
Oops! I thought to myself. Wrong person, to f— with, lady. I looked up their next networking event on their website, showed up, and sat in the parking lot until I saw the LOL lady drive up in her Mercedes Benz. For legal reasons, I have to say I drove home and forgot about collecting the bill. You’ll just have to imagine the message she may have gotten, left on her luxury car. LOL LOL LOL!
I never heard from her, nor did I get a visit from the police. I heard that LOL lady cheated her partner and the partnership broke up. I hadn’t heard anything further about LOL lady for years until a search turned up she was asking for financial help for cancer treatments. Not so much of a LOL ending.
As the years have gone by, and my experience, calmer appearances in court, and age have mellowed me, as well as maturity, and the understanding of better ways to collect from clients, I’m a bit embarrassed by these past indiscretions. I count myself as lucky to not having been arrested, shot, or both.
The industry has changed for the better (so have I). At some point, it became standard to ask for 50% as a deposit, and the final payment upon delivery, with no more 30 day waiting periods for a check that may never arrive. Sure, I’ve had to hold up on delivery when told a check won’t be ready for a week (which is as nasty as I get these days with clients), but this cuts down on legal hassles, as well as anything that might have the police knocking on your door, looking for a missing body.