What to do when a client won’t pay up (pt. 2)

Elorus Team
Elorus Team

Freelancers deliver and customers pay — that is the natural order of doing business. In theory, at least.

For, in practice, one encounters all kind of clients that plainly refuse to pay up, from the willing-but-unable because of some recent misfortune type to those that intended to scam you all along.  (And let’s don’t forget the all too common self-righteous “this is now what I had in mind, I’m not paying for this” type or the ones insisting that the “exposure” they give is worth more than actually paying you).

How to request payment

In our previous post, we examined some ways to prepare in advance for such situations and give some tips on what to do when your client will not pay. We are guessing that you have sent a gentle reminder email for your not paid freelance work but nothing happened. So the question now is how to ask a client to get paid nicely when he refuses to pay the contractor’s invoice.

Let’s delve a little deeper into this…

Take hostages

Well, not literally. We’re not advocating that you indeed take actual people as hostages — just that you withhold some crucial element of the deliverable until final payment.

If you’re designing a website, for example, you can give the customer mock-ups and renders of the final design, but don’t give them the fully working HTML files until they signed off the design and made the payment.

In fact, asking for an advance at the beginning of a project, and then a final payment at final delivery is a good way to ensure that you won’t get taken advantage off. And even if the customer refuses to pay for the final deliverable (it can happen), you still have the advance to account for your expenses.

That said, don’t attempt to take the law into your hands, and take back or shut down an already delivered project.

If, for example, you have put up a webpage for a customer, and they haven’t paid you, it’s still illegal to just go and shut it down by yourself, and you could face a lawsuit for any lost business incurred while the website is down. Speaking of lawsuits, maybe it’s you that should…

Take it to the law

For larger projects where the client has been repeatedly notified and still refuses to pay, your best course of action is talking to your lawyer (you have one, don’t you?) and taking the matter to justice.

Depending on how the legal system works in your country it might be a costly endeavor, and it might also take its time, but if you have your initial contract with the client, and there hasn’t been any malice in your part (e.g. under-delivering or delaying delivering), then you should be fine.

In most cases, even emails exchanged between you and the customer regarding the project, will be accepted by the court — so remember to keep them polite and to the point (and never, ever, attempt to falsify them after the fact).

If, on the other hand, you don’t have any proof that the customer even ordered this project from you in the first place, then a lawsuit might not be your best recourse. In any case, talk to your lawyer, and show them any details pertaining to the project, and any exchanges that have taken place between you and your client.

When all is said and done, though, sometimes it’s just better to just…

Let it go

For smaller projects, even if you have all the legal proof in your hands, taking the case to the court might not be worth it. And if you don’t have that proof, then it’s definitely not worth it.

That’s because any compensation you might get by taking the matter to the court (emphasis on “might”), won’t really be enough to make up for your lost time and other expenses.

In these cases, it’s often better to just let it go. So let it go.

But don’t let it go to waste: chalk this one up to experience, learn your lessons from what transpired, and be prepared to not repeat the same mistakes the next time.

Conclusion: Be proactive

There are a lot of ways to deal with a customer that refuses to pay. But the most professional way is to avoid to get into that situation in the first place.

And it’s not that hard to do:

1) Insist on a written contract (an unofficial paper signed by the customer will often do) describing the project, the deliverables, and your fees and expenses. Ensure that the project description is not vague and open to interpretation as to what’s to be delivered.

2) Don’t stray off the promised deadlines (unless you have the written consent of the customer when doing so) and don’t under deliver on what you promised to deliver.

3) Prefer a scheme where there’s an initial downpayment with the full payment pending upon final delivery, as opposed to the “deliver and pray” tactic a lot of freelancers default on.

Such a scheme shows that you’re a professional that operates above the level of “handshake deals” and “work for exposure”, and helps reduce bad payers.