Dealing with Clients Who Don’t Pay

Last month I posted a piece about what to do when clients are awful. Turns out lots of people like advice on how to deal with crappy client situations! So this week, I’m taking submissions from The World’s Longest Invoice tumblr and suggesting what you can do to avoid similar non-payment crises.

A quick word before we begin: hindsight and emotional distance are tools of the trade that make advice blogs like mine possible. And because we only know the information that was submitted, there may be more to these stories that further complicates the freelancers being paid.

But these posts are what we’ve got and they’re good stuff for figuring out how to be your own best advocate.

Oh, my niece makes wedding cakes!

Your helpful family member recommends your work to a friend but fails to mention you traditionally get paid for such ventures.

I’ve been making wedding cakes for family friends since I was 16, always got paid, but this time it was a friend of a family friend…

Me:… and there it is! I hope it’s to your liking.

Client: Oh yes, it’s perfect! I can’t wait to have it at the wedding. I’ll get plenty of pictures for you, and maybe even let you have a piece!

Me: Haha, I’d rather get paid than have a piece of cake.

Client: Oh, I can’t pay you. The wedding and all, it’s all too expensive.

I spent a week working on the cake and priced it at $250.

By Sakura Photo – Dallas Wedding Photographer via

If your family and friends have been referring work your way, make sure they know (1) what you do and (2) what your rates are. They want to help you! So make that as easy as possible by giving them the information they need to prepare the client for you.

When a client’s first point of contact is you, you can help set their expectations by explaining what you do and what your services cost. When you’re being referred, you are not the first point of contact. That means the client has time and some information to form an idea of what you’ll be able to do for them and how much it will cost before they ever talk to you. Plus, they’re a friend of your aunt or sister or grandfather, so you’ll do them a solid, right?

I mean, you love your grandfather, don’t you?

By flowercat via

So what do you do if you finish a product for a friend of the family and they stiff you?

Politely and firmly explain that you don’t work for free.

If that doesn’t make them budge, ask, “Is there a way we could structure the payment that would make this more affordable?” This means payment plans or accepting a credit card; it does not mean they pay you less or not at all.

Still no dice? Don’t give them the work unless you’re willing to donate it to them. Because I will bet you dollars to donuts (I have no idea what that means) that part of why Friend of the Family felt they could stiff their friend’s niece was the belief that the niece didn’t have a good back up plan.

“What is she going to do with a custom made wedding cake? Wouldn’t it make better sense to give it to me instead of throwing it away?”

Disabuse them of the notion that because you don’t need what you’ve made, you’re willing to give it away for free.

Finally, follow up with the person that referred the client to you. Let them know what happened.

This is going to be huge!

Mr. Up and Coming Producer Guy has a project that is about to explode and he wants you to help make it happen.

After 2 years of running my own storyboarding and illustration business, I came across what I thought was my first major gig. I did 500+ storyboards, a poster, and script editing… all for a rate we agreed upon via email. He kept saying that the gig was in the bag. “So many backers.”

The writer/director drafted a contract, I signed and sent it back, although he never bothered to return it. After constantly bugging him about it, he just kept giving me excuses about what he was waiting on. For some reason, he seemed to think that since he was waiting on another (later revealed as a fraud) investor, it meant that he couldn’t pay me what I was due.

I’m *still* waiting on just under $5,000.

By Roadsidepictures via

There is a special, extra hot place in hell for people that scam work out of artists with ego stroking.

Beware the client that promises you fame and fortune but cannot offer you payment for your work.

Beware the client that insists, “We’re in this together!” and asks you to sign a Work Made For Hire Agreement.

Beware anyone who makes you feel like you have to put everything on the line, on their terms, to be successful.

Don’t get me wrong, there very well might be a time when you do put it all on the line to score a big win, but those will be times when you are making your own dreams and goals a reality, not the dreams and goals of someone else.

If you’re considering taking work from a client who is betting on investors, ask to see a copy of the cleint’s business plan. A business plan is how the owner plans on making their business successful.  It should have details about how they’re going to pay for this new business.

If you don’t see information about how they’ll pay for these necessary beginning steps, like your work, this isn’t someone sophisticated enough to make good on their promise to make you rich and famous.  Pass.

But what if they say they don’t have a business plan?  That’s pretty much a guarantee that they will not have any investors.

Fast, Fast, Slow

Mr. Hair on Fire needs you to do a project RIGHT NOW because it is so important that if you don’t do it the world might explode. So you do the job and then it comes time to invoice.

By Farther Along via

[The client] reached out to me for two presentation projects which I did on a rush basis for a retail big box company. It took four months to get paid, and their process was an endless obstacle course. I had to become a new vendor, get a P.O. Box, invoice to another address, and then I was finally given a two-page document full of procedures and disclaimers on how to get paid. The payment clock didn’t start ticking until all policy was followed – months after the job was done.

This is not uncommon. Large and even medium sized companies have complicated payment processes. There are internal policies and practices and forms. Chances are the person who is asking you to turn the job around in a nanosecond does not grok the highly detailed and confusing process by which you will be paid.

So. When asked to do a rush job for a moderately sized organization, ask to speak to their Accounts Payable department. This is the department that will be paying your invoice and they know their process better than anyone else at the company. You can ask them what to expect, what forms and information you’ll need to provide and their average time to pay.

With that information you can make an informed decision about taking the job. The risks might be totally acceptable. Or they might not be. But you can’t tell if you don’t ask.

By Thomas Hawk via

Have you had a bad experience where a client hasn’t paid you? Be sure to check out The World’s Longest Invoice tumblr and consider sharing your story. By sharing these stories, we can learn from one another and come up with strategies to avoid these crappy situations in the future.

Featured image by 401K via

Categories: Dealing with People


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4 responses to “Dealing with Clients Who Don’t Pay”

  1. I had a non-profit suggest to me I bill them my regular rate with a “discount” that I would write off as a donation. I said “no” and they were fine with it. Is that a normal/common practice? Also, I wonder if you have an article on dealing with non-profits?

    • Katie says:

      I’m not able to give tax advice but I can tell you that in certain circumstances, in-kind donations to non-profits can be mutually beneficial; it is cheaper for them and if done properly can be a tax write off for you. In order to do it properly, though, you need to talk to an accountant or whomever does your taxes. If you don’t have an accountant, ask the non-profit that’s requested the discount to provide you with access to an accountant that can help you figure out how to structure the deal to ensure you get your tax deduction.

      I don’t have any articles that specifically deal with working with non-profits (I try to keep the posts generally applicable), but if you have questions or an idea for a post, fire away! I’m always happy to get suggestions from readers.

      • Thanks for the reply Katie. Yeah, I just wanted to know if this was something that is normally done since I haven’t worked with a non-profit in a few years.
        Do you have a good post on how to set limits either within a contract or just for yourself? I’m talking about length and amount of time specifically.

        • Katie says:

          I’ve definitely heard of it being requested before, but the details of how to make it work out for everyone is where I’m a bit iffy.

          I’m not sure if this is exactly what you’re looking for, but there are two posts that might be helpful. This one is about accountability and keeping people to the promises they make (including promises about time) and this one is specifically about “scope creep” where the project you agree to do slowly but surely starts growing into something more.

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