As a freelance graphic designer it’s a question of when, not if, you have to deal with a slow paying or non-paying client. Seeing as you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance it’s a situation you’ve just found yourself in.
Not only is it incredibly frustrating, but when clients don’t pay your invoices on time it can impact your financial and mental wellbeing. After all, you don’t have the same luxury of choosing to delay payment when it comes to your household bills.
5 tips for dealing with slow paying clients
They might pay up in the end, but slow paying clients can significantly impact your cash flow. Unless you’re fortunate enough to have money put aside to see you through the month, or so inundated with work that you can afford to cut slow paying clients loose, you’ll need to work out how to handle them.
Make your payment terms clear
Your clients aren’t actually paying you late if you haven’t clearly outlined when you expect the invoice to be resolved. Regardless of whether those payment terms are ‘30 days after receipt of invoice’ or ‘on the 1st of each month’, they should be clearly marked on every invoice you send. It doesn’t hurt to include that in the email you send the invoice with, either.
Of course, there are always clients who see payment terms as a suggestion, rather than a rule. According to a study by cloud-based accounting software provider Xero, on average customers pay two weeks late. With that in mind, consider requesting the money sooner than you actually need it. Want to get paid in 30 days? Set payment terms at 14 days on receipt of the invoice.
Make paying you as easy as possible
Allowing for more payment methods is going to make it more likely your clients pay on time. If you’re insisting on payment by cheque, 1) when did you travel here from the 90s and where did you store your time machine?; and 2) paying you is going to be a chore.
Online payment services like PayPal can facilitate instant payment with a few clicks of a button, while allowing payment via credit card might also help customers who would otherwise wait until they had the funds.
Consider incentivising early payment… or punishing late payment
If a client knows they’re going to save money by paying you early or on-time, only the most short-sighted of them will continue to pay late. It doesn’t even need to be a big discount, and something as small as 1.5% could make a difference — especially if it’s a big project.
Unfortunately, ‘carrot’ doesn’t always work. A late payment fee, particularly one that increases the more an invoice becomes overdue, can be enough to get a client to take notice. Again, this doesn’t have to be a big number — just 1 or 2% will often suffice — but this will mount up if they’re consistently slow payers.
There’s also legislation to back you up when it comes to late fees. The Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998 entitles freelancers to claim a £40 late fee upon non-payment of debts, at which point a new invoice can be submitted with the addition of this fee. If the client still doesn’t pay after a further 14 days, additional interest will be charged at a statuatory rate of 8% plus the Bank of England base rate (0.25% at the time of writing).
Although a completely legitimate step from a freelancer's perspective, instituting late fees can negatively affect a working relationship with a client, so it might be worth offering to waive the late fee if the client settles the invoice within a set number of working days.
Send polite reminders when invoices become overdue
Sometimes your clients will have good reason for being a bit late with payment, and while you shouldn’t tolerate it every month, you shouldn’t get too letigious straight away either.
Send polite reminders when an invoice has become overdue. It might be a genuine oversight and, after they’ve been politely reminded, they’ll apologise and pay the invoice. Don’t sour a relationship by aggressively chasing invoices as soon as they’re a week late.
Don’t continue working for a client until the previous invoice is paid
If you have a retainer with a client and invoice them on a monthly/regular basis, don’t allow overdue invoices to pile up. If their invoice is 30 days overdue, stop work until the account is settled. Unfortunately, sometimes this is the only way to get them to realise they need to pay you, especially if you’re their only design resource.
How to deal with non-paying clients
Sometimes a slow paying client becomes a non-paying client, either because they’re ignoring your requests for payment, or they’re disputing the quality of your work. This isn’t fun as a freelancer and it can feel like you’re David against Goliath. The good news is, David won. Let’s take a look at how to deal with customers who refuse to pay you.
Take payment upfront
Want to avoid not getting paid in the first place? Plenty of freelance designers will take 50% of the project cost upfront with the outstanding amount due on completion. Some will even take 100% up front.
Of course, unless you’re taking all the money up front you might still end up in a dispute with a non-paying client, but at least you’re not out of pocket by as much.
Try to resolve the dispute first
The vast majority of the time a non-paying client is withholding payment for a reason — even if you don’t think it’s a very good one. The best place to start is to try and resolve that dispute. If you can come to a reasonable compromise on how to move forward, hopefully you can avoid having to take legal action.
This can be difficult to swallow, especially when it feels like the client is being unreasonable, but it’s infinitely preferable to having to go to court. You can always choose to cease working with the company or individual once the invoice is settled if necessary.
Send a ‘Letter Before Action’
A ‘Letter Before Action’ is the last move before actually initiating legal action. The purpose of the letter is to make it clear to the client that you intend to pursue legal action if they continue to fail to pay.
You should always send a Letter Before Action ahead of launching legal proceedings. Courts in England and Wales encourage both parties to try and resolve disputes at an early stage, and if it looks like you’ve jumped to litigation too quickly, it could significantly harm your chances in court.
A Letter Before Action isn’t expensive though, and you can get one from a solicitor for around £10-20.
Most solicitors will offer a short initial consultation for free or a small fixed fee, but their advice can be invaluable. They’ll be able to give you an idea of what legal action will work best for your situation and help you avoid making any mistakes in those early stages.
Get your documents in order
At this stage we’re still hoping the case won’t have to go to court, but in case it does, it’s worth getting together all of the documentation you’ll need. This includes emails, letters and any other records demonstrating you’ve tried to resolve the dispute or use mediation.
Send a solicitor’s letter
Where your ‘letter before action’ failed, a letter from a solicitor might succeed. Often, showing that you’ve actually engaged the services of a solicitor shows that you’re serious and will be enough to encourage the client to settle their debt with you. A letter from a solicitor will also include everything needed for your situation in case it does go to court. Again, this won’t be particuarly expensive, and start at around £20 if it’s based on a fixed fee.
Making a money claim
A ‘money claim’, also known as a ‘small claim’, is a court claim for the money you’re owed. Again, the aim here is to avoid actually having to go to court.
Fees to begin a claim typically start at around £25 for claims of less than £300, but the exact fee depends on what you’re owed, where you are in the UK and whether you’re claiming online or via paper form.
Make sure you get legal advice before launching a court claim, particularly if the client could argue they had a good reason for not paying or you’re owed a significant sum of money.
Be open to mediation
This is the final opportunity to avoid ending up in court, and if the client disputes your money claim you might be offered mediation. Be open to this option as it shows that you’ve tried everything you can to avoid court proceedings. The good news is it’s free, and will save time and money if it works.
The idea of slow paying or non-paying clients might sound like a real pain, and a little scary, but fortunately the vast majority of your clients will be great to work with and perfectly willing to pay you on-time and in full.
It’s finding those clients that’s the bigger challenge, but we’ve got you covered there too…
Check out our ‘Complete Guide to Finding Work as a Professional Designer’ below.