If you've never had a client miss a payment deadline or bounce a payment, either you've been incredibly lucky, or you simply haven't been in business long enough. Into every business owner's life a little late or missed payment will fall.
It's always best to approach this situation with the mindset that your client really does want to you pay you, but for whatever reason, life has gotten in the way and something slipped through the cracks. Do not assume the worst before you've given your client plenty of time to resolve the situation. Start the conversation with openness and understanding, having total faith in your client- this will take you much further than starting off with defensiveness and a combative attitude.
Hopefully you've set up your payments in such a way that final product is only delivered upon full receipt of payment being cleared so that you aren't giving your work away before it's been fully paid for. If you've already provided your final work before receiving final payment, you may feel a little more antsy and defensive about the collection process, but you still need to approach it with the same level of professionalism and due process. Chalk this one up to a learning experience in changing your policies so that you aren't in a situation of giving away your work before it's been paid for.
Step 1: Email a payment reminder (ASAP)
As soon as possible after the missed payment, email a payment reminder with the scheduled due date that was missed. If you haven't specified a late payment agreement with a fee, provide a grace period. Offer the client multiple payment options and a direct link if possible to making the missed payment online with a credit/debit card, and offer a deadline by which you expect the payment to be resolved.
In this email, it's also good to state that a $$ late fee will need to be billed for any payments that need to be paid more than ## days after the payment deadline. This both helps to incentivize quicker payment, as well as providing proof of notice that a late fee was announced for delayed payment processing and continued follow-up on collecting payment.
It's good to allow a full 14 days from payment due date in the event that the client is on a bi-weekly salary schedule, and to give them enough time to resolve any issues with their bank, or time to borrow money from family and friends if necessary.
Here's a sample email:
We're looking forward to working with you and wanted to make sure that you had an opportunity to make the payment that was due on January 10, 2015 for the amount of $5,000. We totally understand that sometimes life gets in the way and sometimes things slip through the cracks. As a courtesy to you, no additional late fee will be charged if payment can be made before January 24, 2014.
You're welcome to pay by check, mailed to: 123 Street Ave, City, State, Zip, or by Debit/Credit/PayPal using the link below: http://linktoinvoice.com
We'll send confirmation as soon as payment has been received and cleared our accounts. Please note that any payments received after January 24, 2014 may have additional late fees added to the invoice to cover our time and additional service to continue following up on payments not yet received.
Please email or call us if you feel you need additional time, or have questions about this missed payment: 800-888-88888
All the best,
Step 2: Send A Second Email Reminder & Phone Call (7 Days)
If you don't receive payment or response within a few days of your first notice, prepare to send a second notice and make a phone call a few days before the grace period ends. It's important to make a phone call in order to confirm that all of your emails have been received by the client. They could be in another country, or their email may not be working, and all payment requests you've sent may not have gone through. It's important to continue giving the client the benefit of the doubt, until you've confirmed the client has definitely received any of the information that you've sent so far. In your follow-up email, note that the deadline to pay without additional fees is coming up and you'd like to help your client take care of this as soon as possible.
In your phone call, ask for confirmation about the receipt of the email, and offer to take any payment options over the phone so that it can be taken care of right away. If you have to leave a message, state that a paper bill will be sent with an additional late fee if payment isn't received by the grace period deadline provided over email. Thank them for their business and let them know that you really enjoy working with them and totally understand that sometimes things happen, and you want to help them resolve the situation easily.
Step 3: Mail a Paper Invoice After Grace Period (14 Days)
If two weeks have passed and payment has still not been received, it may be time to send a written invoice for the payment. Again, it's best to give the client the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps someone ended up in the hospital, or they were on an extended vacation, or who knows what else could have happened. You'll feel really terrible if you start attacking your client when their spouse or parent just died and they're having a hard time coping with life in general. Be human. It goes a lot further toward gaining repeat business and new clients than being a jerk.
In paper, send a copy of the contract, a copy of the emails sent, and notice of when you called. Just document it all and share the documentation. Write a letter showing that you're concerned you haven't heard from them and you're willing to set up a payment plan if that is needed. Offer multiple ways to help your client honor their commitment. Call within a few days of mailing your letter, once again, to talk on the phone and help create a solution.
Step 4: Determine Your Next Steps (30 Days)
If a client has gone completely missing after 30 days with zero response to any of your attempts to get in touch and resolve the bill, you will need to consider if you can ride out another 30-60 days of sending notices by email, phone, and mail every couple weeks before taking any legal steps.
It's in your best interest professionally and legally, to attempt to resolve any bill collection on your own before attempting to engage the courts or a lawyer. A lawyer may make the case that they should be involved immediately, but you'll have a much stronger case for any additional fees above and beyond your original contract if you demonstrate how much time you put into attempting to resolve the issue on your own expense first. I think 90 days is a good amount of time to help a client directly resolve any financial issues, especially if those issues have come about because of death, unemployment, or other sudden life changes.
If your client has remained unresponsive, than you will need to determine your next step of action. Is this a small claims court issue, something a collection agency can help with, or is this substantial enough to engage legal representation for? Will the amount for the service you pursue exceed the amount owed? Consider all of your options before deciding which one may be best.
Anne Ruthmann is a professional photographer in New York City. With over 10 years of success as a full-time photographer in weddings, portraits, editorial, and now architecture and interiors, she spends any extra time she has helping others find smart solutions to business problems. Stay in touch on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.