What to do when the client doesn’t pay

It’s a really bad feeling to put a bunch of time into a project for a client and then get stiffed for the bill. This happens to a lot of freelancers. It has certainly happened to me. It doesn’t happen to me anymore. I’ll tell you why it doesn’t happen to me anymore in a bit, but first let’s talk about what to do when you’ve already been stiffed.

What everyone wants to know is how to recover the money. The unpleasant fact is that if you got stiffed by your client, there’s a really good chance you’re never getting your money. I’m guessing that that’s not the advice you were hoping for. The good news is that you can do something even BETTER than getting your money back (at least over the long run), which is to make sure you never get stiffed again.

In order to understand how to avoid getting stiffed, let’s take a look at the reasons a client might not pay. Here are some:

  • They don’t have the money
  • They’re dicks
  • They’re insane
  • They think you didn’t do what you agreed to do (even though you did)
  • You genuinely didn’t do what you agreed to do, and you actually don’t deserve the money
  • Some combination of the reasons above

Let’s look more closely at each reason and what you can do to combat it.

They don’t have the money

It’s better to work with clients who have a lot of money than clients who don’t have very much money. This statement sounds like a no-brainer but I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I’ve chased after prospects who ultimately turned out not to have very much money.

There are two tactics I use now to avoid working with clients who don’t have much money.

The first tactic is that I require a deposit. The amount doesn’t matter too much; a few hundred bucks is fine. The point is to see how the prospect reacts to the idea of a deposit. If they push back for any reason, that’s a negative signal. I recently “lost” a prospect because when I asked for a deposit he got all in a huff and said he’s NEVER worked with a developer who has required a deposit, and as a result he thought I was “too inexperienced”. How’s that for backwards? Every serious freelancer I know requires a deposit. It’s noobs who don’t require a deposit. I was of course very happy to let my prospect out himself as a bad apple before I invested more time into the conversation.

The second tactic I use is what Perry Marshall calls “racking the shotgun”. In my very first meeting with a prospect, I’ll often say something like this: “I like to start with a small five-thousand dollar project, and then as long as we’re both good after that, we’ll do more work together.” The key here is that the client needs to agree with me that $5,000 is small. If they don’t consider $5,000 to be small, that’s a signal that they probably don’t have very much money.

They’re dicks/they’re insane

I’m lumping these two problems together because they mostly have the same solution, and the solution is simple: the more you work with clients who come from referrals from trusted friends in your network, and the less you work with random weirdos from the internet, the smaller your chances of ending up working with crazies/assholes. This isn’t a 100% fool-proof tactic but it’s something.

You also sometimes end up with crazy clients because you get desperate. This can be solved by having a healthy lead flow, which is a whole other topic unto itself.

And by the way, here are some things I’ve found that are signals of a crazy person:

  • Extremely long emails
  • Talking way too much
  • Extreme frequency of emails/calls/texts
  • Unrealistic expecations
  • Showing up to meetings naked

They think you didn’t do what you agreed to do (even though you did)

If this is the case, I might invite you to abandon your own consciousness for a minute and look at the world through your client’s eyes. Did you lay out your agreement in a way that was 100% clear and complete with absolutely no room for misinterpretation? Did you create some tangible representation of what you were going to do, be it a document, a series of wireframes or mockups, some user stories, or some combination of those?

If the client thinks you didn’t do what you agreed to do, I think there are only two possibilities: a) the client misunderstood because there was too much room for interpretation in your agreement, or b) the client is just not the kind of person who understands plain and simple things. (People like that do exist! The world is full of fucked up weirdos!)

The corresponding solutions to these problems are a) be less ambiguous in your agreements and b) don’t work with clients who are dumb or crazy or whatever.

One of favorite ways to be less ambiguous is to go through a usability testing process with my clients. If you’re unfamiliar with usability testing, I’d recommend the book User Interface Design by Soren Lauesen. Basically the idea is that you let the client help you design what you’re going to build. If the client helps design the work, it’s much less likely that they’ll expect anything much different from what you intend to build.

And as for not working with dumb/crazy clients, it again comes back to having a strong network of people who will refer you good clients, and having good lead flow.

You genuinely didn’t do what you agreed to do, and you actually don’t deserve the money

I don’t think this one requires much explanation. If you fucked up, you shouldn’t take your client’s money.

The take-away

If you’re having problems collecting payments from clients, that’s a symptom of a problem you have further upstream. To avoid getting stiffed by clients, you should:

  • Require a deposit (or even require 100% upfront payment, making it physically impossible to get ripped off)
  • Filter out broke clients by “racking the shotgun”. Toss out a number in early conversations (“projects start at $5K”).
  • Filter out crazy/stupid/mean/whatever clients by building a strong network so you don’t have to resort to job boards
  • Lower the chances of misunderstandings by communicating agreements in a very clear, crisp manner, preferably by allowing the client to be involved in the design process

By the way, I said earlier that if a client doesn’t pay you, your money is probably gone forever. Before you hold a funeral for your invoice you might want to contact Julie Elster who specializes in helping freelancers collect outstanding fees.

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