You’ve been stiffed. You did good work for this client—no, you did great work—and how do they thank you? By not paying you. Time to channel the Queen.
So you’ve offered your valuable time and services to clients or customers, and now they’re not responding to your emails or calls. “Where y’all at?” you scream inside, while typing diplomatic emails.
Here’s the mean truth: If you work for yourself, there’s a three in four chance that one day you’ll have to say, “Pay me what you owe me.” Well, maybe not verbatim. But that’s the idea.
A Freelancers Union survey found 71 percent of solopreneurs have, at some point, had issues getting paid. This is across all industries, working with clients of all sizes. That’s a lot of sneak thieves out there.
“We’ve heard countless horror stories and we’re never surprised anymore,” said Steve Pomerantz, CEO of Freelance Collection which chases debts for freelancers and small businesses. “In one case, we had a few freelancers come forward who were all stiffed by the same debtor … a lifestyle brand that’s all about bringing positive change into the world. The irony!”
While Riri might be able to kidnap someone’s wife and her pomeranian, pack them into a suitcase and embark on a bloody rampage of revenge, let’s face it, your options are more limited.
But you do have options. So let’s show these flimflammers that you call the shots, shots, shots.
“Y’all should know me well enough”
This might come too late for some, but first things first: Vet your clients and set the rules up front.
“Make sure you have a clear written agreement about the work performed, and the payment terms spelled out,” said Caitlin Pearce from Freelancers Union. This might be a signed contract or email thread. The FU (apt initials, right?) has good resources, including a contract template.
If you don’t have any evidence of payments terms, do some research into local laws which might set default terms like in New York, the UK (both 30 calendar days) and California (45 days for state agencies).
“Don’t act like you forgot”
So, they’re late paying with no excuse? “Don’t be shy about following up,” said Pearce. “Get a phone number if you can. A quick phone call can often work better than email follow-up.” If you do talk on the phone, take a leaf out of former FBI Director James Comey’s book and write contemporaneous notes.
“Whatever you do, don’t do nothing,” said Pomerantz. “Politely but firmly let your client know it’s time to pay… [say] you want to resolve this quickly and informally, but that you’ll go further if necessary.”
Next, don’t stop. Hassle. “It’s a little trite to say, but the squeaky wheel really does get the grease. If you’re consistently and frequently annoying, your client is more likely to pay to make you go away.”
“Who y’all think y’all frontin’ on?”
They’re brushing you off, giving you the run around or ignoring you? Sharpen your pencil.
The next step is sending a formal letter of demand that includes a threat and deadline for them to act. Here’s a template.
What should your threat be? You have a few options.
If the amount is low enough ($2,500 to $25,000 depending on your state), you can go to Small Claims Court. Yes, this takes time and energy, but it will save you cash and there’s a glorious, poetic justice in it.
Another option is to hire a collection agency, which will eat into what you’re owed but they’ll handle the whole thing.
If you’re owed enough, you could hire a lawyer. As with most things, there’s an app for that.
“Please don’t call me on my bluff”
Whatever you choose, remember this: As a freelancer, the biggest challenge you’re facing is the “underlying power imbalance of an individual freelancer going up against a company,” said Pearce.
By going through this process, you are shifting that balance of power. “Take decisive action to turn the tables in the way that works best for you,” said Pomerantz.
“Maybe you’re the kind of person who thrives on being a thorn in a deadbeat’s side. If that’s you, take them to small claims court and give ’em hell. Or maybe you’ll be happier and more productive if you offload the stress to capable collections professionals and let them go to work with their full tool kits. Know yourself and do what empowers you.”
As painful as it is, not all of us can “kamikaze” those who would seek to knock us off the top. There might be times when you should cut your losses and walk away—lesson learned, and you sure as hell won’t let it happen again.
Pomerantz has good advice here. “Learn what you can from the experience, because you paid for the lesson.”