As a freelancer, getting paid on time is absolutely crucial and yet, the attitude amongst some freelancers is that getting paid late (or not at all in some circumstances) is beyond their control. It isn’t.
So how do you ensure you get paid on time, almost every time? Well, it’s not easy. I myself get paid late quite often. I work with digital agencies, who are bigger than me (anywhere from 2 to 100 employees) so they often dictate the payment terms – which are usually Net 30 days. More often than not, they pay on time, sometimes early and sometimes a little after those 30 days.
Caveat: I work with digital/design/marketing agencies; I go to them direct and I do not work with recruitment agencies or umbrella companies who often have their own payment structure in place. I do sometimes work with direct clients and I have found these tips work well with them too, but I don’t tend to work with very large corporations (so these tips may not work for you if large businesses are your target market).
1. Talk about money at the start
Do not be shy when it comes to talking about money. When someone comes to you and requests that you do some work for them, if they don’t ask what your rate is make sure they are aware of it. You do not want a situation where they try to renegotiate your rate mid-way through the job or there’s a miscommunication and they assume (whether on purpose or by accident) it’s lower than it is.
Sidenote: Personally, I have a rates page on this website, it’s not in the menu but when someone asks about my rates I point them to that page. It details my rates and discounts I provide for longer term projects. Since creating this page, fewer agencies have tried to negotiate down my rates.
Ask them what their payment terms are before agreeing to work with them. Will they pay you a deposit upfront? Will they pay after 30 days of you invoicing them? Will they pay when you finish your part of the project or will they wait for the overall project to be completed? Will they only pay you once their client pays them?
See that last one ‘they only pay you once their client pays them‘ this is your cue to run a mile. When they get paid is of no concern to you. You have no idea how good their team is at getting their invoices paid so do not agree to this.
2. Don’t be afraid to negotiate
A client will often try and negotiate down your rate. You can say no but if they’re quite insistent and you need the work you may be able to get them to give you better payment terms for that discount. Remember £400 in your bank account now is better than £450 in 2-3 months time. Anything could happen in that 2 months: they could go bankrupt for instance.
Remember, you are perfectly entitled to request any of the following:
- For them to pay you a certain way e.g. bank transfer instead of cheque
- For the payment terms to be reduced from 90 days to 60 days or from 30 days to 15 days.
- For them to pay a (non-refundable deposit) or in staged payments
They can say only no.
If the project length is quite long say 2 or 3 months or more then ask to invoice for your time monthly. You don’t win any prizes for invoicing at the end of a 3 month contract. This is as bad for your client’s cash flow as it is for yours.
Sidenote here: I’ve often found that people looking to get your rate down aren’t that reliable at paying on time. This is not a strict rule mind but at this point if you get a funny feeling about the (potential) client then really think about whether this job is worth it.
3. Find out what the process is for invoicing
Who do you send invoices to? The Traffic Manager who booked you? The Accounts Department? Is it a specific person? Maybe it’s Alex in Accounts? Who is it? Try and get their email address and/or direct line phone number. Then ask them some questions, number one being Do you need a PO (Purchase Order) number in order to start work?
Sometimes you will and sometimes you won’t, but if you do need one and they haven’t given you one you may find that your invoice payment is delayed. PO Numbers represent a little bureaucracy and sometimes not having one, means a senior finance person hasn’t signed off your project/your costs and internal politics may cause your invoice payment to be delayed or not paid at all.
Double check with this person what the payment terms are; if you’ve negotiated with someone to get different (better) payment terms than this person is used to then make sure with them that that has been signed-off. In the past I’ve negotiated from 60 days to 30 days at large agencies only to find that the person who negotiated that rate hadn’t asked the Finance Director, they’d just assumed it would be fine, so I got paid after 60 days.
Ask this person what information you’ll need to invoice them – how do they like the invoice to be? What information do they need to do their job properly and efficiently.
You know when someone gives you a PSD and every layer is called Layer 1 Copy. Guess what? That’s you when you send the Accounts team (who are pretty busy and stressed) an invoice missing the key information that they need.
4. Make friends with key people
You know who is easy to not pay, that freelancer who is a jerk. Be polite, friendly and useful in all correspondence with people in the team. If Accounts decide to delay your invoice (because sometimes their job is to not pay your invoice for as long as possible because their clients are doing the same thing to them) you want a champion inside the business who goes to Alex in Accounts and says ‘Hey! please pay Phil, he did a good job and I want to work with him again.‘.
Hopefully, the way you spoke to the Alex from Accounts in step 3 has warmed them to you and they’ll be happier to pay you. Perhaps when they’ve got two invoices that have come in at the same time, and they need to hold on to some of their cash flow they’ll pay your invoice first because you were helpful and nice.
5. After the job has finished, invoice and check the invoice has been received
You would not believe how many freelancers forget to invoice. I’ve been guilty of this in the past too. The job finishes and you start on the next job; a week whizzes by and you realise that you forgot to send your invoice. Oops, that’s another week without getting paid. Those 30 days only start when you send the invoice and no sooner.
We’ve all been told that the invoice was never received when it comes to the due date, but you can prevent that excuse by asking Alex from Accounts to confirm that they received it. If your invoicing app gives you a notification that they’ve received/opened the email then email Alex from Accounts separately anyway. Ideally, you want the person to respond, saying ‘yes I got it and it’s got all the information I need on it and t will be paid on this 2nd of Whenever‘.
6. Remind them it’s coming due
A week before the invoice is due, send Alex from Accounts an email letting them know the invoice is due and ask them when you should expect payment. Will it be on time? Remembering to be polite, the invoice isn’t late yet so don’t be a jerk.
7. Remind them it’s due
On the due date remind them it’s now due and and ask them when you should expect payment. Will it be on time? Yes this step is the same as the one before so if you feel like you’re annoying them, stop thinking like that; you did a job (a good one I hope) and you deserve to be paid.
8. Remind them it’s overdue
Hopefully you got paid by now but maybe you didn’t, so remind them again. Be polite but be firm. State the facts, explain that the invoice is overdue, by x days. Maybe attach the invoice to the email so they can’t say they haven’t got it/can’t find it.
9. Still not paid? Ask why not and negotiate
In my experience, it’s rare for someone to not pay at all. Some people aren’t very nice, but most people want to pay so if the invoice is really quite late, ask why it’s been delayed. Maybe it’s a legitimate reason. Maybe they’re short on cash themselves. If they’re genuine, then you acting like a jerk will do nothing but damage your reputation so be nice and be understanding. If they are struggling for cash flow you could offer them an extension or offer to accept a percentage of the overdue amount now and the rest in say another 30 days.
That may be the difference between getting paid a bit and not getting paid at all.
10. Still not been paid?
Something that has worked for me in the past is to turn up in person and ask for the money. You’d be surprised how often this works. I once freelanced at an agency where the MD only paid freelancers if they came in to the office, in person and asked for it and he’d write them a cheque there and then.
Ring them up and tell them you’re passing by that day and you can pop in and pick up your cheque. You’d be surprised how often it’s waiting for you when you get there.
11. Bonus tip. Don’t do this
I’ve read a lot of people saying, make sure you have a contract that stipulates you’ll charge interest on the invoice if it’s overdue. By all means, use a contract and put this clause in there but it’s not really enforceable; the type of client who won’t pay your invoice won’t pay you 5% interest per day it’s late. In my experience, people who offer this advice rarely do it themselves – so take it with a pinch of salt.
It’s hard to follow these steps; I sometimes forget one or two of them. Especially step 4 but in 7 years freelancing I have only ever not been paid once and have only wait a really long time (over 6 months) once – so this process does work.
The best tip for getting paid on time is to not work for people if they mess you about. If they’re late with payments don’t work with them again and as mentioned in step 2; sometimes you’d get a feeling in the early stages that the client might not be very good at paying you. I’d urge you to go with this instinct, in my experience it’s often correct. I’ve never regretted turning down a job after having this feeling but I have regretted ignoring my gut instinct many a time.
I want to leave you with one piece of advice. Make sure you get paid. It’s tricky as a freelancer (especially doing a job you love) because you can feel like you’re overcharging, you can feel like you’re bothering people or being cheeky by asking for money but you’re not; you’ve completed the work, you’ve earnt that money so make sure you get it.
Ask yourself this, if you’ve ever hired a plumber, builder, carpenter – how did they ask to be paid? Would you have thought it was acceptable to get them to do the job, agree to pay them at the end of the day/week then, when that time came you’d ignore their calls or tell them ‘oh sorry, I’ll pay you at the end of next week‘. I hope you wouldn’t treat people like that so don’t let clients treat you like that.
So what are your tips to make sure your freelance invoices get paid? Comment here or send me a tweet @imgiseverything