Thursday, June 2, 2011

How to Deal With a Non-Paying Client


We all would like to live in a perfect world. One without suffering, sickness and… annoying clients. Some clients will be very rational, some amazingly stupid.
That’s what makes the work interesting though, right? Yeah, I know – wrong. We all would like to avoid the extra stress from our clients, especially if they suddenly decide they don’t really want to pay.
What can we do when a situation like this takes place? Actually quite a lot. The solutions are really only limited by your imagination. Some solutions are better than others, but there is no golden rule to follow here. You are interacting with real people and have to deal with them differently each time if you want to get paid at the end of the day.
So let’s build on that and see where it leads us.
How to Deal With a Non-Paying Client
First things first though. Instead of worrying what we will do if the client doesn’t want to pay us, let’s think what we can do to prevent that from happening in the first place.
Of course the best option would be to work with a contract, but that is not always an option. We are very well aware, that a heck lot of you out there work without one, so instead of pretending the problem doesn’t exist, let’s discuss what we can do when there is no contract to help us.
Before we begin I would like to once again remind you that you’re working with real people out there. So don’t take anything for granted. Treat the things below as guidelines. It’s up to you to assess which ones will be the best suited to your particular client.
Right, so:

How to prevent it from happening

Host it yourself

If you’re working on a website, you want to make sure that your client can’t at some point tell his ten-year old son, to steal all your work and put it on a different server. Remember, you don’t have a contract to help you out, hence your trust can only go so far. No thief will actually wear a mask and sign his emails as Zorro.
The best thing you can do, is to work on your own server and connect the clients domain to it for the time being. Make sure to tell your client that’s how things will go down up front and that once you’re done you can move his website to a server of his choice. Or why just not leave it there and make him pay for it’s upkeep. It’s one of the best steady income sources for freelancers after all. You take care of a few dozen clients which decide to pay you for hosting and suddenly you have a nice yearly income bonus for all those toys you always wanted.

Watermark your images

Some of us out there are not only coders. With graphic design you will more often than not stumble upon clients that want you to make catalogs, business cards, logos etc. (of course coders can make as well some logistic systems etc., but that’s not the point) Obviously hosting those on your own server isn’t that helpful. When it comes to designs though, we have different weapons to defend ourselves, the most efficient ones being:
Watermarks – those will save you in most of the cases. A watermark is an identifying element which you put on the whole design to prevent the client from using your work and not paying for it. Below is an example.
It’s not always as simple as that. It really depends on the project, but on simple designs the watermarks can be easily removed. So be sure to look twice that the watermarks cover the most complicated part of the design, or just…
Send smaller proofs- very often just minimizing the image by 10% or so, can render it useless to steal. Especially if some elements of it have to be cut later on and used between programs. This way you avoid those annoying watermarks while protecting your projects.
Be aware though, that when working for print decreasing the image size by 10% will not really be a huge problem, as it still can be printed without much loss in quality. Though when working for print the image sizes are so huge, that a 30-40% zoom will be enough. It’ll be up to you to determine how much you’ll need to reduce an image so that your customer can approve it’s use without stealing it.
Remember not to send the source files before you get paid. That would defeat the whole purpose of trying to protect yourself.

It’s a very common and good practice. Of course not every client will want to pay you before seeing any work. It sounds perfectly reasonable and how I work, is that I tell the clients that an advance will be required after they accept the graphic designs of the website. Until that point they risk nothing and are not asked for any payments.
That gets you on good footing with your client and shows them you believe in your work. After eight years working this way, I have yet to go wrong with it.
Last but not least. After the client has paid you that initial 20% he will feel more obliged to put effort into the process of creating the site. If you haven’t had a client that takes ages to send you some essential materials for the project and then gets mad because you don’t have the project finished the next day, you will, it’s a situation that is so common it stopped being funny long time ago.
So if you look at it this way. It benefits your client to pay you an advance more than it benefits you really.
Right, so we took all the necessary counter-measures but still we hit a wall somehow and the client does not want to pay for a completed project. To the main point of the article.

How to make him/her pay

Send a summary

Some people just love documents, especially the folks running companies. While I cannot for the love of God understand it, I do acknowledge its existence.
You just might be dealing with that kind of person. If you think that may be the case, do a summary of your work, preferably in PDF form (people love PDF’s) and send it to your client.
It makes you look serious and works as a great reminder that you need to be paid. Very subtle and polite, a great way to start asking for your payment.
I recommend you do one whether the client falls behind on payment or not. In most cases it will increase your chances of landing future jobs with the same person.

Kill the site

It’s pretty much the most obvious and common practice.
In simple terms – if the client refuses to pay, you shut down his whole website until he sees things your way.
While it seems like a perfect solution at first glimpse, it does not necessarily have to be. People like to be stubborn. If you poke some people, they will poke you back whatever the cost. So if you suddenly kill their whole site, they’d probably rather find another freelancer and go through the whole hassle again than pay you.
Yes, it’s very illogical and stupid, but remember – it’s you who lost the time and has no money to show for it by the end of the day. The client already had a site and probably thought of some improvements which he can pass down to the next freelancer.
So think twice with who you’re dealing with before you take action.
As well, there’s a lot of sites which provide a script to kill the site in an easily reversible way like csskillswitch.com but I believe if you created a whole site, temporarily shutting it down won’t be a problem for you. If for some reason it will though, you just had the link a second ago.

Don’t launch the site

It’s certainly one way to keep your client in check. Be sure though to make it perfectly clear at the very beginning that their site will not go live until you get paid in full. Otherwise you can get into a world of trouble and not without reason.
Remember, that you’re the expert here and cannot expect that your client will know or follow any routines established in the virtual world. So if the client was expecting the site to be launched before paying, it’s pretty much your fault for not making the necessary explanations before that.

Modify the site

Now, let me state right off the bat, that it’s totally non-professional and may put your own reputation at terrible risk. That being said…
A modified site can frustrate the client much more than just taking it down or putting up a maintenance sign. Not long ago I found a case on the internet where the client was refusing to pay freelancers their money for the site and other things they did. What they did in return, was write a whole story on the guy’s site, stating how he ripped them and some other people off.
The money in question was quite a considerable sum and from what I’ve read, they have received it in full, two days after taking over the site and modifying it. They did this only after not receiving payment for over 60 days.
While they were in fact successful, ask yourself a question.
Would you hire that company?
They didn’t do anything wrong. They just wanted to get paid for the work they did. Nonetheless, I’d be more inclined to go with someone who I knew wouldn’t talk about our business to anyone else.

Contact the client

Yeah, I know. Another obvious course of action. But there’s more to it then meets the eye.
Emails have become the go-to thing when it comes to contacting your clients. There is a flaw in the process though. Frankly, it’s very easy to avoid answering them and the longer you avoid answering them, the harder it is to come back and so unpaid bills are born.
One way to prevent it from happening is maintaining steady communication with your client via an IM client like Skype. Get him used to talking with you and you might avoid more problems than just not getting paid. I know, that most often it will not be possible though, if your client for example is a dog breeder, chances are he does not spend his whole day in front of a computer uploading Facebook photos. In that case you still have one more thing, that could help you.

Your phone.

It’s much harder to tell you “no” on the phone, then it is to write it in an email. So if you are anticipating that your client may be thinking of talking his way out of paying, you can try to call him first and just maybe turn the situation around. It’s not exactly like you have something to lose in the process.
So if a phone call works better than email, than meeting your client in person will work even better. It’s true in most cases. You will not always have that opportunity though. May it be because it’s to far or he just will not want to meet you in person because of a lack of time or another reason.
So choose your contact method carefully and try to find the fine line between reminding the client about yourself and annoying him. I know you may be mad because you were expecting to be paid long ago, however, if your client decides to walk, you get nothing out of it.

Stall other works

If you’re good at what you do. Often the client will ask you for additional things.
Actually you should make a habit of offering your clients additional services. If I’m making a website for someone, usually I end up doing additionally some business cards, posters etc. What I’m getting at is, if you do additional work, you can stall them a bit if your client is late with his payments. Rather stall giving your work to him then doing actual work on it, or additional problems may arise.
If you’re making posters etc. usually it would be too much of a problem to replace you in time, so the time to open the bank account to send you the money will suddenly be found.
It’s not really unprofessional of you to do something of that sort.
Remember, that you’re not his employee, but basically a one (or more) man company that he hired for your skills. So it’s just to be expected that you demand mutual respect. Getting paid on time is a part of it.

Accept partial payments

I know it sounds stupid, but sometimes at the end of the work your client will in fact tell you, he does not have the money to pay you due to various reasons.
Again, you don’t want him to just walk away and trash the whole project. How you can still gain the upper hand here, is propose partial payments with interest. Maybe you will have to wait longer for your money, but in the end it will be worth it, as you get more cash over time. If he fails to complete even those partial payments, then you got a whole article above about what other things you might then do.

That’s a wrap

And that’s pretty much that. It’s not really possible to take into consideration all the possible scenarios, so you’re just going to have to improvise a bit. But you got the basics down now and have some things to back you up.
Just remember that getting angry is not the way to go, not if you want to get payed.
Oh, and if you want to see how far problems with clients can go I recommend you visit http://clientsfromhell.net/ . After years in the business I somehow believe most of the things on there are actually true…

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