It’s every freelancer’s nightmare.
You send an invoice, and wait. And wait.
After your standard term is up, you send a reminder. And wait.
You’ve got a non-paying client on your hands. Every attempt to communicate with them is ignored, or brushed off. Perhaps they make excuses (“cashflow problems”) or ask you to wait just a little longer.
What should you do next?
1. Persist: Keep up the pressure on your client
Chances are, that non-paying client might be secretly hoping you’re going to eventually give up on your money.
Keep the pressure on: set a reminder in your calendar to email/call/text/etc. on a weekly basis.
Yes, it might annoy them: good! They’ve got your money!
If they’ve told you something like “I can’t pay you this month, but I’ll pay on June 30”, then follow up straight away the next day if they don’t pay. And keep following up.
2. Contact other people who’ve worked with them
If you think the non-payment might just be a blip (e.g. your client really has had an awful month), then it’s worth contacting other freelancers who’ve worked with them.
Have they been paid? How promptly? Did they need to keep the pressure on to get money out of the client?
This can give you a sense of what type of non-paying client you’re dealing with.
Getting in touch with fellow freelancers can help you feel in a stronger position: you have a better picture of what’s going on, and you may well have the sympathy and support of other people who’re in a similar position to you.
3. Ask them to take down your content
If you’ve written something for a client’s website and you’ve not been paid, ask them to take it down. They may well not do so — but if they do, at least you can rework the piece and use it elsewhere.
If you are in a position to take down their content (e.g. you host their website), then tell them that if payment isn’t provided by a specific date, you will be taking that content down.
This may result in them suddenly finding the money for you…
4. Decide when to let it go
If you’ve lost out on a relatively small amount of money, at some point, you’ll probably decide it’s no longer worth your time and energy to keep chasing.
Write it off as an unpaid invoice (you should, at the very least, not have to pay tax on the money you haven’t earned!)…and move on.
I did exactly this with one non-paying client several years ago. It still rankles a bit, but I got half my money out of him, and it simply wasn’t worth the continued effort of chasing the rest.
5. Don’t blame yourself
When a client refuses to pay, you might start to think that it’s somehow your fault.
Maybe you weren’t using a contract: it might have helped if you did, but there’s certainly no guarantee of that.
Maybe you had a nagging sense that your client was going to be trouble, right from the start, but you ignored it. Next time, you might want to trust your instincts; that doesn’t in any way make the lack of payment your fault.
Maybe you should’ve asked for half the money up front. Don’t beat yourself up over it, but do think about making changes next time.
Maybe your invoicing system is, by your own admission, a bit scrappy. If you want a quick primer on creating invoices, check out How to Create Your First Freelance Invoice.
Maybe you’re worried that your writing simply wasn’t good enough. That’s not the case! If a client took you on in the first place, that means you were good enough. Even if they weren’t 100% happy with your finished piece, they still should’ve paid you. (I bet you’ve paid for plenty of sub-par services in the past.)
Whatever happened, it is not your fault. You deserved to be paid.
6. Call them out publicly
This can be a scary move: what if a client reacts angrily? What if other freelancers take you less seriously as a result?
Sometimes, a client who has ignored every email, voicemail, text … will miraculously spring into action when you call them out in public. That could be with a single tweet (“Hey @deadbeatclient, my invoice is now 100 days overdue!”) or with a whole blog post.
If you are going to take this tack, it’s probably worth priming a few friends to be supportive (particularly anyone else who’s been screwed over) and being very clear about the facts.
As Deb Ng puts it (in her final update to her detailed post on The Sad, Strange Story of NMX — a post which, after 18 months, finally resulted in her being paid in full):
The moral of the story? Sometimes you have to take extreme measures to get what you’re owed — even if they’re measures you wouldn’t normally take.
7. Take legal action
This is likely a last resort. But if you’re owed a significant amount of money, you’re well within your rights to pursue it. Even a letter from a lawyer may be enough to prompt action: you’re not necessarily going to have to get into court action.
Do seek legal advice before starting down this route (find out whether it’s going to be more hassle than it’s worth). You may need to be very careful about your communications with your client, if you want to avoid jeopardizing your case — check out this cautionary tale for more on that.
Have you ever had a non-paying client? What steps did you take? Did you eventually get your money? Let us know about your experience in the comments!