Would You Call Out a Bad Client? This Freelance Writer Did. It’s Glorious.

Would You Call Out a Bad Client? This Freelance Writer Did. It’s Glorious.

It’s been 30 days since you sent a big invoice to that big client for the work you performed, and they still haven’t paid.

So you send a polite reminder note despite the panic and frustration rising up inside. (You don’t want to burn a powerful bridge, after all, and maybe it was an honest mistake?)

They apologize for their oversight and say the money is on its way.

Another month passes with no payment. You send a another reminder that’s a tad firmer, but still far more polite than the, “Where the $&*% is my money?” you’d prefer to send.

Still no payment, although they do offer a myriad of excuses as to why they can’t pay you.

You begin to consider things like small claims court, social media intimidation tactics…or the more likely fact you may never see that money you were counting on to pay your bills.

If you’ve been a freelance writer for any significant amount of time, there’s a good chance you can tell a similar story.

Sadly, there are plenty of bad clients out there who have no qualms about giving you the runaround (or, worse yet, ignoring you altogether) rather than ponying up the money you both agreed they’d pay for a job.

It’s nerve-wracking, rage-inducing, and it can throw your entire life into disarray.

Which is why Simon Owens decided to do what many freelancers have only dreamed of, and publicly call out the big-name client who stiffed him more than $2,000.

Why he did it

Owens wrote that his delinquent client is Leslie Sanchez, an analyst, author, CBS News contributor and regular guest on CNN. In other words, the kind of person whose clout could easily scare a freelancer into rolling over and accepting defeat.

Insummer 2015, Owens agreed to write a business plan for Sanchez’s new digital media company. The final bill for his services came to $2,662. At the time he published his tell-all piece on Medium.com, he’d been attempting to collect payment for this bill for 15 months.

In the piece, he lays bare every dirty detail of his issues with Sanchez, even going so far as to include screenshots of their emails illustrating her ever-evolving excuses for non-payment.

Now, $2,662 is no small chunk of change. (“This person had chosen to essentially steal from me the equivalent of two months’ worth of rent,” Owens writes.)

Still, going public with a grievance against a well-known client is a risky move for any freelancer.

So why did Owens decide to take this risk?

“Well,” he writes, “At this point in my career I feel secure enough that any reputational damage will be minimal and I’ll continue to get work. I’ve also given up on the notion that I’ll ever receive payment from this person, so the least I can do is warn off any other freelancers who might consider working for her. I might even teach a few future freelancers some valuable lessons along the way.

These lessons, which he elaborates on in his post, include lessons like watching for red flags, getting everything in writing and asking for a deposit before you start your work.

He also wanted to send a message to delinquent clients everywhere:

“We’re not just line items on a spreadsheet, and no matter how you rationalize your actions, what you’re doing is theft, plain and simple.”

To which we say: hear, hear!

You can read Owens’ full piece on Medium.

Your turn! Would you ever publicly call out a client who hadn’t paid? Why or why not?

Kelly Gurnett is a freelance blogger, writer and editor; follow her on Twitter @CordeliaCallsIt.

Filed Under: Freelancing

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20 comments

  • Wow, interesting story. I had no idea this was such a problem. I haven’t done any freelancing, so my assumption was that it worked more like fiction, where you’re usually paid either before on upon publication.

    I have seen a few smaller presses offering royalty only payment for inclusion in anthologies where none of the writers were paid at all and statements were never sent. I guess that’s a similar situation.

  • John Benson says:

    A long time ago, but in a place not so far away, in my tech writing days, I went through the being stiffed scenario. A graphic artist and I sub-contracted for a well-established writing mom and pop. We were a bit, to say the least, surprised when told there would be a delay in our second or perhaps our third payment – I don’t remember for sure. We were asked to discontinue our work when the next payment was due.
    I discovered that our client’s client stiffed its employees and left the country with their share of insurance payments, contributions to FICA, etc. Trickle down of the worst kind!

    I lost track of the mom and pop for whom I’d worked. However, their integrity popped to the surface. Many months later, but before I could call an IRS loss, I received a personal check for what I was due from the mom and pop.

  • Most of my clients have been wonderful about paying in a timely manner, but the couple of times I’ve had trouble collecting, I found that the experience took a toll well beyond the obvious financial one. It was a fundamental betrayal of trust, not forgotten even after the money would have been long spent.

    It is a hard thing to give up on ever receiving payment even if the debt is very small. It can feel deeply personal. One’s work has been literally devalued. I wonder if “calling out” a client is more a response to that personal violation than a calculated move to protect future freelancers.

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    epiclesisconsulting.com

  • Sherry says:

    Your skill as a writer did not happen overnight. And, it cost money either in courses or while gaining experience. Your time and skill are worth money. If you were employed you would receive a salary.

    So, yes, I would call out a person or company for non-payment, reminding them they received compensation based on your work. People assume we should write for free. Not so.

  • Love this post — I’m a fan of using all options to collect, but if they don’t work, social shaming to me is the next step. I like to start with something fairly innocuous, like, @companyname – Still looking for my payment due last week. Can you let me know when I should expect it?

    In my experience, that’s usually enough to get it done. In this case, the nonpayment was waaaay overdue — and I applaud what he did in exposing someone who’s a public figure and not doing right by their contractors.

  • Marcus Lyons says:

    After several instances of this in my own career, I added a “retainer” clause into my contracts of 50% of the final estimated cost. If they’re unwilling to pay the retainer, it’s likely they weren’t going to pay at all.

  • Nothing else to say here but bravo sir! Why do clients think we freelancers are the last ones that need to be paid (if they pay us at all)?

  • “Would you ever publicly call out a client who hadn’t paid?” Yes! I would and I did! http://devyaniborade.blogspot.com/p/tampa-bay-parenting-magazine-steals-work.html
    Then I went on to use the experience to write and sell two more freelance pieces that warn writers what to do to keep their work from getting stolen, and what to do if it still does.

  • Paula says:

    This is why legislation, such as that designed and implemented in NYC by Freelancers Union (.org) is so important. They started a “Freelance Isn’t Free” movement and succeeded in getting new legislation passed that makes it illegal to stiff a freelancer. Perhaps The Write Life should consider a similar effort? I’m new here, so if it’s already in progress, please forgive.

  • Ekalb says:

    A big red flag for me is the tone of the discussion on the front end. I have found the more harried the request and unrealistic the deadline, the greater likelihood you will struggle to get paid. You’ll also get less details on the front end and work with less direction.

    Being nimble and helping people who have “last second” work is a great service, but sadly one that gets abused and is rarely appreciated.

    Always get a contract, even if it slows an aggressive deadline!

  • Jacqueline Daniels says:

    I love this post. I’ve had the same experience at least twice. The first time the client literally disappeared off the map with almost $5000 of my work. It left me in a serious bind that took almost a year to recover from. The second one simply ignored all of my comments and as of yet, (2 years later) still has not responded to any of my requests.

    It’s taught me a valuable lesson in trust. No matter how much they appeal t your good nature, get at least some of the money up front. Everything else of value you can purchase requires a deposit so why not your work? It’s just good business sense.

    Most people think that freelance writing is just something we do when we feel like it. They don’t realize that for many of us, this is how we make a living. We don’t have the luxury of doing without any more than they have.

    Over the years I’ve learned to be pretty tough when it comes to making agreements with clients. As a result, those who were shady in the beginning usually disappear and go off in search of another sucker and those clients with quality usually respect you for the stand.

    As for calling them out. I don’t believe that the action would affect any reliable and trustworthy client relationship. However, I do believe that those who were questionable to begin with would think twice about trying to scam you.

    Kudos to you for it. I wish I had thought of it myself.

  • Jacqueline Daniels says:

    I love this post. I’ve had the same experience at least twice. The first time the client literally disappeared off the map with almost $5000 of my work. It left me in a serious bind that took almost a year to recover from. The second one simply ignored all of my comments and as of yet, (2 years later) still has not responded to any of my requests.

    It’s taught me a valuable lesson in trust. No matter how much they appeal t your good nature, get at least some of the money up front. Everything else of value you can purchase requires a deposit so why not your work? It’s just good business sense.

    Most people think that freelance writing is just something we do when we feel like it. They don’t realize that for many of us, this is how we make a living. We don’t have the luxury of doing without any more than they have.

    Over the years I’ve learned to be pretty tough when it comes to making agreements with clients. As a result, those who were shady in the beginning usually disappear and go off in search of another sucker and those clients with quality usually respect you for the stand.

    As for calling them out. I don’t believe that the action would affect any reliable and trustworthy client relationship. However, I do believe that those who were questionable to begin with would think twice about trying to scam you.

    Kudos to you for it. I wish I had thought of it myself.

  • Joy says:

    You need to be VERY careful when using the “social shaming” tactic for debt collection. And, yes, if someone owes you money for work you have provided to them and they now owe you the money for that work, then they are a debtor and you are in the business of collecting that debt.

    The FDCP (Fair Debt Collection Practice Act) places strict limits on WHO you can contact about a debt and expressly prohibits you from communicating with third parties (that’s anyone other than you and the person who owes you money). You are also not allowed to “inform a third-party” of a debt unless express permission is given — debt collectors are even prohibited from leaving detailed messages on answering machines/voicemail because there could be someone other than the debtor who could hear the information.

    Now, if you post to a public website/forum and you are truthful about what happened, then no they wouldn’t be able to sue you for libel. But, if someone did that to me, I would sue them for violation of the FDCPA. I’m pretty sure if I can show that my debt, between me and the person I owe, was discussed in detail, with my name given and it was visited/read by thousands of people… yes, that person has informed thousands of third parties of the debt I owe.

    You would be better off talking to your attorney, having a collection letter sent to the debtor with the lawyers letterhead stationary or taking it to small claims court.

    There’s nothing professional about airing the issue on the web and getting yourself sued in the process.

    • Marcus says:

      An individual does not need to follow Federal laws on debt collection. Those laws are specifically for registered debt collection COMPANIES. If a freelance writer hires an attorney or DC company to follow up on that debt, that information MUST be explicitly stated in their contract or agreement. If it’s not stated in those terms, then they are allowed, WITHIN REASON, to attempt to collect that outstanding fee using whatever means they can.

      • Joy says:

        This is true, but some states do have their own “original creditor” laws to protect consumers.

        Public shaming is just bad business. This is from a Bloomberg article dated June 2014:

        “Efficient as it may be, the tactic is definitely controversial. First off, it could get you into hot water legally, says Stephen P. Dem, a longtime Encino (Calif.) collection attorney who represents many self-employed people. “Of course we have free speech, and there are safeguards there. But there are legal ramifications of bad-mouthing a business publicly, not least of which is facing the wrath of a millionaire who could sue you and force you to spend thousands on a legal defense,” he says.”

        My husband is a freelancer and we would NEVER use something like public shaming to collect a debt. Usually, but not always, clients have way more money than we do and we do not ever want to put ourselves into a situation where we invite a collection practice or defamation lawsuit. Especially when something as inexpensive and practical as a letter from a law firm will do the trick very nicely.

        • Marcus says:

          By the time we reach the point where we realize we will not get paid, we definitely warn others away from doing business with them, using any and every avenue we can to get the word out. 🙂

  • Claus Martin says:

    Why did he not go to lawcourt ? I think, that this would be the normal way.

  • Neeta says:

    Well done Mr. Owens. For what’s it’s worth, you have my backing. [I’m not a celebrity…yet 😛 haha…just another gem of a person 🙂 ]

  • Fay Rees says:

    I experienced a similar case of chasing for months after a client who kept promising to pay & never paid. So I called him & told him it was harder to get money from him than from the biggest employer in the area – who always took months to pay, but who always paid. There was a big pause in our conversation then he said he’d pay. The cheque arrived a few days later. I’ve always thought that he considered a freelancer as too small & unimportant to bother paying, & that comparing him unfavourably to the really big fish (9000 employees) in our pond showed the situation from another perspective. No public humiliation, no resentment caused & maybe a useful lesson taught to a would-be defaulter.

  • Salim Ajobe says:

    I think freelancers are not dumb. We wouldn’t risk being sued when we know other means would work. You threaten a stranger who owes you with law, he will just ignore you threaqts. Secondly the fee involved in lawsuits may not be worth, so after several polite follow ups you may decide the only best option is to publicly shame the scammer so as to caution other freelancers from being scammed.

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