Scenario: Contracts and Payments

What’s on the iPod: Yes, I’m Cold by Chris Bathgate

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contracts, freelance, writing

How was your holiday? It’s one of my favorites. No presents, little drama, and all about food. It’s work, but it’s work I enjoy. I hope you spent the time in a way that warms your heart.

Because we learn by example, I want to present a new twist on the contracts and payments portion of our theme this month. Let’s take a hypothetical situation:

Your client has contracted with you for certain projects. In that contract, you’ve agreed to deliver projects at the client’s request at your agreed-upon rate. You get to work, deliver the projects, and send the invoice.

Fast forward four months. You’ve just sent your third invoice to the client with no response. At all.

Your options:

  • File a claim in small claims court
  • Contact the collection agency
  • Give the client one last try
Let’s assume you’ve chosen the third option. You get back in touch, tell the client you’re about to commence collection procedures, and would love to see this cleared up in a more civilized fashion. Surprise! Your once-silent client reappears, excuses (or reasons) in hand, and promises payment.
Then it happens. Your client says “I’ll review the work and get back to you. And I won’t be paying the late fees.”
You want this to end, so it’s tempting to let those comments slide. However, a few things are amiss here. First, your client is assuming two very erroneous things:
  • That he doesn’t have to pay for work he didn’t like or use
  • That he doesn’t have to pay a late fee because he’s cooperating or simply doesn’t see the need
Here’s why that client is wrong on both counts:
The contract terms. If your contract is like mine, it doesn’t state that the payment due is any less than stated or dependent on the client’s discretion. You do X. Client pays Y. End of discussion. And you definitely need to state clearly what the contract states.
Late is late. Even if you have no late fees mentioned in your contract, it’s reasonable to charge clients who are late for the inconvenience of waiting for the check.
Clients are not dictators. Nor are they revising the terms or changing their minds or anything that goes against what’s stated in the contract. They signed it. Their chance to amend was before the ink hit the paper. 
Precedent should rule. You are a business as they are a business and you have to treat each client in the same manner in order to set precedent. That’s important should any of your clients require you to take further legal or debt-collection action. If you show you have a invoicing/collection process that is the same for each client and one you practice regularly, you’ll establish yourself as the business you are in the eyes of the law (and other clients).
In responding to clients who are not paying and trying to restate the rules, be clear on contract terms and be firm in your response. Also, remove emotionally charged phrases such as “You never answered” and “Had you bothered to respond.” That inflames an already uncomfortable situation and does nothing to get you to the end goal, which is to get payment in full for your work.
When was the last time a client has either refused to pay or used other tactics to reduce or eliminate payment?

How do you respond to late payers and clients who twist or argue the contract terms?

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  • Anne Wayman November 26, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    I like Thanksgiving too, Lori.

    When a client tries to change the contract terms I send them a copy of the one they signed with the appropriate clause or section bolded or in red or something.

    I also highlight the portion that says any changes must be in writing and agreed to by both parties – a great clause imo.

    Sometimes that solves it… since my ghostwriting is pretty much pay as you go, if we don't get square I drop the project and move on.

  • Paula November 26, 2012 at 10:58 pm

    My issue has been with late payers. I politely restate their payment terms and point out how they are past due according to their own terms.

    Only problem is they ignore my first e-mail, and late pretend they never got it. Right – the editor I blind copied managed to get the same e-mail when the publisher didn't?

    This time, I might just call. Catch them off guard.

  • Lori November 27, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Anne, I love the pay-as-you-go idea. I do that for large projects or bundles of projects, but the smaller ones are tougher.

    Great idea on the verbiage for changes, too.

    Paula, I had a client who told me in July "Check is in the mail." In August, he said, "Yes, getting right on that." In September, he said "I never received the invoice!" I simply copied him on his previous emails. The check came in October after I threatened litigation.

    When they lie, they're fired.