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USA Real Estate Blog

Dear Client, You Owe Me Money – Felicia C. Sullivan

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Late payments are also outright theft. Clients earn interest (however nominal) on funds withheld as well as improve their cash flow. And that N30 rule? Thirty days is the maximum legal period before a creditor is entitled to start charging interest. You’ve done work that helps grow their business, and their repayment is actions that undermine yours.

I have a two-decade track record of delivering superior, results-driven work. I’m good at what I do. I educate clients. I listen to them. I focus on solutions to their unique set of challenges. Often, I work on tight timelines with constrained client resources. I’m the MacGyver of brand strategy and marketing — I get the job done. And I work hard.

So it makes me angry that someone would take advantage of that and sour what could have been a mutually beneficial partnership. Clients know freelancers start at a disadvantage when compared to their full-time, salaried counterparts. We pay for our healthcare and fund our retirement plans. We’re reliant on decent people to pay on time. We have to put up with a lot more because we are the admin, advocate, accountant, and account lead on every project.

And we know the label of “difficult” can be perilous.

But there’s nothing difficult about calling out clients who don’t abide by the terms of their agreement. There’s nothing difficult about being paid on time for the work we delivered on schedule. And there’s nothing difficult about wanting to pay your rent, put food on the table, and take care of your basic needs.

Let me tell you a story about business and betrayal. It’s about a client, an intermediary who subcontracted me for a customer segmentation study. A client who was a friend. A client who I thought I trusted. A client who received payment for the work I’d completed a month ago. A client who withheld this information while I explained my dire financial situation, how things could get drastic should I go off the antidepressants I could no longer afford. A client who knew this and continued to not pay me for the work I had been contracted to do. A client who sat on my money to flush their cash flow as they sought investors.

Trust isn’t a player of the game when money’s on the table. I don’t buy the “business is business” adage. When you cut into someone, they bleed. When you knowingly have the power to wield control over someone’s financial and mental state, it isn’t a calculated game of chess or a flexed power move. It isn’t about playing Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. It’s about your desire to hurt real people. This is about you betraying their trust.

And what a light this shines on your lack of character.

This is personal. I’m not a person who can be easily hurt, but this betrayal and theft blindsided me — wounded me in places I couldn’t imagine having been wounded. I barely have enough bandages to dress the damage done.

I wonder how my client can sleep at night knowing what they’ve done. Can you? Sleep at night? I wonder about the kind of person who could rationalize hurting other people, and how the lies they tell themselves are the bedtime stories that send them to slumber. Do you sleep the sleep of children knowing you could have paid me for the work I did a month ago instead of padding your company’s cash flow? Was our friendship a razor nicking at my side, making me accustomed to the moment when you’d plunge in deep? All the minor cuts multiplied.

I never thought I’d be cynical at 43. Cynicism was the stuff of my twenties when I was filled with so much want and possibility, yet doubting it all. Knowing that all that possibility and want would lead me to this version of myself, decades older, and in some ways, worse off than when I’d started.

In over six years of freelancing, I’ve only had two issues of late payments and they were resolved quickly. This recent betrayal took two months away from my life because I was home, wracked with anxiety, unable to focus or work.

For this project, I hired data scientists, cashed in favors with vendors, spent my own money for additional resources and tools to make sure their customer segmentation study was data-driven, specific, and actionable. 200 slides. Thousands of dollars spent on acquiring heavily-screened participants. Data and cluster analysis performed by one scientist and validated by another. Our findings were air-tight, practical, and actionable. I threw in a bonus customer survey and they repay with radio silence. I even provided a full brand audit during our discovery phase.

I had planned the next six months, client and life-wise, around this payment of $25,000. I took on fewer clients to accommodate planning major life changes over the next two months. This morning, I finally received payment and I don’t think they understand the damage they’ve done.

I have to believe that crooks come undone. Always. And if they don’t, you should be vigilant. Unapologetically loud.

In the aforementioned HBR article, Jon Younger, founder of the Agile Talent Collaborative, states that freelancers should escalate the communication train:

“It’s much easier to ignore an email than it is to ignore a human. Be persistent about seeking payment. Don’t walk away, and don’t give up. Work your way up the food chain and take it to the top.”

I know of fellow freelancers who have waited a year to receive payment. Others are still waiting for Godot. With the exception of my current dilemma, I rarely have to deal with tardy payments. Here’s how.

When a client hires you, they’re eager to get started, effective yesterday. At this stage, they’re motivated to pay you before they want their problem solved. With every project, I ask for 50% due on N0 (net zero). This means the client pays on receipt of the invoice, and I send out my invoice the moment the contract has been executed (i.e., both parties sign the agreement).

We live in an age now where no one can justify not getting you cash in an expedient fashion. I’ve received payments via Zelle, Chase E-Pay, Stripe, and PayPal. Clients can also pay via bank wire and ACH. Or they can FedEx a check.

Late payments make me angry. What if I decided to not issue my client’s biweekly paycheck? How would they pay for their mortgage, gas, and groceries then? Freelancers don’t have stacks of cash lying around to front their bills, and getting a check on time can mean the difference between eating and not eating.

So, if your client wants their work delivered on time, you should be paid on time. End of story.

  • You bear more financial risk than the client. They’re not paying you out of their pocket. Them losing $5000 is not as perilous as you losing $5000 — especially if they’re a corporate client with funds.
  • Why shouldn’t you ask for partial up-front payment? Why shouldn’t you get paid to start your work? People get a weekly or biweekly salary before they tackle and complete major projects — why shouldn’t you? Remember, you run a business, not a non-profit. This isn’t Oliver Twist where you’re holding out a bowl in hopes that they’ll feed you.

Depending on the client engagement, I’ll ask for 50% upfront and 50% on delivery. Now, I’ve started splitting up payments into thirds — the second payment tied to the delivery of a key component of the project. By the end of the project, they owe me 25%, and I’ve collected the bulk of the project fees before the final invoice. For example, let’s say someone has hired me to create their marketing plan. I collect:

50% upfront. 25% when I deliver the marketing plan outline (by then, they’d have received my discovery findings and preliminary recommendations and an outline of what the plan will include). Before I create the final deliverable, I would have collected 75% of payment.

You can split your payment into thirds or quarters depending on what business you’re in and how many deliverables you’re asked to complete for the client.

Communicate to your client via email that all work will cease until payment has been received. Don’t continue working until you have confirmation that payment has been processed/sent. Why? Because if you continue working, why would they move faster to pay you? You’ve already demonstrated that you’ll keep working. You have every right to stop because they’ve violated the terms of your agreement and you don’t work for free.

There might be a legitimate reason for a late payment, but you have every right to inquire why payment is late. Depending on the situation, I’ve let clients slide a few days. I’m not entirely rigid, especially if the reason is personal and not work-related. However, don’t be taken advantage of — it’s okay to give some grace, but it’s not okay to get ripped off.

If after a slew of emails you still haven’t received payment, you’d be surprised how far a threatening letter on legal letterhead will go. Over the past few years, I’ve seen a slew of lawyers crop up who specialize in working with freelancers (as a side hustle or on a full-time basis), and their rates are extremely competitive when compared to retaining the services of a traditional firm. But let me make this clear — throughout this situation, you have to remain calm and professional. No rage blackouts over email. No threatening calls. Let your lawyer make their threats in a way that lawyers do that feels scary and intimidating. Your client does not want to deal with a lawsuit, so even the risk of one will make them pay up.

Recently, I consulted with a lawyer and she offered the following advice, “A demand letter, for obvious reasons, is more powerful when written by an attorney on your behalf. (But that doesn’t mean you, yourself, cannot write a persuasive letter!)” Most law firms would charge you a nominal fee to write a letter, somewhere between $500 and $1,000, unless you earn little to no money, in which case you may qualify for free legal assistance via “volunteer lawyer” programs. Just as you charge your clients for your hard-earned work, so do lawyers. An excellent resource to find an affordable attorney is SmartLaw.org.

If your letter-writing campaign doesn’t work, my attorney friend offered this, “You can easily file a small claim action against this person to recover less than $10,000. In small claims court, no one is allowed an attorney so everyone is on equal footing, in an informal setting. The next step up from small claims would be filing in limited jurisdiction court (for $25,000 or less).”

Lawyering up is the nuclear option. You don’t want to go around suing your clients, however, if you’ve exhausted every possibility of getting your money, hiring a lawyer might be the way to go.

Don’t let anyone make you feel uncomfortable about getting paid. Remember, if you deliver your work on time, you should get paid on time, every time.

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