Ah, the world of being a business owner—you get to set your own schedule, be your own boss and, yes, deal with the repercussions of not getting paid. While clients who refuse to pay are certainly not the norm, they do indeed exist (bummer), which means—even if you’re as sure as the sky is blue that this will never happen to you—chances are, it may. Today, then, we’re breaking down the not-so-fun-job of being a business-owner-turned-bill-collector. Read on for our top tips for what to do when a client neglects (or refuses) to pay.
Protect yourself with an iron-clad contract.
Our first tip starts long before your work with a client ever begins—before you dive into wedding design to hammering out a timeline, you always (we repeat, always) need to start with a contract. While it may be tempting to begin work before the contract has been signed (because you’re just so sure they’ll sign it and you can’t wait to get started on that killer design), the best piece of business advice we can offer it is to never, ever begin work without a solid, signed contract from the client. Your contract should include a clause that addresses late or missed payments. Read this clause through and through and ensure it’s easy-to-understand, clear-cut, and iron-clad.
Contact the client.
Continually contact the client regarding their late payment. Sometimes their reason for not paying may be as simple as your invoice ending up in their spam folder. It’s important you exhaust all forms of communication to (1) ensure the client is actually aware that they’re late to pay and (2) to cover your own tracks. Call them, text them, send payment reminders and follow-up emails, etc—the point here is to develop a record of attempted contact and communications should you eventually need to take this battle down the legal road.
Stop the work. Boy, bye.
Once a client is super late on an invoice, it’s time to stop the work. Maybe they’ve told you they’re just waiting on paycheck to come through, or maybe they’re just slow to respond to email and you’re sure they’ll eventually pay—but the reasoning behind their lack of payment doesn’t really matter. No matter how hard it may be (especially if you’re a proactive perfectionist who wants to get out ahead of things), if you’re not getting paid on time, the best way to protect yourself from eating more hours and losing more money is to stop any and all work on that client’s wedding right away. If a client values your work, they will pay on time. If not, it’s time to pull a Beyoncé and say Boy, Bye.
Keep a thorough record of your communications.
The second you get an inkling a client is dodging your invoices, start a document or note where you record all of your communications with the client. You’ll want to track the date the invoice was sent, whether or not it was opened (Aisle Planner’s online invoicing tool allows you to see that), as well as the dates and statuses of any follow-up communications. Having a clear, in-depth record of your attempts to collect payment will come in handy in the unfortunate event you have to pursue legal remediation.
Follow through with the terms on your contract.
Whatever your terms may be—a 10% late fee, a cancellation of the contract, sending to collections, etc.—it’s important you follow through with those terms. Remember, a contract is a two-way street—it’s just as much your job to stick to the terms you’ve laid out as it is the client’s. If your contract states clients will receive a late-fee penalty after 30 days without payment, be sure to tack that late-fee onto their original invoice after those 30 days are up.
Send some scary snail-mail.
Oftentimes, polite emails and texts simply don’t do the trick. If you’ve been waiting on payment for months and your client has officially ghosted you, it’s time to get serious by—we’ll be blunt here—scaring them with some firmly-worded snail-mail. Maybe they thought they could dodge you after your three very polite emails, but a letter in the mail threatening legal action is a whole different tactic that’s hard for a client to ignore. If they can’t afford to pay an invoice, after all, they definitely can’t afford costly legal fees. If you have a lawyer friend or one in the family, ask her to help you out with the draft (or, hire one if you can afford it). Otherwise, find some foundational wording online and craft your own letter. Be sure to print it on professional letterhead (that of the law firm you’re working with—or simply on your own letterhead if you’re not working with an attorney). It should look as serious as it sounds.
Hire a small-business collection agency and/or take legal action if necessary.
Once you’ve exhausted all of the above options and depending on the amount you’re owed, it may be time to hire a small-business collection agency. They’ll be able to craft letters, and, as professional debt collectors, tend to know all of the tricks to getting someone to answer the phone and finally pay that invoice.
Taking legal action is always a last-resort, as it’s costly for both parties and something no one really wants to embark on. That being said, if your firmly-worded letter was ignored, your invoice still hasn’t been paid, and your collection agency isn’t getting the job done, it’s time to follow through with legal action. Ask around—if you have a solid network of industry connections, chances are someone you know has an attorney or law firm they’d recommend. Be sure, though, to get a clear-cut picture of the costs before you begin this legal battle, as it may end up costing you more than the original invoice.