Late payment

Late payment is extremely common for freelancers. Though there are things you can do to encourage quicker payment, you may still encounter situations where a client isn’t paying.

Preface

Before we get into what to do if a client is very slow, or refuses to pay, here are a few tips and things to bear in mind:

Accept card payments

A lot of accounting software lets you integrate invoices with payment providers like Stripe. There are fees associated with platforms like this, but it’s one of the most straightforward ways to get paid by a client.

Naturally, clients may be nervous about sending large bank deposits manually. They may put it off or want to transfer a small amount to check the details are correct.

Offering online payment removes barriers to payment, and likely increases the chance of clients paying quickly. This is especially true for international payments.

Check details

Early into, or preferably before, the project, check the details you’ll need to include. There are standard invoice items, but you’ll also want to check if you need a purchase order (PO) or if there are any other special conditions/invoicing requirements.

If there’s a finance department, check directly with them which details are needed for an invoice to be processed.

Genuine delays

There are plenty of genuine reasons that payment might be delayed, not least sickness or personal emergencies. If a payment is only recently overdue, send a reminder but assume there’s a good reason for it initially.

Build your buffer

Charge and save enough that late payments won’t put you in a seriously difficult financial situation. If you’re able to do this, it will save a lot of stress.

That might be easier said than done, but it’s something to aim for.

Don’t release work

I’m lucky to work in a sector (web design and development) where it’s difficult for clients to recreate the work I’ve done. I always take deposits and don’t release work until final payment is made.

There have been a couple of occasions where I’ve broken from this and released work before payment is made. In almost all of these cases, I’ve had to wait significantly longer for the final payment.

A common request is to release the work early because it’s urgent. But urgency works both ways: if the work is urgent, payment should be, too.

Holding deliverables can have a remarkable galvanising effect on clients to arrange payment.

Payment issues

You’ve given your client a friendly reminder and they’re ignoring you or refusing to pay. What steps can you take then?

Call them

If you can, call the client. If there’s a finance department, ask to speak directly to whoever is dealing with your invoice.

A friendly call is likely to have a greater impact than an email. If you have to email, consider sending something that approaches payment from another angle.

Letter before action

If this has no effect, you may want to send a letter before action. This is a formal letter to request payment with a threat of court action if the debt isn’t settled.

Some professional indemnity insurers offer optional ‘legal packages’ that include services to help with late payment. This might be part of that cover, so check it out with your insurer.

If it isn’t, I’ve heard of freelancers having success with this letter from Thomas Higgins Solicitors.

If payment isn’t arranged, it might be time to take it to the small claims court.

Small claims court

The small claims court lets you claim up £100,000 online. This is likely to be quicker and cheaper than using the paper service.

I’ve been fortunate not to have to use this service, but I’ve heard from plenty of freelancers that even successful claims may not have brilliant outcomes. The money may be received in small and frequent payments – rather than a single lump sum – and it might be difficult and costly to enforce.

This isn’t to say it shouldn’t be done, only that it might be a difficult road and you’ll need to decide how time and energy a claim is worth.

Wind up a company

In certain circumstances, you may be able to ask the courts to close a company that owes you money. You may be eligible if you’re:

  • Owed money by a company (rather than an individual)
  • Owed more than £750
  • You can prove the company can’t pay the debt

More information and next steps are available at GOV.UK.