A contact of mine — let’s call her Nancy — mentioned something that happened to her:
A freelancer she’d hired with whom she’d become friends with during the course of a project started sending vague ‘What’s up’ texts.
“It wouldn’t have been awkward,” Nancy said, “if they actually had something to say or share, but it was just text-y small talk. You know, ‘What’re you doing?’ and ‘How’s things?’ We don’t small talk in person. Why would we small talk on text?”
Even though emotions are notoriously difficult to decipher in texts, “I knew something was up. I could just feel it.”
Turns out, she was right.
As a result of some recent life drama she’d completely forgotten to issue payment on the freelancer’s latest invoice. She knew she was the one to blame for the slip and apologized, saying she’d pay them right away — “I was mortified. How could I forget to pay them?” — but the freelancer was also apologetic… for bringing up the subject in the first place!
“That struck me as weird,” Nancy said.
And, I agreed: It is weird. But also, sadly common.
Why Are We Afraid To Ask For OUR Money?
Can you imagine your telephone company apologizing for asking you to pay your bill? Of course not! They’ve provided a service with the expectation that they’ll given money that is, in a way, already theirs.
So why are so many freelancers shy about asking to be paid? Just off the top of my head, maybe they’re worried they…
- #1: Won’t receive future work from that particular client if they nag for payment.
- #2: Will be told their work isn’t any good and that’s why they’re not being paid.
- #3: Have a client who never actually intended to pay.
There may be others, but these three particular fears stand out. However, when broken down, they’re actually pretty pointless. Here’s why.
Worry #1: Fear of No Future Work
Has it ever happened that a client will not offer more work if you nag for payment? YES. However, the keyword here is “nag.”
There is a critical difference between professionally asking for payment (even professionally demanding payment) and nagging about it. The latter involves whining, complaining, pleading, insulting the client, and other annoying dialogue that will only manage to get you blacklisted and not respected (or paid).
If you’re sure you’re being professional and the client is still playing hard to get, consider this:
Do you want the kind of client you have to wrestle money out of at the end of every project? If your answer is “no” (and it should be!), then just get payment ASAP for what you’ve already done and let them go their merry way.
Then there’s this: If your fear of not getting rehired is getting in the way of you asking for payment, then freelancing simply isn’t for you. Sorry, guy.
But, if you’re willing to bravely face the “Pay me” discussion, there are
Ways To Reduce Your Anxiety Over Getting Paid
- Write a Contract and include an arbitration clause.
- Write a Contract and include terms for an upfront deposit.
- Write a Contract and set terms for payment at project milestones, like:
- Setting up an escrow account in a money handling service like PayPal, or
- Directly arranging the work through a site like Upwork, where escrow is already a fixture in the system.
I mention WRITE A CONTRACT multiple times because doing business without a contract is just asking for trouble. Contracts are Freelancing 101 and, if you don’t have one handy to present to clients at the start of every job, I strongly encourage you to draft one now.
Incorporating details like an arbitration clause, upfront deposit terms, or payment deadline terms can help payments stay on track and on time and leave your worries to more critical matters… like just doing a good job on the project!
Worry #2: “Your work isn’t worth it.”
Let’s consider what “freelancing” means in the first place.
By definition, a freelancer is “a person who pursues a profession without a long-term commitment to any one employer.”
No commitment to any one employer? It sounds so… freeing, doesn’t it? ::wink:wink:: But that also means that the employer (or client) also has no commitment to YOU other than those terms they’ve agreed on and are legally held to (you know, via your contract).
There are two good reasons to nix this worry in the bud.
First, if payment is dependent on TIME (i.e. $/hour), you should get paid for work done even if the client doesn’t like the end result. This is part of the hourly arrangement: pay is largely independent of product (unless, of course, the product is grossly disastrous, in which case you should let the client keep their money).
Flat fee arrangements are tougher to negotiate, as they more strongly imply a product-dependent payment system (“I’ll pay you for 5 hours spent writing XYZ” vs “I’ll pay you $100 for an article on XYZ.”).
Either way, consider including one or both of the following in your contract(s):
A. Require an upfront deposit (e.g. 30% or 50% of the full fee, or the equivalent of 5 hours of work) before you even begin. This encourages the client to feel vested in you and the project and offers them the opportunity to show they’re serious about holding to their end of the bargain.
B. Use an Escrow service. Arrange escrow through PayPal or set up the job through a writing brokerage, like Guru, Upwork, or Servicescape (though, beware: ServiceScape demands a steep 50% commission!).
The main trouble with using a writing brokerage is that if the client hasn’t used it before they’ll have to set up an account and learn how to use a new platform, which they may not be eager or willing to do. In this way, PayPal is easier because the client doesn’t need an account to deposit funds into a PayPal escrow.
Finally, let’s say the client really did intend to pay you and they are dedicated to the project. What gives? Well, it’s time to ask yourself a hard question:
Is your work worth paying for, or not?
Either you produce a good product or you don’t. Unless the client can point out glaringly obvious reasons why they shouldn’t pay you (e.g. outlandish editing mistakes, blatant spelling errors, or an article that’s off-topic) clients may use the excuse “I don’t like it” to see if you’ll let them off the hook.
Why would they want to get off the hook? Two reasons come to mind:
- They changed their mind about the project. Maybe jumped the gun and hired you before thinking it through, or didn’t realize that a writing project is actually a lot of work (for them, lots of reviewing and approving your work). Or…
- They didn’t realize how much it would cost and are facing sticker shock. (See “Hard Truth #3” HERE.)
Don’t give in: Neither of these excuses are your fault and you still deserve your money! Be firm about receiving payment, about the amount due, and about your end product, especially if the client had many chances to cancel the job or make changes along the way that would have alleviated the above two problems.
Worry #3: The client never intended to pay.
Unfortunately, this does happen. And it doesn’t feel good because you realize you’ve basically been scammed. In fact, one of my first clients hired me to write a few product descriptions for $10 apiece. After I submitted the work, they fell off the map.
Look, some people will do this. Why? Because some people are jerks. And even with safeties in place to protect yourself, something as small as $100 due won’t get you much attention in small claims court or be worth the trouble of hiring an arbitrator. In my case, I wrote it off as a learning experience and a monetary loss on my taxes.
At the end of the day, a solid contract with clear terms and expectations from both parties will help alleviate anxiety over all aspects of payment, from initial deposit to milestone payments to final invoice.
Other than that, all you need to do is provide a product worth paying for.
Have you had any experiences with non-payment? Share your stories — and solutions — in the comments.