Matt Dowling, CEO and Founder of Freelancer Club, suggests six effective ways freelancers and small businesses can chase unpaid invoices amid the COVID-19 uncertainty
Chasing people for unpaid invoices can be difficult at the best of times. Sending ‘chase emails’ can be uncomfortable, but severely late payments or not getting paid at all is a chronic issue within the industry. Right now, as many freelancers see work dry up as a result of the pandemic, getting outstanding bills settled is critical. With over 10 years’ experience working as a freelance photographer, 15 years advising the self-employed and over 6 years campaigning for the rights of freelancers, who better to ask than the founder of Freelancer Club, Matt Dowling.
Send your invoice to the correct person
All too frequently, payments are delayed because they’ve been sent to the wrong email address or the wrong person in the company. This is also a classic excuse that companies like to use when payment is late. The best port of call is normally the finance department or the person’s accountant, although this could vary by region if your client is a larger corporate. If in doubt, give your contact a quick call to ask who deals with the invoices and get their direct contact. In an ideal world, you would find this out before the project begins.
Now that most office employees are working remotely or have been furloughed, freelancers are finding it even trickier to get hold of the right person, so see if you can find an out of office hours number and enquire with that person as to who your invoice should be sent to. Be mindful that many businesses are struggling at the moment, but don’t forget yourself. Freelancers have a tendency to be pushed to the back of the queue when cheques are getting signed. Strike a tone that is firm but empathetic.
Set clear payment terms and deadlines
Before you’ve sent your invoice, make sure you state clearly the total cost, payment deadline and bank details. Your invoice should contain a breakdown of the total fee with a clear description of each item. Double-check your bank details. Another common reason for a delay is missing information.
It’s customary to give payees at least 14 days to pay but however long your payment terms, make sure that it’s clearly stated. Although you’re entitled to add interest to an invoice if it’s paid later than the date stated, most freelancers we speak to never trigger this for fear of upsetting a client but some use it as means to apply the pressure. Striking the right balance between client retention and getting paid is a fine line.
Don’t be afraid to chase
It can be daunting to have to confront late payees, especially if they’re usually a good client. However, don’t be afraid to send that reminder email if they still haven’t paid you within the designated time limit you’ve given. ‘Blame’ a third party such as your accountant who is “hassling me to get my invoices sorted!” or use an invoicing app so that reminders come from a site, not your email.
If they don’t respond to emails within two days it’s a good idea to call them and find out if they’ve received the invoice and when they’re planning to pay it. Messages often get misconstrued and can lack subtleties that are key to retaining a good client relationship. Picking up the phone or, even better, a video call will eradicate any doubt and create a human connection.
There are a number of resources online that offer templates for documents such as invoices, gentle reminder letters and firm requests which can save you the trouble of drafting your own. Often a strongly worded, official-looking letter can be what’s needed to prompt people into action.
Determine how much time you are prepared to spend chasing
Chasing unpaid invoices and late payments are more time consuming than you’d think. As a freelancer, you sell time. A carefully constructed email can take hours so make sure you think about much time you’re willing to spend chasing before you commit to more emails and phone calls. How much of that time chasing payments could you spend on your business? Set a reasonable limit as to how much time you are willing to sacrifice chasing. Once you reach this limit you can resort to further action, such as pursuing the issue through the small claims court.
If you’ve gone through this process at least once before – and I’m yet to meet a freelancer who hasn’t – save the email you slaved over in your ‘templates’ folder for future use.
And as a last resort…
To avoid the fees that come with debt collectors and solicitors, consider using the Government Gateway to fill out a small claims form. This is for sole traders and limited companies who are chasing sums of less than £100,000. Your client will receive a letter from the court requesting payment. If they still don’t pay the fee asked, then they will receive a county court judgement which will have a damaging effect on their credit score for up to six years. If they’re refusing to pay you, then they may also do this to someone else. It helps prevent future freelancers to avoid clients who don’t pay.
Avoid the bad payers in future
Over time, you come to realise that there are good clients and bad clients and they are not always easy to spot. It feels great landing a new client but if they don’t pay or force you to spend time chasing them, you can end up doing a lot of unpaid ‘work’ for very little in return.
If you are able to, it’s a good idea to run a credit check on clients before you sign a contract or agree on any work. The credit check won’t tell you whether they will or won’t pay but if they have a bad credit score it will mean they might be less likely to pay. Bear in mind that this can only be checked if you’re working with a registered business with a company number. Facebook groups are also a good source of info on this and the Small Business Commissioner’s office will list companies who are serial offenders.