As independent contractors, we’re in charge of own rates, schedules and billing which can sometimes be a real hassle if you have a client that just won’t pay you.
Non-payment can happen for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes, you’ll send your invoice to an inbox that is no longer monitored because the person in charge of it no longer works with the company. In other cases, you might be on an email chain of multiple contacts who all believe someone else is handling it. Regardless of the root cause, what’s important is that you as a contractor are able to discuss these things confidently. Removing the shame and stigma around adding late fees and recovery of funds owed is critical to seeing success in the process.
Navigating these discussions can be often feel painfully awkward and cringeworthy. If you’re not a professional debt collector, you probably have zero idea of where to start. That’s okay. It’s helpful to remember that larger businesses often have unpaid accounts and without chasing those funds, many of them couldn’t survive. While being a small business places even more pressure on the need to recoup these funds, it can also be to your advantage in some positions with clients who simply have missed the mark on establishing you as a vendor.
When is something considered ‘unpaid’ or ‘late’?
You decide that. Essentially, if you’ve billed on a NET30 and the client hasn’t paid for 31 days, they’re late. From day one of your invoice being received it would be considered ‘unpaid’ but that doesn’t necessarily late. You might also have someone making partial payments. Unless this is something you’ve established prior with the client, they would still be considered late if the total amount hasn’t arrived by the 30 day mark.
What do I do if something is late?
There are a million ways you can handle late payments from clients. Each option gives you a different way and tone to approach them with. My late payment process is broken down below by date past due.
Day 1: Invoice leaves my inbox
Day 30: Email to the client with the original invoice attached and something to the effect of “Hi Carrie! I just wanted to check in on the attached invoice, I haven’t seen a payment come through so I just wanted to make sure neither of us has missed anything! Let me know! Thanks!”
Day 45: If I haven’t heard anything from the client I would then send another email like this:
“Hi Carrie, I haven’t heard back about payment on this invoice. Please see the updated copy attached with a new balance reflecting the 25% late fee for a total of $125. As a reminder, I do accept checks, Zelle and Stripe payments! Let me know if you have any questions!
Day 60: I send another email following up that looks like this:
“Hi Carrie, I still haven’t heard back on this invoice that is now a full 30 days late. I’m happy to work with you on a payment plan if needed. I do need to recoup the full amount of $125 before the 1st of July to avoid having to charge an additional late fee. Is there an issue with making payment that I’m not seeing? Happy to be of help any way I can!
Day 90: I will send a demand letter which is a letter stating this:
Grey Interpreting Services provided interpreting services on April 1st under the contract provided. Within that contract, both parties agreed to accepted a billing and payment schedule of 30 days respectively. I have still not received payment for services and without any reasonable indication made to make payment, I will have to take legal action to recoup the funds owed for services. Please let me know if we can rectify this immediately. In order to avoid legal action, I would need to receive the full amount of $150 which includes two late fees.
You can find plenty of examples of demand letters online. They’re never fun to send and usually these are clients who hired you for a one off and won’t be utilizing your services in the future. I wish I would have learned earlier in my career that working to maintain these clients long term was pointless 90 percent of the time. Rarely have I seen a late client return for future services and when they did, I started charging them flat rates up front as retainer fees. Working for free is something we should be able to provide the community in the form of pro-bono service and not a regular part of doing business as a contractor.
Keeping track of collection efforts
One thing that is crucial in collecting late payments or trying to recoup funds lost due to a clients nonpayment is tracking. As always, I recommend getting Airtable in addition to being able to track your contacts with clients you can tag it directly to their profile and organize them accordingly. This way, when you have new requests come in they’ll be accompanied with a warning of sorts to be vigilant with the billing.
When do I sue?
Each state as different requirements for small claims court and you’ll want to research your own state of practice before deciding but in most places small claims court is affordable. With it being affordable, it’s very tempting to run into court for everything and anything but getting a reputation as the interpreter who sues all their clients is probably a worse road than just finding better clients. I would consider that in the two times I’ve had to take legal action, it has been egregiously bad on the side of the client and I’d made countless attempts to aid them in making payment. Most of the time, this isn’t necessary.
Late payment is rare.
Without fail, one of the largest areas of concern for new consulting clients is late payment, which is funny because it’s super rare. In my years practicing, I’ve maybe had 5% of all of my accounts push into a late status. It hardly ever happens, especially when you’re in good communication with clients. For specific legal questions, you should always consult an attorney. Many lawyer friends are more than happy to take a bottle of wine in exchange for drafting up a demand letter.