Freelancers’ Questions: What now a late paying client is finding fault with my work?
Freelancer’s Question: I’m having problems with late payment by a client. This client is on 30-day payment terms for weekly invoices, the last two payments have not yet materialised and are now three and four weeks overdue.
When the first payment became overdue, I started out asking politely every week when I could expect the money to come through, but I kept getting answers like "soon," "when we can, and then “we have a cash-flow issue at the moment."
Eventually, I lost patience and told them that they should not have hired me if they didn't have the money to pay me. That got me an abrupt email saying, "I’ve been told not to worry about paying you since you walked out on the job, and the work was shoddy.".
As you can imagine I was fuming about this. Not once did they mention that they had a problem with the quality of the work. I tried calling them but was told that the person who I needed to speak to was busy and would call me back. That didn’t happen. So I emailed the director of the company and have had an email back repeating that they will pay me when cashflow allows.
What is particularly annoying is that we agreed to a reduction in my normal rate to accommodate the weekly payment arrangement! The unpaid invoices currently total around £2,400. I’m debating whether I should send a 7-day letter before action or consult a legal adviser about taking court action. What would an expert at collecting fees for freelancers advise?
Expert answer: There is naturally a lot of frustration when a client does not pay you on time and the cashflow excuse is one of the most commonly used. But if anything, this old excuse is only likely to anger freelancers even more because of the disproportionate impact this may have on their own personal cash flow.
However, the best advice we can give is to take a deep breath and keep pursuing the balance of what is owed through the normal channels, as politely and professionally as possible - even if accusations about the quality of your work are thrown about.
'Get it in writing, now'
Given the fact that they have already suggested they are withholding payment because the work is not fit for purpose, you should presume they could well use this line again, despite what the director may have said in their recent email. So we would suggest you follow up on the director’s promise to pay, in an effort to ‘firm up’ this agreement -- in writing, coupled with confirmation that the works were completed successfully.
It might not stop them disputing the quality of the work down the line if their payment promises come to nothing, but it will help demonstrate that they had previously agreed to pay in full as soon as their cashflow allows and that quality was not an issue at that time. This can be of critical importance if you are forced to issue a small claim to try and secure payment and the debtor again raises their “dispute”, as it shows that the client accepted the works and provided an unequivocal confirmation of payment.
'By all means, escalate'
Other than that, if you are not satisfied with our suggested course of action and believe that polite reminders and enquiries are not getting you anywhere, by all means, escalate through the accepted channels, including issuing a 7-day 'Letter Before Action' if necessary. As the errant client has made references to a dispute, we suggest you keep copies of any correspondence and responses and avoid making any agreements or providing any additional credit extensions verbally.
You may also wish to consider adding late payment charges to your invoice as you are legally entitled to do so, and insert a clear, prominent explanation that the interest will continue to accrue until the debt is settled. This action might just prod the client into action!
If it does not, then assuming you have followed through on the above methods of chasing payment you should be well-placed to pursue this amount further, either by engaging with a reputable debt collector, or a solicitor, or issuing a legal claim in the County Court to secure the payment owed. Best of luck!
The expert was Adam Home of Safe Collections Ltd, a specialist in debt recovery for unpaid freelancers and self-employed sole traders.
18th November 2019