The following article is published today at Flying Solo. This one was really painful to write but I knew the subject (non-paying clients) is a common experience for business owners and freelancers that is rarely spoken about – in this way, anyway.
I recently had my first non-paying client as a soloist. And, if I may share, it hurt. As someone who likes to go on about the importance of building great client relationships, this really stung.
I couldn’t just let it ride.
I understand how some soloists manage their finances. Where the question when looking at the pile of bills isn’t “What’s due this week?” but “What can I get away with NOT paying this week?” I’ve been there. When I’ve had slow payers before, all it has taken is a reminder phone call to get my invoice on top of that list and it gets paid within the week.
But that’s not how it panned out this time. I did all the “right” things in the service delivery: clearly negotiated terms and expectations before we began. Checked expectations met on completion. Issued invoice. Followed up by phone, followed up by email, followed up by phone and post, and phone again. I was persistent but polite.
90 days later and my partner laughs when I ask her to check the post office with an earnest “Just in case there’s something there!” In my heart, I realise this one’s not going to pay.
Tapping the wisdom of other soloists
Realising the gently-gently approach wasn’t working, I began scouring the articles and forums here at Flying Solo to see how other soloists handled non-paying clients. But as I read through the advice about taking legal action or engaging a debt collector, something wasn’t sitting right with me.
Sure, my former client may be disrespecting me by not paying her account, but do I want to use an adversarial system I dislike to resolve the issue?
Letting it go
I was determined to find a third way, so I asked my colleagues what they would do in my situation. Their responses not only confirmed I wasn’t alone but pretty much summed up what I’d already done and what I was feeling: Do what you can and then let it go. It was surprising the number of people who shared how the day after they decided to move on, the cheque arrived in the mail.
It’s not about the money
In the end, it’s not really about the money, it’s about fairness, respect and trust. If you negotiate a certain amount of work or an outcome for a certain amount of money, and you deliver, then you will receive said remuneration.
Paying your bills or communicating with a supplier when you are experiencing difficulties shows that you respect them and their business. However, the most important thing when I work with people is trust – as a coach, they tell me their deepest desires and trust that I won’t make fun of them, tell the world or use it to my advantage. In return, I trust they will pay their bill.
Doing business with integrity
I know some people will consider these expectations naïve, but experience tells me otherwise. I’m not in the business of making a buck through dog-eat-dog tactics and squeezing as much as you can from your suppliers and clients. If I’m talking to a client and fairness, respect and trust aren’t important to them, I’m quite happy to say no to their business.
Being clear about my rules of business
So for me, this experience has boiled down to realising that a client who I assumed played by the “new rules of business” was actually old school. There will be no debt collectors or threatening phone calls, just a realisation that I have different rules. I might even be playing a different game.
I’ve learnt the need to check the rules potential clients play by and be much clearer about my own rules before putting time, energy and commitment into working with them.
Oh, and from now on, I’m taking a tip from the oldest profession and getting the money upfront.
This article first appeared in the online community for solo business owners www.flyingsolo.com.au