As a freelance copywriter you get to do what you love: write. And it's easy to ignore the other part of being a freelancer: getting paid (arguably as important as the ‘writing' component!)
You'd think the hard part is over, right? You found your client, worked closely with them and produced some amazing copy. You invoiced on time, but now… crickets.
The client who had you on speed dial is now nowhere to be seen, but you still need to pay your rent. So what do you do next?
Debt collection. It sounds like a big, scary term full of threats and maybe some men with muscles – but trust me, it's not that bad.
Debt collection shouldn't occur only when you have one client who may or may not have left the country (at least – that's what it can feel like). Debt collection should be part of your weekly business administration. And if it is? You'll be paying your rent with ease.
Here are 5 steps you can integrate into your business to keep the money coming in.
Note: most clients aren't being nasty when they don't pay your invoice. Life gets in the way, perhaps they forget – or they may not have the money right now. It's important to go into this process with no anger attached!
1. Schedule your time and set your limits
I might get a bit repetitive about this, but in order for this to work, you absolutely must be consistent. If you're not consistent, you provide your client with reasons not to pay.
Below is how I generally schedule my time, but set a schedule that you can work with, and lock it in.
- 7 day terms: follow up weekly.
- 14 day terms (or higher, incl 30 days): follow up fortnightly.
These terms should be set in your original project scope – and be displayed on your invoice. That way it's very clear to your client when you expect to be paid.
Keep in mind if you’re working with bigger companies, they may have stricter (and slower) payable processes – so be aware what their payment cycles are like.
What are the repercussions if the client doesn't pay within these times? To begin with, if this is a deposit invoice: you should not begin work until it is paid! There are really no exceptions to that rule.
But what if it's a final or ongoing invoice? There needs to be a repercussion of non-payment. A general first step can be “If invoices aren’t paid within 30 days then I will stop providing my service to the client”. But if you only signed up for a one-off project this can be difficult to implement. In fact, you may decide in future not to provide the final copy until the final invoice is paid. (Have a read of our copywriting brief post for more).
2. Provide one week's grace
A week's grace is an acceptable common courtesy. Personally, I work on 7 day payment terms, but I know for some people that can be particularly hard. An extra week tends to give my well-meaning but easily distracted clients the time to pay without them feeling like I’m breathing down their neck.
3. Start following up
As I said earlier, debt collection isn’t about being threatening – screaming down the phone and demanding money. But it’s not about letting people take advantage of you either! Firm but friendly is the way to go.
On your first call to the client, you should cover the following points:
- Who is the right person to speak to about payment? Is it someone in accounts, or someone in management that needs to approve the invoice first?
- Have I been sending the invoices to the right location, and addressed to the right person?
- Have they even received the invoice in question? (You’ll find a lot of the time the reason a bill is unpaid is because they don’t have it!)
- Are they able to advise the reason for the hold up? (And if so: can you provide them with information that will assist?)
- Finally, when will the invoice be paid? If they can't provide an exact date, ask them to give you a ballpark.
4. Take notes
I take notes with pen and paper on the fly, and then pop them into my accounting system straight after the call. In MYOB you’ll find the notes section in under the Customer Cards, or in Xero the notes section is very handily available in the accounts receivables screen, directly under each invoice and in the customer’s profile. I do love a good bit of forward thinking!
Make sure you have written down:
- The date and time of your call
- The name of who you spoke to
- What was discussed
- The payment date that was agreed on
At this stage, it’s also important to update your records to reflect any new information. Have you been sending your invoices to Sam in accounts when it should really go to Dianne? Fix it up now, so you’ve got it right next time.
5. Follow up!
This is the most important step.
It’s so easy to complete steps 1 – 6, dust your hands and walk off thinking your job is done. Sure, a (probably small) percentage of your clients have paid up… but what about the rest of them?
If your clients give you a specific payment date, add two business days to that date before calling them again.
Keep it firm but friendly. “Hey Dianne! The last time we spoke you mentioned that invoice would be paid on the 20th, but I haven’t seen anything yet. Do you know what’s going on?” Like everything in life – if you treat someone with respect, they’ll treat you with that same respect.
If you didn’t get a specific date last time, give them a call back in a week (or the week of the ballpark they provided you). Let them know you’re checking in, and wondering if they’ve been able to schedule a payment date yet. Ask if there is anything you can assist with, or if there is anything you should know that would speed the process up in the future.
You’d be surprised at the amount of times that last question has uncovered gold: it can be as small as making sure you put a certain reference number on the invoice, to following up with a particular manager to make sure they approve it in a timely manner.
Keep it up! Debt collection only ever works if it’s consistent. Over time you’ll get to know each individual business owner or accountant, and this comes in handy! Some accountants only have to hear my voice once before promising they’ll pay promptly. Remember: always, always be respectful. Keep it friendly and upbeat, even if you're about to stop providing them with your copywriting services.
When will I see results?
Generally, you’ll start seeing results within 2 weeks if you’re doing weekly follow ups, and a month if you’re doing fortnightly follow ups.
Staying on top of your invoices will make a huge difference to your cash flow – and stress levels. Don't forget: you're allowed to chase payment that has been promised! There is absolutely no need to feel apprehensive or afraid.
Experiencing ‘scope creep' in your copywriting projects? Wish you were getting a deposit before you started work? Check out our post on creating your copywriting quote.