How to make sure you get paid by clients

You've put in the hours, worked hard and delivered a successful project to your client. You should be celebrating another job well done – but, there's a problem? You've still not been paid. Chasing payment for completed projects is probably the least enjoyable experience for any freelancer or small business owner.

But it's essential to keep a good cash flow and ensure you're financially compensated for the work carried out. There are many ways to make sure you get paid by clients and here are just a few tips and tricks to help...

Establish your payment terms

Before any client relationship begins, make it crystal clear how you wish to be paid. That's whether you require 'staged' payments, deposits or retainer fees. Asking for deposits upfront is actually a sensible option as it acts as a safety net should anything go wrong. Deposits are also a good sign that your client is serious and reliable. It's an added reassurance that you'll get paid for the full amount in future.

Consider timescales

Every business has its own timescales when it comes to payment, the standard being 30 days. Ensure your client is aware of your own terms at the start of every project and reiterate your payment terms on every invoice you issue. As a business, you are within your rights to set your own deadline for payment, that's whether you want immediate payment or within 30 days, it's your call.

Put everything in writing

To be absolutely sure that your client respects your payment terms, put everything in writing before work commences. Contracts offer that added protection and can be referred back to at any time. They also give you that extra weight if things should turn ugly.

Send statements

As soon as your payment terms timescale runs out, send a 'statement' with some clear text indicating that 'payment is now overdue'. Send another statement if you've still not received payment after a week, repeating clearly that payment is late. Sometimes, clients just need a gentle reminder and statements can do the trick without being too pushy.

Be pro-active

You are within your rights to be paid on time, so be proactive and start contacting your client every other day, requesting payment if none of the above has worked. You want to be friendly not pushy, so make sure you get your tone right in any written correspondence. For example, you could write "Hi there, I'm just going through my invoices and noticed the attached is outstanding. Here it is again, just in case you haven't got it. Any problems, just give me a shout". At this stage, you want to keep things really light. Remember, your client might have innocently forgotten or might be ill or even on holiday. Even so, stay 'on the ball' and know when to start chasing for payment.

Pick up the phone

Sometimes, a phone call is all you need to ensure you get paid. Pick up the phone and call your client. Keep things light and friendly. Say you're having an "admin day and just calling round to collect payment". It's sometimes better to chat as you'll be able to determine whether the client has just been busy and has forgotten to pay or whether they're having their own cash flow struggles. By talking to your client, you could even suggest a 'payment plan', i.e. getting them to pay whatever they can afford over several months.

Don't be apologetic

You've done the work, done a good job and you've still not been paid for it. So why are you saying "sorry to bother you but..." to clients who haven't yet paid? Be firm but fair, and remember that the client should be saying sorry to you for not paying on time. Never ever be apologetic for chasing payment.

Get organised

Sometimes it's hard to keep on top of paperwork when you're running a business. More often than not, you'll forget when your own invoices are due for payment, so get organised! Stay on top of your invoicing and make sure you know when payments are due. If you're organised and 'on the ball', your clients are more likely to pay you on time.

Hire in some help

It isn't easy chasing payments from clients. None of us like to tackle difficult conversations or emails, especially when it comes to money. So hire someone else to do it for you! By having someone completely focused on your accounts, you'll not only have peace of mind, you'll have that neutral spokesperson for your business that gives you extra credibility. It can also send out a clear message that you mean business, so clients are less likely to muck you around.

Use online tools

If you can't afford to hire someone to do your payment chasing, then use some handy online accountancy tools like Freeagentcentral.com. We use this for our own business and find it especially helpful to send out automated reminders for payment. It's also great for staying organised and keeping on top of who owes you what. There are lots of other online tools out there, so do some research and find one that works best for you.

Charge interest

Did you know you have a statutory right to claim interest on late payments? Rates for calculating interest are known as 'reference rates' and are fixed for six-month periods based on The Bank of England base rate. To calculate the interest payment on overdue bills you take the relevant reference rate and add 8 per cent. Read this helpful article by Business Link on how to charge interest on late payments.

Last straw

If you've tried all of the above and you still haven't been paid for your work or the client is clearly avoiding you, then consider hiring a solicitor or debt collector to take things further. These legal professionals usually take a percentage of the debt they help to recover, so it's definitely worth considering if you're owed a lot of money. The absolute worst case scenario is that you end up in court. But it doesn't usually come to that. Things normally get resolved outside of court.

Tread carefully

Speaking to other freelancers in the past, some have recounted stories of 'taking websites down' or reclaiming back work that the client no longer has access to. Although this might seem like a good idea, tread carefully. The client could end up taking you to court over losses and damages to their own business. Just be aware that everything isn't so black and white.

If nothing else works...

If you find yourself chasing payments more often than you should, consider making your terms very strict by demanding payment upfront. This means you don't begin any work until payment has been made. Many businesses will feel uncomfortable about this, so offer to put things in writing. And if you're on a retainer? Your terms should clearly state that payment is to be made upfront at the start of every month and if payment is late or not made, then work will not commence. It's then up to the client to ensure they pay on time.