Admit it: What entrepreneur hasn't felt like screaming obscenities at a late-paying client?
Who can blame you? In the otherwise nirvana-like world of the homebased business owner, getting paid is probably the biggest hassle of going solo. In the corporate world, whether you complete a project or not, you know you're going to get a check next payday, just like clockwork.
But when you run your own business, completing a project and getting paid for it are two completely different entities. Thirty days, 60 days, even 90 days go by after you submitted your invoice, and still no check. Demonic possession sets in as the weeks roll by.
"It's more of a problem today than it was 10 or 15 years ago," says Bennie Thayer, president and chief executive officer of the National Association for the Self-Employed. "We're becoming a nation of late payers as heavy debts force businesses to pay some bills one month while others are held over to the next."
So how can you speed up the payment process? Here are some strategies that successful entrepreneurs have been using for years to get paid on time:
- Sign a contract. This may seem obvious, but it's critical if you want to set payment terms upfront. Too many small-business owners rely on verbal agreements when taking on work, and that's especially true for nascent homebased business owners, who are so happy to get the work that they don't want to jeopardize things by being too "demanding" of their new clients. That's a big mistake. Get a contract, and make sure it outlines the project and includes a provision of when you'll be paid. If the agreed-upon date passes, call your client and diplomatically point out that the due date for payment has come and gone. Then ask for an overnight delivery of the check if possible.
- Shorten your billing cycles. While most vendors take 30- to 60-plus days to pay up, there's no reason why you can't add a line into your invoice that reads "Payment due within 14 or 21 days," including the specific date. That way, you have reason to call your contact at the client's office sooner rather than later to check on a payment. Once a client hears you say the check is late, that's usually enough to warrant a call to accounting and the likely processing of your check.
- Rethink your invoices. Are your invoices too generic, too safe? While all invoices should include the client contact's name, the order number and the date the bill is due, don't stop there. Add a 5- or 10-percent penalty for late payments. Check and see if the client has a "favored vendors" list and then see if you can get on it. When you do, add your vendor number to the bill. And always list the project that you worked on-some clients simply need their memory jogged.
- Get money upfront. As a writer, I've had good luck getting up to half the project fee paid upfront. Asking for an advance may seem "uncorporate" at first to some clients, but you're operating in a different world than your client. Positioning the request as a good faith gesture is a strong strategy. Chances are, you'll get it if you ask.
- Join a union. Remember, there's always strength in numbers. So even a solo graphic artist or food caterer needn't go into the payment battles alone. Hundreds of unions exist that can help you track down deadbeat clients and get paid. Clients may snicker at a lone business owner, but they don't like facing down unions. Check your local chamber of commerce or log onto the SBA's Web site for more details.
- Hire a bill collector. This is a real last resort. Once you hire a bill collector, the chances are remote that you'll ever work with the client in question again. Then again, if you're payment is seriously late (90 days or more), why would you want to? Collection agencies will garner anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of the payment fee, but at least you won't go home empty-handed. Bonus: The Better Business Bureau tracks late payments through collection agencies and documents them. So your diligence may keep others away from a deadbeat client.
- Small claims court. Okay-a last, LAST resort. For $25, you can take your deadbeat client to small claims court. Payments in question are usually less than $15,000 (check out this site for the limit of what you can sue for in your state), but you don't need a lawyer, the hearings aren't that complicated, and you'll have justice on your side. Check your Yellow Pages under "local government" for help.
Remember, getting paid is how you pay the rent. It's your money, not the clients, and you've got a right to it. Don't be afraid to fight aggressively for what's yours.
Brian O'Connell is a Framingham, Massachusetts-based freelance business writer. His most recent book, B2B.com (Bob Adams Media), is available this September. His earlier books, Generation E: How Young Entrepreneurs are Changing the Corporate Landscape (Entrepreneur Press) and The 401(k) Millionaire (Random House/Villard), are available in bookstores. A frequent contributor to many national business magazines, he can be reached at Bwrite111@aol.com.