How can I be more clear in letting my clients know that they still owe me money?
January 16, 2010 9:40 PM   Subscribe

How can I be more clear in letting my clients know that they still owe me money?

I work as a private tutor. Due to some problems in the past with students not showing up, I have a very strict cancellation policy. I make sure all students read it and are aware of it before making an appointment with me. Basically, unless a person is on their deathbed, if they don't show for the appointment (or don't give me 24 hours notice to cancel), they owe me for the missed tutoring session. Occasionally, I have students who email me something like:

"Hey, sorry about missing the appointment, I ended up going out of town and completely forgot about it"


"I woke up not feeling well and I won't be able to make it to our appointment today."

Basically, they apologize and explain why they won't be able to come. I usually reply with something along the lines of "Alright, no problem. See you at our next appointment." The problem is, I think some students take the "no problem" to implicitly mean "it's not a big deal that you missed the hour, so we can let the fee slide this time." And that's really not what I mean.

How can I be more direct (without being impolite or overly assertive) in saying "thanks for letting me know, however I still have to charge you for the missed session"
posted by Proginoskes to Work & Money (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: "Thanks for letting me know, however I still have to charge you for the missed session."

That's exactly what you need to say. It's not rude to expect that someone will meet their financial obligation.
posted by 26.2 at 9:55 PM on January 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

I think you're unlikely to retain these students as clients if you charge them for missing one appointment. If you intend to charge them, telling them that their missed appointment is 'no problem' is indeed the wrong way to go about it. The middle ground is that you can tell them that next time you're going to have to charge them if they flake.
posted by foodgeek at 9:56 PM on January 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yup, if you say "No problem" they will believe you that it is not a problem.

So, you could go the good ole tried and true direct route (duh) and say "Okay, I hope you feel better/have fun/hope grandma doesn't kick it/understand schedule mix ups/yadda yadda. Thanks for letting me know. I do have a 24 hour cancellation policy and will have to charge you for the missed session."

See. easy.

Or you could go the cut-some-slack-and still-assert-yourself route. "Okay, thanks for letting me know. Since this is the first time this has happened, I won't charge you for the appointment. I do have a 24 hour cancellation policy and in the future will have to charge you for the session."

See. easy.
posted by space_cookie at 9:59 PM on January 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just send invoices, with no personal message attached. Do them up to look professional and non-accusatory. You're providing a service -- BILL them.
posted by hermitosis at 10:02 PM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yes, what 26.2 said.
I'm a therapist and I'm sometimes faced with the same issue. When I get a late cancellation, I reply something like, "Thanks for your message. However, as you know, with less than 24 hours notice, I'll still have to charge you for the session." I try to avoid words like "unfortunately" or "I'm sorry, but..." On the other hand, at the end I always add something like, "Hope you're feeling better" or simply "Looking forward to seeing you next week."
posted by Paris Elk at 10:05 PM on January 16, 2010

I vote for the 2nd space_cookie method. One freebie for the first miss (per client) and then a hard line.

I was the client who missed, and when my service provider nicely said, "By the way, technically you owe for the no-show, but I'll give you a pass... this one time," I was eternally grateful, because I knew I was the one at fault... but by not rubbing my nose in it, I have been more diligent ever after (which of course is the true goal, right? Getting people to show up when they say they will and respect your time).
posted by pineapple at 10:08 PM on January 16, 2010 [5 favorites]

I recommend that you compose a stock letter/invoice for these situations. All you need to say is:

Dear (parents),

As you know, I have a strict cancellation policy of (insert policy). Regrettably (Precious Darling) missed their appointment on (date). As per my stated policy, the fee for this missed appointment is (amount). (pleasantly worded sentence about how pleased you are with Precious Darling's progress and why it's a BAD THING for them to just cancel on you). I look forward to our continued progress in (subject).


posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:10 PM on January 16, 2010

I don't think you should go to the parents. If they're the ones footing the bills, it won't teach Junior not to cancel on you next time. Unless the parents make a big deal to Junior about it, but I also think this may just end up alienating Junior.

I'm going to nth the people who say warn them the first time, and the second time send the formal-but-polite "I'm charging you" letter. I would also suggest not tutoring them until they pay the fee, and letting the parents know of your decision if it comes to that, since it'll effect Junior's education and what-not.

The reason I don't think you should charge the fee at the first missed appointment is that I tend to be off-put by therapists who tell me, "Blah blah FEE blah blah," when something goes wrong. YMMV if tutoring is more businessy and less "pretend you're not paying me to be here", but when my therapist did that it was a sharp reminder that "Oh hey, this person wouldn't really be helping me if I wasn't paying them," and it made future sessions a little difficult.
posted by biochemist at 10:22 PM on January 16, 2010

There's a lot of advice for you here on what to say. I guess the only thing I could add is this:

Conceptually, what you're looking to do, really, is to use something to detach yourself and your closeness to them from the rule. Talk about it like it's not your rule, but some rule that an invisible boss made - you can even be really sorry about the rule, and not happy that it might seem unfair, but it's just the rule. What you want to do is present the rule as something that you have no control over in this situation, so you can't let it slide. It's not always the best thing to say directly, but it is even possible to say: "Oh, it's okay that you missed. The rule is that I still have to charge you - I'm sorry if that's tough, but it's the rule. But aside from that, we can certainly start next week where we left off; don't worry." I've found that it's really helpful to talk about "the rule" and detach it from yourself, because otherwise an association forms, and it seems almost personal for them when you refuse to abrogate it - at the very least, it invites them to imagine that you could not charge them if you really wanted to. Whereas, really, it is "the rule" - you know that you couldn't change it for one person.

You are also free, incidentally, to trot out the 'it wouldn't be fair to anybody else if I let it slide' speech if you want to. I can understand not wanting to, but it's always an option.
posted by koeselitz at 10:29 PM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't tell if you're trying to get money from people that you've already said "no problem" to, or if you're worried about how to handle this in the future. If it's the first situation, that might be a bit more difficult. When someone cancels on you and you say "no problem" they are likely to think that literally means no problem - it's fine, and the conversation is over; you won't be asking them for a fee for the missed session. You might have a harder time asking people for your fee (which you deserve as per your cancellation policy) if you've already told them it wasn't a problem for them to miss the session. I'm not saying that you shouldn't ask for your money, but in the future I'd steer clear from saying things like "oh it's not a problem" and start saying what 26.2 said, (but with a semicolon instead of a comma because I am a stickler for that particular style). You might want to flesh it out a bit:

"Thank you for letting me know that you will miss your appointment. As per my cancellation policy, I will have to charge you for the missed session. I require 24 hours notice for any cancellations." (Reminding them of the policy again might not hurt.)

I also like the idea of allowing one "freebie" if you feel like that's the right thing to do. Be sure to let them know it's a freebie, though:

"Thank you for letting me know that you will miss your appointment today. While I require 24 hours notice for any cancellations, I am willing to waive your usual fee in this case because it is your first same-day cancellation. Please be aware that this policy will apply for all future same-day cancellations, and your normal fee of $__ will be owed in these cases."

Problem with giving a freebie is that it could be hard to keep track of depending on how many clients you have. Plus, it makes people feel like "Hey, why not just cancel the same day sometime later on? Proginoskes was so cool about it last time." If you want to stop same-day cancellations, offering a freebie for the first offense practically guarantees that a lot of those people will do it again in the future.
posted by k8lin at 11:09 PM on January 16, 2010

I really feel for you, Proginoskes, and it is stuff like this that turned me away from private lessons - just too much hassle and not enough stability.

I would like to offer you a not "strictly solve your problem" answer, but an alternative system that avoids this issue altogether.

Do a lesson or two "taster" when starting a new student, in which the client pays immediately after. Once they agree that yes, this is useful and they want to continue, they then have to pay up front for a block of lessons - a month, ten lessons, whatever. In the details of the contract, lessons that are missed without 24 hour notice count as provided. You could also put in something about moving lessons that can't be attended, by mutual agreement, if arranged at least 48 hours in advance.

Missing a lesson is almost always a sign of flagging interest, and I would rather have flakey students locked in for enough time that I have a heads up that they will be done with me soon.

People who can't pay up front for at least a short time into the future are flakes who you cannot rely on for steady future income anyways.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:12 PM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, there's a big difference between "Hey I went out of town and just forgot to tell you" and "I'm sick so I can't be there today". You can use your personal discretion in allowing the fee to slide the first time (or any time thereafter) depending on the nature of the "offense," in my opinion. Someone who forgets to tell you that they went out of town is being irresponsible and isn't really valuing your time in the same way as someone who calls ahead of time because they are feeling ill.
posted by k8lin at 11:15 PM on January 16, 2010

You could offer a 10% discount for paying for 10 lessons in advance - and agreeing on the dates in advance.

That way if someone doesn't turn up, you'd already have their money so (a) you won't have to chase them for it and (b) they won't have the feeling of handing over money and getting nothing in return.

To prevent yourself from taking a 10% pay cut, you could increase your per-lesson price by 11.1% at the same time as introducing the discount.
posted by Mike1024 at 2:45 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the great responses. I should clarify - I tutor university students and have no contact with parents. In the past, I tried being less strict about cancellation or missing a session and my experience was that students just plain lied (many of their friends let it slip that they really hadn't been sick at all). So, while I appreciate the suggestions of letting people have a freebie or not being so strict, I find that too many people abuse that system to make it a possibility. I do let it slide for people who have a funeral to attend or for more serious medical issues.
posted by Proginoskes at 6:24 AM on January 17, 2010

Send the response of your choice reiterating "the rule," and reminding them at the next session after the missed one, they are required to pay up front: the regular fee plus your choice of 1) the entire fee for the missed session; 2) a percentage of the fee for the missed session. Something like that?
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 8:04 AM on January 17, 2010

Nthing the idea of having your students pay in advance for a block of lessons. I'm a private flute teacher and I have my students pay me for a month in advance. If they miss a lesson without adequate advance notice (or a REALLY good excuse), they forfeit the payment for that lesson. This policy has helped the parents who are footing the bill get more involved in being sure their kids practice, too~!
posted by rhartong at 8:34 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

As a parent who has dealt with private lessons for my kids, I also don't like all the discussions where personal crosses over into professional/payment stuff. I really preferred a bill. Our tutor billed a month in advance, then the next month had credits/debits for any additional materials that we bought from her and any missed lessons that we couldn't reschedule during the past month.

The cancellation policy was printed on the bottom of each month's bill.

It required the tutor to keep really good records, but you know, legally for taxes and stuff, you're supposed to be doing that anyway.
posted by CathyG at 11:48 AM on January 18, 2010

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