Collecting a very late payment from an unhappy ex-client
July 29, 2013 9:33 AM   Subscribe

A client who fired me for slow turnaround time owes me $687.50. She hasn't been in touch since I sent her an invoice two months ago and I suspect has no inclination to pay me at all. I provided services and expect to be paid. How should I proceed?

I did about 10 hours of website work for a client. The client wasn't happy with my turnaround time (I was having personal problems, i.e. my engagement ending, and sadly it spilled over into my professional life) and ended up firing me. This is understandable.

That said, I did provide services, and this client has an outstanding invoice of $687.50. I sent her the invoice more than two months ago (with a net 30 due date) and never heard back.

If she had written me when I sent the invoice and asked for a discount because she was unhappy with my services I would have given her 10-30% off. Now that it's been this long I have no interest whatsoever in giving her a discount. I don't think she has any intention of paying me.

How should I proceed? I want payment, and I would like to avoid small claims court (more trouble and likely more cost than it's worth).

Thanks in advance.
posted by seesaw to Work & Money (14 answers total)
I want payment, and I would like to avoid small claims court (more trouble and likely more cost than it's worth).

Your situation is why we have small claims courts. If you're taking that off the table, what possible incentive does your former client have to pay you? Badmouthing her won't do anything (and will likely backfire, as she'll just retaliate by spreading the word about how bad your work was).

Talk to your local small claims court and see what the effort and cost investments would be, then figure out whether it's actually more than it's worth. If it is, write it off as $687.50 worth of experience in website work and learning how to keep your personal and professional lives separate.
posted by Etrigan at 9:37 AM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would start sending invoices, or statements with outstanding balance, weekly.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:38 AM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Write another invoice. If that gets no response, get a lawyer to write a letter to accompany your next invoice. Finally, take client to small claims court.

In that order, more or less.
posted by wrok at 9:38 AM on July 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

You're not inclined to give her a discount, but this amount of money is already low even for small claims court. It's not unusual to do something like offering a 50% settlement. I would send a couple more invoices, first, though. Two months between contact implies you don't care enough about the money to be actively collecting it; if you don't care that much, she's not gonna feel like there's much risk of it going further.
posted by Sequence at 9:41 AM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's a sample letter and advice. You can decide how many more invoices you want to send before threatening small claims court, but at some point you will need to. That doesn't mean you actually have to follow through with the threat.

Another issue is whether you care what she thinks of you. It doesn't sound like there's any chance of future work, but if you are in a small industry/area, you might not want to risk angering her to the point that she would start complaining to others about you.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 9:43 AM on July 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Have you called to talk to her?

I know you're probably embarrassed and want to avoid confrontation. What's the worst that could happen if you call her up and discuss it with her?

I find that when you actually speak to someone, it's harder for them to discount you and your claims. Also, your lateness may have made your contribution irrelevant, you may have cost her more money than you're owed. You don't know.

So call. Start off with, "This is Seesaw, I wanted to discuss the outstanding invoice with you. I know that you were disappointed with the time-frame that the services were delivered within, and I wanted to work with you to obtain payment for the services that I performed for you."

Then listen, without offering excuses or being defensive. "I understand that the work was late, and I'm willing to work with you, but I do need to be paid for the work that I did complete."

You may still need to come to an arrangement on the price, offering a goodwill discount. If you can't, then you'll need to go to Small Claims court OR write it off.

There's nothing you can do, via letter, that's going to magically MAKE her pay you.

You need to recognize that she feels that you failed to perform in a major way, she may have been injured by your failure to perform. But you'll never know unless you open a dialog.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:53 AM on July 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

That said, I did provide services

Did you?

If she contracted with you to have those services in a specific timeframe, it's quite possible that her contract wasn't just "Services" but "Services by X Time". Thus, if you didn't get it done by then, she might well feel entitled not to pay you, as she didn't receive the services she actually wanted to pay for.
posted by corb at 9:55 AM on July 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

When this happens to me, I first do social media shaming (I don't name the guilty party, I just post something about how hard it is to be a freelancer with a client who won't pay.) That usually gets the person's attention (I do FB, Twitter and LinkedIn.) Then I email them, reminding them that my invoice has not been paid, I'd appreciate payment asap. Then, if nothing else, I call same story, and remind them that Small Claims Court will be next. (Even if you win in Small Claims, there's no guarantee that you'll collect, though.) Then, I go back to social media and start naming names.

I've not had to get lawyers involved, but I work in a fairly small universe and few want to be shamed in public.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:04 AM on July 29, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far. To address a few questions:

1) No, I'm not concerned about what she thinks of me. My industry isn't particularly small in my city.

2) While we discussed a rough timeline, there was no set due date throughout this project. The client had a website which was more than ten years old, and I was helping her clean up her mistakes as she built a new Wordpress site. Prior to this, I met with her several times over the course of a year before she decided to do business with me. I also provided un-charged-for consultation at the start of the project (this woman is a keen businessperson and knew how to get free consults like a pro) and on-call phone service (not usually a part of my offerings).

3) I'm not sure if this is relevant information, but I got this client through my ex-fiancé. Not only did she fire me after all of this (the last straw for her was that the DNS wasn't propagating fast enough once the website was done, oy), she also fired my ex-fiancé's tech support company because he had recommended me. While she was within her rights to do so, she had no problem setting the barn on fire because of one problem cow. I suspect that this is making me extra frustrated. Possibly not relevant, but.

4) I have pretty severe anxiety but I suspect a phone call may be what is needed. Sigh.
posted by seesaw at 10:11 AM on July 29, 2013

Best answer: Even with your clarification, there are two very different possible scenarios here.

(1) The client ended up using your work, or abandoned the whole project for other reasons, so your lateness is an excuse for them not to pay.

(2) The client used someone else because you were too slow and they had a legit deadline.

If it's the latter, I would let it go, personally. There is the gray area of whether the client had told you that they were taking you off the project before you did all that work, however, I would let it go simply because I wouldn't want to be in my client's shoes and pay twice for the same project.

If it's the former - which it sounds like, seeing as your client took a whole year to decide to go ahead at all, and squeezed a lot of free consults out of you in the process - I would definitely go the small claims court route.

A few tips/thoughts:

(1) With any legal proceedings, you have to determine whether there is money to go after. Do you know your client's situation? Will you be going after an LLC, an individual, etc? No money = waste of time.

(2) The small claims court tends to be very sympathetic to freelancers who haven't been paid. This has been my personal experience, as well others that I know of. Be prepared to show proof of work done.

(3) In your last attempt to collect, set a deadline. Inform the client that if the payment is not made before the deadline, you will be charging her hourly whenever you have to forego paid client work in lie of working on collecting the payment from her (including the time at the small claims court). This will be on top of what she owes you.

(4) Think of other people within the company to call or send your collection letter to. Is there a legal department or an accountant?

(5) I have to disagree with the one poster who said that it's hard to collect in small claims court. They can force your client's bank to pay you.
posted by rada at 10:49 AM on July 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have a hard time imagining a arrangement where 10 hours of freelance work could possibly fall outside of a reasonable turnaround time unless you only did like one hour per week or something. Bug her for full payment, no discount.
posted by rhizome at 11:00 AM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Send a "past-due-remit immediately-due 10 business days" invoice via Certified Mail.This requires the recipient sign for the letter. You can also add a Return Receipt Requested service to this. All of this will negate any pleas of "I never got the bill" if/when this goes to small claims court.

If they still do not pay, Small Claims Court is your next step.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:01 AM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm fairly certain that small claims courts and their method of getting you your money varies between jurisdictions. So, really can't tell you what kind of a pain it'll be without that info.

If you go small claims, you'll need to show a contract or written proposals/acceptance by the client that shows you've behaved as you have said you would under the rules you two established. So put your "case" together before you go and file.

However, you need more info. Call your client and discuss the situation. Put all the other details aside, and focus on the invoice, the work you've done and simply opening up communication. It's not clear to me that you really know what she's thinking or why she hasn't paid.

So, start by inquiring and then listen. Maybe you give her a discount and resend your invoice? If these tactics fail, you should start by suggesting that you'll be forced to take her to small claims court or send her bill to a collection agency if you don't receive full payment in 15 days.

First, communicate. Next, insinuate. Last, adjudicate.
posted by amanda at 7:00 PM on July 29, 2013

This is why anxiety and freelance aren't a good combination. I have probably written off hundreds of dollars of work because I didn't want to have the awkward phone call with not completely satisfied customers. Now, I don't do it at all. Either I work for my friends as a favor, or I don't do the work.

If you are intent on collecting, don't reduce your charge at all. Instead, send the warnings and final warnings as described above and take it to court. Do not reward late-pays with lower fees. It should be more expensive for them to wait than not to wait.

But if you don't have a written contract, I wouldn't bet on winning the case.
posted by gjc at 7:24 PM on July 29, 2013

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