Any advice from self-employed web designers on how to deal with delinquent clients?
July 10, 2004 7:08 PM   Subscribe

Any advice from self-employed web designers on how to deal with near delinquent clients? (More inside)

A client (and friend) has asked me to develop a personal website for them. The professional relationship between them and myself has been good based on the previous work I have done for them. But this time, they have been avoiding my calls/emails after I have finished the draft and submitted to them. I do not want to escalate this to a level that might force me to argue with them since this project is not worth a lot. But on principle sake, I still want to get paid.

What suggestions do other web designers have? What should I have done different? Are there any good resources out there on how to make preliminary agreements/contracts?
posted by phyrewerx to Work & Money (10 answers total)
Send an invoice, snail-mail, with a tight due date, maybe 30 days. 31 days later, if you haven't received it, FedEx a followup. No snarky note or nothin' -- just the invoice. There's nothing confrontational about it, but it quietly makes the point.
posted by waldo at 7:42 PM on July 10, 2004

If they're a friend, you might want to include a friendly note, I think. "Heyya John, just need to get the business out of the way. Wanna grab a coffee soon?" or something. That way you're separating any invoice-related tension from your friendship, which is a Good Thing.
posted by Jairus at 7:53 PM on July 10, 2004

phyrewerx, how much of an agreement did you have before you did the work? Did you have an estimate or bid? Conditions of acceptance, that kind of thing? Would you be able to write a specific invoice as waldo suggests, or are you in the unfortunate (but all too common) position of having done the work without actually having a firm agreement?
posted by hattifattener at 8:04 PM on July 10, 2004

You guys are way too nice!

As a retail store owner, I take accounts receivables very seriously. Money is the lifeblood of the business. No money moving = No inventory = No sales = No business. I have a yearly contract with the local collections agency. They don't break thumbs, but they do get your money (I believe it averages between 50% - 75% return rate).

Of course, the customers generally like to write the BBB, etc. LOL!

Yeah, you *WILL* lose the customer and friendship that way. That's the point. If they won't pay their bills, you never, ever want them to come to the store ever again. Even Best Buy figured out you gotta fire 'em before they eat you alive.

(Note for you for the future: NEVER do business on account with friends unless you are willing to forgive the entire debt without flinching. Hell, never do business with friends at all, if you can avoid it. That's just the way it goes.)
posted by shepd at 8:07 PM on July 10, 2004

Response by poster: shepd, I think I'm starting to learn that lesson. I wish I learned it sooner.

hattifattener, There was a previous agreed upon price. I think I will be sending an invoice if I don't hear from them on Monday.

Thanks for your help guys!
posted by phyrewerx at 8:48 PM on July 10, 2004

I have a rule about doing business with friends: either expect never to get your money, or set up a strict plan to ensure that you do, and stick to it. The former can lead to awkwardness, but if you genuinely expect that you'll never get your money, you'll be happy either way. The latter creates a framework of a business relationship as the subset of the friendship, and makes it possible to enforce the contract appropriately.

On the few occasions when money has come between me and friends, I've sat the friend down and explained that I was forgiving the debt in whole, and that we should forget that it ever happened. Last time I did this it set me back a grand, but I've still got the friend (who ended up filing for bankruptcy, incidentally).

On the other hand, I once had a long-time friend come to me for a website. Now, I'll do anything for a friend as a friend -- help them move, loan them money, drive them to the airport, water -- except what I do professionally. That's strictly business. I explained this to him, and asked him to sign a contract. He said that he would only sign the contract if the portion specifying payment would be removed. This, he said, was because it was obvious that he would pay. Contracts, of course, exist for the purpose of stating what is obvious, such that there is no question about it down the line. We ended up not doing business, but we remain friends. It's clear to me that things turned out for the best.
posted by waldo at 9:00 PM on July 10, 2004

This happened to me, sort of: I helped to design a website with my friend, for his friend (if you see what I mean). When we finished the project, the guy didn't pay. My friend decided to just ask him about it over IM now and then and hope he'd get paid eventually. The guy moved on to other things and didn't even particularly want the website we'd done any more.

I, on the other hand, turned into my own little collections agency. I harassed the guy every way I could, and at every opportunity.

Guess which wheel got the grease? Guess which one of us is still waiting (clue: it's not me). The only way to get people to pay is to be aggressive. A lot of people are just deadbeats, for some reason. You should send an invoice, and then a few threatening letters, and then take the guy to small claims court.
posted by reklaw at 11:22 PM on July 10, 2004

Always put "Due upon receipt" on your invoices. Be prepared to accept net 30, as a lot of businesses have fixed accounting cycles and you'll get your check no earlier than the next time they mail out checks, but there are always a few who will pay right away.
posted by kindall at 2:52 AM on July 11, 2004

Ugh, that sucks. Good advice here generally, but I think Jairus is off the mark. You've got a business problem, which needs to be solved in a business-like manner. The issue is cloudy right now because of the interference of a personal relationship with the customer, which is what you need to remove from the situation.

You need to decide whether the sum of money is worth pursuing, potentially at the cost of hurt feelings and a damaged friendship. If it is, stick to business, and keep your friendship out of it. Good luck.
posted by mkultra at 7:02 AM on July 11, 2004

Progress billing. You mentioned that the project stalled at the layout phase. When I have creative work that gets hung up at a draft stage, I often issue a partial billing. If I didn't do the complete job, I don't bill for the complete amount. In an accompanying note, I say something like "Since I haven't heard back from you, I am assuming you are just very busy. No problem. I look forward to resuming our work at your earliest convenience - give me a shout when you you are able. Meanwhile, here's an invoice for my work done to date."

There's any number of reasons why your job might have stalled: the friend client doesn't like the work but doesn't know how to deal with that; the client doesn't have the time/motivation/know how to hold up their end of the work that will get the project to the next stage; a personal problem or work deadline may be taking precedence; project priorities may have changed. Sometimes busy clients can simply be unconscious about how much time has elapsed.

Even when the lack or response irritates me, I try to give the person the benefit of the doubt and keep it low-confrontation early on. The progress billing method is not confrontational, and sometimes the billing *reminds* the client and gets the project rolling again. If not, at least I am paid for work done to date. So far, I have never had a payment problem using this approach.

When preseting an estimate, it's good to do so in writing, even if it is just a follow-on e-mail to a verbal discussion. I often ask for payment in thirds, particularly with new clients or on work where I sense potential for project creep or lag. One third on initiation, one third on draft, and one third on completion.

I don't do work for friends too often, but when I do, I sometimes offer them a reduced rate, or I work on a trade basis. If it's a small job and a good friend, I do the work as a favor.
posted by madamjujujive at 9:05 AM on July 11, 2004

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