How to Finally Collect on Unpaid Invoices (with Scripts)

 

If you’re like me, you love the freedom of freelancing – setting your own hours, working from home (or even a local coffee shop), wearing yoga pants all day long.

But Eleanor Roosevelt got it right when she said:

Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility.

One of our biggest responsibilities as freelancers is managing our own cash flow.

Without a thorough process to protect yourself, you could end up working hard for your clients, piling up unpaid invoices, and sometimes getting ripped off.

This is a nightmare scenario. But it’s more common than you might think.

In fact, the Freelancers Union reports:

44% of our members have had issues getting paid. They average over $10,000 in unpaid invoices, or 36 hours of work just to track down each missing payment. (A week of full-time work!)

For a real eye-opener, check out a running total of unpaid invoices over at World’s Longest Invoice.

So why are unpaid invoices such a big issue?

One reason is ineffective labor laws. They tend to provide stronger protection for regular employees, holding offenders criminally liable if they underpay – or don’t pay at all. But they’re more lax for independent contractors. Some scanners decide to risk it.

Throw in the nature of many freelancer arrangements (working in different time zones, countries, and continents) and you can probably see how this can get out of hand.

As freelancers and small business owners, it’s crucial to put processes in place that give us the best chance of getting paid… on time and in full.

Let’s talk about how.

Image credit: OpenClipart-Vectors

4 Ways to Avoid Unpaid Invoices

The best way to stop trying to collect on so many unpaid invoices is to avoid them in the first place.

These four tips will help you get paid on time and in full more often:

1. Research Potential Clients Beforehand

Sometimes you won’t find out that a client won’t (or can’t) pay until it’s too late. To avoid unpaid invoices, look for these red flags up front:

  • Do they mention having a limited budget?
  • Are they a small company with limited resources?
  • Do they question your rates?
  • Are they disorganized from the start?

Noticing these flags alone would have saved me from all of the clients who disappeared with unpaid invoices. In fact, just a quick Google search would have given me enough information to avoid most of them.

If you’re on the fence about accepting a client but need the income, here are a few things you can do to protect yourself:

  • Collect at least 50 percent of your project fee up front – before you begin the project.
  • Schedule milestone payments throughout the duration of the project.
  • Consider working with them on a smaller (trial) project to make sure you can collect before moving on to bigger commitments.

If you’re able to do it, consider working only with established companies who have a good reputation for paying their freelancers on time and in full.

If you do run into a client who won’t pay – and you’ve already done the work – realize that you’re not alone. We all get burned at one time or another, but a little preparation up front can reduce your risk.

Which brings me to the next point…

2. Have a Contract

Many freelancers let the word “contract” scare them away from protecting their time, energy, and creativity.

Don’t let that happen to you!

A contract doesn’t have to be scary, complex, or drawn up by a lawyer. In fact, you can create your own contract here.

Then, make sure your client acknowledges and signs your contract.

If they resist, consider it a “red flag” – you may have unpaid invoices from this client in the future. Try to get 100 percent of your fee upfront if you decide to work with the client anyhow.

Also, keep in mind that a contract doesn’t guarantee you’ll be paid. However, it is a record that the client agreed to pay your fee. This will help substantially if you decide to go to small-claims court or hire a collection agency to recover the money that you’re owed.

3. Be Clear About Your Expectations

You can avoid a lot of unpaid invoices, late payments, and clients who simply don’t pay by outlining your expectations up front.

Some things you should consider discussing are:

  • Your payment terms. When do you expect payment: upon receipt of the completed project, within 7 days, 14 days?
  • What happens if they don’t pay? Do you charge a late fee or send the unpaid invoice to a collection agency?
  • What if they stop the project after work has begun?

Making set policies for these things – and requiring clients to acknowledge them by signing a contract – will do wonders for your cash flow.

4. Be Timely

Your terms may differ, but generally, once the project is completed – and both parties are satisfied – it’s time to turn in your invoice.

The longer you wait, the longer you delay your payment. Plus, you decrease the chance that you’ll be paid at all.

By following the tips above, you’ll greatly reduce your client payment issues…

But what if you already have an unpaid invoice?

Image credit: niekverlaan

5 Steps For Collecting Late or Unpaid Invoices

1. Make Sure You Followed Procedure

Before jumping to conclusions or emailing your client a nasty note, make sure you followed the correct procedures for getting paid.

For instance, double check that you sent the invoice and that your payment terms were clear. Also, make sure your payment address is correct and that your invoice is error-free.

How embarrassing would it be to gripe at a client for an unpaid invoice, only to discover that you never sent it or that your address was wrong?

This can – and does – happen. But it doesn’t have to happen to you!

2. Follow Up Politely

Unpaid invoices sometimes slip through the cracks. Before getting angry, send a polite follow-up note to check in.

Your client might have simply forgot. Or your request for payment could have ended up in their spam folder.

Many times a brief “Just checking in” email can get an unpaid invoice resolved.

At this point, you’ll want to avoid any “past due” remarks to ensure a good working relationship with the client moving forward (assuming their failure to pay was simply a mistake and it’s corrected promptly).

Here’s a simple email script from Fundera you can adapt for your first follow-up:

Email subject: Follow-up on invoice #10237

Message:

Hi, John Doe,

Hope everything is going well.

Just wanted to get in touch with you to see if everything is clear with the invoice #10237 we sent on March 25th 2017.

Could you reply to this message and let me know if you received it?

I am sure you’re quite busy, but I would appreciate if you could take a moment and look at the invoice when you get a chance. Please address any questions you may have.

Thank you!

Jane Doe

And here’s how you might do the same thing over the phone:

Hi, hope everything is going well. [Feel free to talk about personal things to break the ice]. Just wanted to get in touch with you to see if you have any questions on the invoice we sent on [dd/mm]. I am sure you are busy with work, but would much appreciate if you could take a moment to look at the invoice when you get a chance and let us know if you have any questions. Thanks a lot!

3. Send a “Past Due” Reminder

If your initial, polite, follow-up email didn’t result in a paycheck, it’s time to escalate your efforts.

Contact your client again to remind them of your unpaid invoice and your policies. Ideally you had them sign a contract, so now is a good time to mention that. If you also have late fees, state that those are now accumulating.

Be sure to keep all correspondence professional and polite – even if you’re frustrated and feeling ripped off. Threats or nasty behavior are unlikely to get your unpaid invoices revolved. Plus, unprofessional conduct can hurt your business in the long run.

Again from Fundera, here’s how you could do this via email:

Email subject: The invoice #10237 is week overdue

Message:

Hi, John Doe,

Our records tell us we haven’t received payment of $5,400 for invoice #10237, which is overdue by one week now. Probably you’re busy and have overlooked it.

I would appreciate if you could check this out on your end.

If the payment has already been sent, please disregard this notice. And if you can’t find the invoice for some reason, I’ll be pleased to send you a copy of it.

Thanks,

Jane Doe

And here’s a phone script from Nav:

You: I wanted to make sure you received my invoice last month. The payment was due yesterday.

Client: I didn’t get it. When did you send it?

You: I mailed it on the 4th so you should have gotten it that week. It’s invoice #347 for $4,000. I’ll email it to you right now. Does the person@client.com email address work best for you?

Client: That’s fine.

You: Great! When will you be able to mail me a check for this invoice?

4. Follow Up … Again

How many times you follow up – and what you do next – will depend on your previously stated expectations.

For instance, if you consider an invoice to be “late” after 30 days, then you might want to try to follow up for 3-6 months before taking additional action.

Also, ideally your contract stated what you would do in the event of an unpaid invoice.

Maybe your policy is to send any unpaid invoices to a collection agency after six months. Or maybe you prefer to take unpaid invoices to small claims court.

Whatever your procedure – follow up with your client one more time to tell them your next step. Also, give them a date that they can pay by to avoid your next action.

In some situations, it might be necessary to draft and send a “demand letter.”

Note: Be sure to save ALL correspondence with the client. You might need it to help you collect on unpaid invoices later.

Here’s a script of a bit more serious follow-up from Less Accounting:

Dear —-,

I hope you have are enjoying a productive week.

Request: Payment or a phone call today to discuss payment options.

I noticed that your invoice is overdue by 25 days and wanted to reach out to make sure that you received our original invoice and my reminder email on 5/15.

I’m concerned that you may not be aware that your invoice is 25 days overdue to reach out to you immediately before a late fee of X% is added to your outstanding balance.

I have included it here just in case you hadn’t received it or misplaced.

Could you please reply to me via email or call me directly at 800-908-1568 by the end of the day and let me know you received this?

As a reminder we do take payment by CC, direct deposit or with a check.

If you have any questions or concerns regarding the service we provided on 5/1 or on your outstanding balance please call me personally so that I can make sure that you have an excellent experience with us.

As always we are grateful for your support and loyalty.

Warm Regards,

[Your name]

5. Move On …

Remember that your time is precious.

At a certain point, it may no longer be worth your time and energy to try to collect an unpaid invoice. Although it’s unfortunate, there may be times when it’s in your best interest to call it a loss and move on.

If the amount owed is significant, consider getting a third party – such as a collection agency – involved to help you collect what you’re owed.

Many collection agencies charge you only if they’re successful. Their fee is usually a percentage of what they collect.

So, even though you’ll probably get less than you’re owed, you’ll increase your chances of getting part of your fee by involving a professional debt collector.

**** Disclaimer **** This article is not legal advice. Be sure to check the debt collection laws in your individual state.

Get Paid What You’re Owed

Dealing with unpaid invoices is frustrating, draining, and time-consuming. It’s hard to name a more unpleasant part of running a business.

You can’t ensure you’ll avoid them forever. But you can minimize your risk. The key? Getting proactive about protecting yourself.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, protect your business by being selective about the clients you work with, setting expectations up front, using a contract, and sending your invoices in a timely manner.

Your turn – did I leave anything out? How do you go about collecting your unpaid invoices? Leave a comment below and let me know!

About Christina Gillick


Christina Gillick is a Content Marketing Strategist and an award-winning direct-response copywriter. She helps her clients create loyal customers through relationship building copy and content. (She is also the founder of ComfyEarrings.com where she regularly tests her ideas and advice.)

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Kate Swanberg

Such a great article Christina! I know this is geared to freelancers but it happens to anyone in the services industry. At our agency we used to get so many late payments… even in the mail months later. It was a problem on both of our parts, whether we didn’t send the invoice at the “right time” (refer to your timely) or even the way we asked for it (be polite) could determine if we got paid. That’s why I like your part about your “payment terms” –
I would also definitely recommend online payments, some people still like to do it old school but using invoicing tools like Dashable.com or Invoice Machine and of course Bidsketch for making professional proposals could make a huge difference 😉

Jack

Here in Miami (and really South Florida in general) getting paid as an independent contractor is always a major problem, for whatever reason. It’s kinda odd, since Florida has a reputation for being “sue-happy” and everyone taking everyone to small claims court, but everyone I know who does some kind of web consulting work here encounters a lot of trouble getting paid on-time or at all by their clients. Probably needless to say, but this is a pretty timely article for the current situation with my business — When I saw I had a new email I was actually hoping it was a client telling me they had sent payment for an unpaid invoice but saw the title of this article instead. 🙂 (keep smiling…)

I’ve been wondering how to go about reminding a few clients that they need to pay their late invoices, and remind them of the milestones we agreed upon time from the contract — without ruining our otherwise great working relationships with them.

I’m sure I can figure something out, but how do you word a friendly “checking in” message to remind a client that they haven’t paid you? Anything I can think of sounds so confrontational (especially since tone is difficult to discern in emails).

I imagine our clients hearing one word reminding them of “uh, where’s our payment?” and feeling pressured and as if we no longer have a friendly relationship. On the other hand… our agency sort of needs to receive payment for our work to function. Any examples about how to word the first friendly reminder emails to clients to remind them to pay their invoice would be appreciated.

Great article and tips, Christina!

Hewig

To start with:
Can you explain :
They average over $10,000 in unpaid invoices, or 36 hours of work just to track down each missing payment. (A week of full-time work!)”
???
If we in BELGIUM, we can secure between 45-65 € / hour for freelance work, with legal responsabilities, wealready should be happy.

Rick

When I was having problems with a client paying I came across a company online called Zen Cash (zencash.com). I haven’t used them yet so I can’t vouch for the service but I thought it was a really cool concept.

Basically they act as your accounts receiving department and handle all invoicing and follow ups. I think it was only $10/client per month with a minimum of 3 clients.

It could get expensive if you have a lot of clients but it seems great for the freelancer who has a few high value clients.

Just wanted to through out another way to get paid without having to do the annoying follow up yourself.

Rick

Update: I just went back to the zen cash website and things have changed. Now it’s 10 client min at $150 per month. Still a could be good for the right person though.

Chris

I agree with the “just checking on this” type of email — that usually works and normally most clients have just totally let it slip. My invoicing program automatically sends out late notices so i don’t have to worry about it.

Recently i had a run-in with a habitual non-payer. Well they would pay ONLY when they needed me again and usually with much hassle even then. After her current invoice was a month late i sent a note and got a incredulous email back asking why i was invoicing her — and i reminded her that she had sent me 21 emails over the past 4 months with small requests and these all added up to the (very small) time that I invoiced for. This would happen with every invoice — basically acting like she was astonished that I would charge her. After her last email telling me she thought it was too much (1.5 hrs over four months — yeah too much) I not so politely told her to not contact me again.

She won’t pay me I’m sure but the hassle and stress of dealing with someone like that just is not worth it. I am glad to see this only happens with about 1% of clients i run into.

Andrew Burgess

Hi,
What has really worked well for me is following up with a customer just prior to an invoice being due for payment to ensure everything is in order, by having good terms and conditions of trade also makes a big difference, so that when you have to use a collection agency their commission becomes the responsibility of your debtor. Better still is having great clients who pay on time with no hassles.

Nkosinathi

Wow Amazing….Awesome Thank you a lot for your help.Blessings.

Samedi Amba

sometimes I believe in using 3rd party agencies like envato studio and elance. that was, its easy top dispute payment, since the customer pays upfront before the service, and payment is handed to u when done …

Herwig

About 4 years ago, I started avoiding late payments.
My contractual payment term was (and is) 15 days.
If I got payment between 1-2 months, it usually was ‘successful’.
Then I read about the reward-psychology.
I did not change my payment terms. I added a term saying :
When payment is coming in within 5 days after invoice date,
I grant à 2% commercial rebate on the invoice totals, substracted from the following invoice.
SINCE, I have been pays by almost everybody, within 5 days !
Everybody is keen on the “win”.
lol
Practical. Make your price offer. Add 2% on the calculation.
“Give them back” with prompt payment. Or keep it, as late payment fee.
Just, it’s not said like that.
Cheers

Noah @The Non-Accountant

I’ve found that the most important part to getting paid is to have a contract in place before you start the job stating that you will not be sending the final deliverables until you’ve been paid fully.

Also be sure to take an upfront deposit before you start a job (I usually take 50%)

If a client starts making excuses before the job has even started, you know you’ve got a problem.

Alana Jelinek

When making a “collection” phone call to a client, it’s very helpful to call the company, not your client/contact and ask for “accounts payable.” 1. The accounts payable person knows where your invoice is, and if they don’t they’ll track it down and (2) they really do know when you are going to get paid since they process the checks. This also removes your client/contact from the conversation which has many benefits when it comes to what can be an uncomfortable conversation for both you and the client. Easier to stay friends this way. My 2¢ (that I received on time! 🙂

Christina Gillick

Hi everyone,

Thank you so much for your comments and sharing!

@Kate Swanberg – Great points! Invoicing tools have made getting paid so much easier and more efficient.

@Jack – I hope you got that email you were waiting for!

I say something to the effect of, “Hi, I’m just touching base with you regarding project X. I sent my invoice to X on DATE and haven’t heard back. I know that invoices often slip through the cracks – or wind up in spam folders – so I’m just checking to make sure you received it. I’ve attached it again, just in case. Hope all is well with you! Best, Christina”

(It varies depending on our relationship. I like to keep my clients updated during projects so they’re used to receiving “just checking” and “here’s an update” emails from me.)

I also really like Alana Jelinek’s advice (in a comment above) about contacting “accounts payable.”

@Hewig – I’m not 100% sure what you’re asking, but I think the unpaid invoice amount and time spent tracking down the payment are separate. For instance, 3 unpaid invoices may total $10,000 and a freelancer may spend up to 36 hours to track down a missing payment – although that seems very high.

Can anyone else weigh in on this question?

@Rick – Great suggestion! I’m all for outsourcing things like collections.

@Chris – I agree. It has also been my experience that when I “let go” of a less-than-ideal-client, I have room for a better, (often) higher-paying client. Win-win! 🙂

@Andrew Burgess – Great points!

@Nkosinathi – Thank you! 🙂

@Samedi Amba – That’s a great suggestion – especially for freelancers who want to skip “the business side” of freelancing (like invoicing and collecting). With sites like that you may get paid a little less (since they have to take their cut), but you’ll spend less time in admin tasks, allowing you to take on more projects.

@Herwig – LOVE that advice!! Great idea!

@Noah @The Non-Accountant – So true! Contracts and deposits will save you a lot of time and frustration!

@Alana Jelinek – This is wonderful advice! Thank you for commenting!!

Jason @LeanVerticals

Unpaid invoices is mostly due to the fault of your contract. If you’ve got a good contract in place, and if you’ve vetted out your client from the beginning, you’ll be good.

No point taking on crappy clients just because they are paying you. It’ll end up costing you more in the long run managing these clients.

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