Lessons from the Front Line: A Client Makes Excuses About Payment


I wasn’t sure if I wanted to address a recent client experience on my blog but after some more thought, I think it could help readers. So I will.

I started writing short e-books and blog posts for a Canadian marketing company toward the end of 2016. There were a few writing tests and then we proceeded to create these ebooks. I knew that when I started working with them, there were two other writers they also hired. Slowly, I found out I was the only one left.

My own freelance writing process is to offer a flat rate that includes revisions. A vast majority of the assignments I do won’t have any revisions. My past clients don’t take advantage of this policy, but I like to think it reassures new clients about the quality of my work. Once I complete the assignment, I send out an invoice (for smaller clients, I use PayPal).

With this company, we’ll call them CMC, I would send an invoice, if they had any revisions, they’d send them over, and they’d pay the invoice. It went on like this for months.

I had a few problems with this client, though they were minor. For instance, they use too many systems. They sometimes used Microsoft Word, other times Google docs. They wanted to send emails to me through their own email system, which meant I had another email system to check every day. They used Trello, though not very effectively, in addition to all of these. Some changes came by email, others by Trello, and others still in a Google doc. They also loved phone calls, which is something I hate. Almost always phone calls aren’t productive, I don’t get paid for them, and they go on forever. Plus, they treated me like an (unpaid) employee and asked me to do a lot of administrative duties to help turn work in using these systems.

In February, the client asked me to wait until the projects were approved by them before sending the invoice. This should have been a bigger red flag for me, but since they were sending at least three projects every week and paying them promptly, I went along with it. They also wanted me to invoice them in batches (another red flag).

They stopped paying invoices in March. I kept doing work for them for a few weeks and then they disappeared. They wanted extensive revisions that went beyond the word count they asked for and went against the outlines I was supposed to work from. I noted to myself that these were re-writes and I eventually brought it up with them. They agreed, but they still wanted me to change them for free. (Another red flag).

We had a phone call in April. The CEO of this company literally said to me that he loved my work (he even used the word “obvious” with his affection) and that they planned on sending more work in the future. He also said he’d “throw some of the missed payment money at me” while he went through everything else.

A few invoice reminders later, still no payment. Now there were more revisions. Each time an expansion past the agreed upon word count and some excuses about changes that needed to be made. I started to realize that he was stalling. 60 days, no payment (remember, I sent them out after the fact, so it was more like 75+ days since the work was completed). When the editor wanted to set up a phone call to discuss more projects, I was honest with the CEO. I said I didn’t feel comfortable doing more work until the outstanding invoices were paid. He wrote to the editor and said that we were putting the projects on hold until I MOVED FORWARD WITH WHAT I HAD OUTSTANDING. Not that I’d been waiting on him, for you know, months, and it was totally in his court. At this point, I broke it off with him in the professional breakup email I hate to use.

Well, that’s when getting paid became less likely. He kept sending over “revisions” to make the pieces longer and longer. In one, the editor said it wasn’t up to standard, although it was up to standard the previous two revisions (and all of the work). She said…you know, we can’t finalize payment until they are up to our standards. (I started to suspect that as a company they’re having money problems. I have no other ways to explain the stalling tactics.)

I contacted my collections attorney last week. I’ll be honest, I hate using collections attorneys. I’ve only had to 6 times in the past (most in the last 18 months. We call this the Trump effect, where not paying contractors has become accepted). We’ll talk more about that later, but I wanted to put it off. In the state of Florida, you can legally get the money back 20 days after an invoice is sent. Freelance writing is paid upon first draft receipt, not at the completion of endless revisions. I completed two more rounds of revisions for them today, but I’ll likely have to go through legal avenues to get the money back.

After all of this, I have some key takeaways from the experience that might help you not get burned in the future.

Collections Costs Money

I talked to my network of freelance writers about this client, and to my family. I didn’t realize how many of them didn’t know that sending a client to collections costs money and the client relationship, though if they’re not paying you, it’s probably not a relationship you want anyway. My collections attorney keeps 30% of whatever she collects. Although they can start charging late fees and fines when it goes into the legal system, you’ll usually end up with less than what you’re owed. Some freelancers won’t send a single article to collections for this purpose, but I disagree. Unless I can firmly let the client know I’m giving this to another client for payment and they can’t use it (under copyright law, they can’t use it without paying you. You still own the copyright), I put clients in collections.

I am a serious professional. I’ll meet deadlines, give you great client service, and use my graduate degree and ten years of experience to craft you great copy. The least you can do is to pay me for the work I do. You wouldn’t work for free. I don’t, either. Plus, if I let it go, you may not pay the next freelancer you work with. Unacceptable. The only three I let go was Autry Pruitt from Urrepublic, RunnerClick.com, and Dr. Kay Green (though she just vanished outright).

Clarify What Constitutes a Revision

Some clients think a revision includes a rewrite. A revision means that the client feels that you didn’t meet the original instructions, not that the client wants to change direction or have new instructions. This counts as a new project. Make sure you don’t end up in the situation above by clarifying this in the beginning. If I had, I might have saved several hours of my life working for free rewriting these assignments based on new feedback, outlines, and word counts.

Don’t Budge On Your Normal Process

Several times with this client, he asked me to change my process by batch invoicing later and only after he approved them. This was a mistake. I should not have written more assignments without payment for old assignments. I should have explained to him why my process is the way it is. These were all giant red flags that should have signaled to me that something was changing on his end for the worse.

Payment is Due at Draft 1

In my terms and conditions for future clients, it will detail what a revision is and that payment is due after the receipt of the first draft. I’m really easy to find for future revisions, and I’m a pushover for them, as you can see from this story. I want my clients to be happy and most of them are. However, not paying me in a timely manner impacts how my family can pay bills and makes me not trust clients who do this.

Read Through Social Media Reviews

Finally, I should have read through the reviews of this company on Facebook before working for them. Had I done this in advance, I would have had some insight that they’re not the great company I thought they were. Would I have still worked with them? Probably. But I wouldn’t have given them as much leverage or the ability to rack up almost $500 of my time and money.

I don’t mean this to scare any new freelancers away. I just want you to be prepared and have reasonable expectations about the hardships involved in this lifestyle. As I said before, the vast majority of my clients are fine. This is my only current payment issue client and I complete roughly 150 short form articles for different clients a month. In seven years, this company is number six. With these tips, hopefully they’ll be my last trouble client (in terms of timely payment).