How to avoid bad clients and non-payers

Leif Kendall


late payment

One of the hardest parts of being a freelance copywriter – or a copywriting agency – is turning all your hard work into hard cash.

For every hundred good clients out there, perhaps one or two will look for ways to wriggle out of their obligation to pay you. This rate may increase as you delve into freelance project platforms like Upwork, where the connection between you and the client is one step removed – and there is greater potential for clients to vanish.

I have heard from many freelancers who have lost money and time because of dodgy clients. And I was also dragged into a case in which freelancers were scammed on Elance by someone using my name. So I know that there are plenty of people out there who want copy, but don’t want to pay the writer.

So what can you do to improve your chances of having a successful relationship with your clients – and getting paid?

Let’s consider some of the red flags that might signify a bad client in waiting – and what steps you can take to insulate yourself against dodgy clients.

1: Beware the hastily composed job offer

Whether you’re receiving a proposal by email or looking at an Upwork listing, the amount of care and attention that someone puts into their brief tells you something about them. It might just be that they’re incredibly busy, and don’t need to provide a detailed brief, but a sloppy brief could also mean they don’t care about the results, because they don’t plan to pay for them.

Good clients paying a fair price for good work will want to provide a clear, complete brief, because they want you to do a great job. If someone values your skills and wants quality work from you, they will take the time to brief you properly.

2: Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo email addresses do not instill confidence

If you get an email from someone using a free, non-domain-specific email address, beware! Of course, perfectly legitimate business-people use these kinds of email addresses, but these are also the digital equivalent of a burner phone – traceless, baseless and disposable. If you get an enquiry from someone using one of these email addresses, just remember that they might be anyone, so examine their credentials.

3: If you use a freelance jobsite or work platform, stick to their rules!

When my identity was used to scam people on Elance, the scammer persuaded copywriters to discuss projects away from Elance. The scammer used Skype chats to communicate. Skype is yet another anonymous platform that is completely untraceable (unless you have a persistent detective).

If you win a gig on a freelance job site, beware any client that wants to take your discussions and exchanges off-platform. What is their motivation for doing so? And who would that benefit?

4: Contracts are king

I’ve recorded a series of interviews with freelancers recently, and one recurring theme is the importance of contracts.

Before you roll your eyes and skip to the next bit, it’s worth stopping and thinking again about using a contract.

Your contract doesn’t need to be fifteen pages of impenetrable legalese. In fact, it should be simple and easy to read. You want your clients to read the contract, because it’s your protection against things going wrong. And while you might think that a contract is a barrier to getting work done, or yet another tedious procedure, preparing a contract could only take 5 minutes, and using one tells your clients that you’re serious, professional, and determined to get paid.

Surprisingly, using a contract may produce a better, more stable client relationship, so don’t think you’re doing your clients a favour by not bothering with paperwork.

Our copywriter resources section includes an excellent sample copywriting contract that you are free to use.

Whether you have a document called a contract or not, any agreement between two entities, which might be arranged by email, or telephone, is still a valid contract. So while it is useful to have an explicit contract stating your terms, conditions, deliverables etc, you are entitled to get paid for work completed without a contract.


5: Deposits and staged payments

You’re not a bank, so you shouldn’t be expected to offer extended credit terms to your clients. The more money your clients owe you, the greater you stand to lose if they fail to pay, so always try to minimise the total value of your unpaid invoices.

Do everything you can do shrink the gap between doing work and getting paid:

  1. Reduce your credit terms. You can dictate your own credit terms – so why not push for 14 or 7 days after invoicing? Some clients will resist – or refuse – such terms, but smaller clients will be more flexible and open to negotiations.
  2. Ask for a deposit before you start work.
  3. On long projects, ask for stage payments.
  4. Try to keep something back until all payments are received. This one might be unfeasible – and certainly unpopular – but if you have regular problems with bad payers, it may be worth the inevitable resistance you would encounter.

6: Never settle for less that you’re owed

Client doesn’t want to pay? Tough. They requested the work, they have to pay for it.

Clients will come up with all kinds of reasons for delaying – or skipping – payments. But no excuse is valid. Payment is not optional. As a copywriter, you deserve to get paid for your work. It doesn’t matter if it only took you a few hours, or days, or if it was easy for you, or if you enjoyed the work; the bottom line is that you deserve to get paid for work done.

So don’t accept any excuses or bargains. If the client offers to pay you half – or 75% – or next year – or any nonsense like that, flatly refuse.

If a client is late paying you, they should really pay you more in lost interest and inconvenience. So never settle for less than you’re owed.

7: Send a debt recovery letter from a solicitor (costs £3.00)

The Thomas Higgins Partnership (solicitors) will send an official letter demanding payment from your creditor. This is called a letter before action, and is effectively a last payment demand before you take the matter to court. In many cases, this will be enough to spur the client into action.

Of course you’re unlikely to work with the recipient of such a letter again, but who would want to?

Do you have any other tips for making sure you get paid? Share your experiences of bad clients and late payers in the comments.

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