7 Freelancer's share the tactics they use to get paid

 

If you’ve experienced the pain of waiting weeks to get paid for work that’s already completed, you’re not alone. A study by the Freelancers Union uncovered some unsettling statistics:

  • 71% of freelancers have experienced client non-payment.

  • 50% of freelancers have trouble getting paid on time.

  • Non-payment costs freelancers an average of $6,390 a year.
     

So why do freelancers have such a tough time getting paid on time? 

We asked seven experienced freelancers about the tactics they use to establish client relationships and get paid on-time more reliably.

 

Tactic #1: Always ask for a deposit

It’s a good idea to always ask for a financial commitment before getting started on a project. You’re providing a professional service and you should get paid for it like a professional.

Asking a client to pay before they have seen your work can feel uncomfortable, (especially for new freelancers) but down payments are a common practice for service businesses. If a client is reluctant to pay a deposit, this may be a sign that they’ll be reluctant to pay future invoices once work is complete.

Squarespace Circle member and web design expert Paige Brunton makes it clear that her time is valuable. She won’t start work without payment by requiring a deposit to book her time.

 

I collect 2 payments from my clients, a 50% deposit to save their place in my design calendar, and a 50% remainder payment once their site is completed and just before we launch it.

If a client wants to lock down their preferred design date in my calendar, they need to put a deposit down to hold it for them and make in unavailable for anyone else. Knowing there’s other potential clients out there looking at the same date encourages them to book in, quick!

— Paige Brunton, Owner of The Paige Studio

 

Taylor Sundali, Co-founder at Compass explains how charging a deposit can also be a valuable tactic for qualifying new clients, especially if they are not from a trusted referral.

 

In qualifying our customers, Compass needs to ensure that they are prepared to make the financial commitment to work with us. There are probably several ways to go about this, but we've chosen to create high hurdle to clear (financially). This better ensures that the customer will be willing an able to make payments down the road.

— Taylor Sundali, Founder of Compass

 

The Takeaway: If you haven’t been paid, don’t start work.

 

Tactic #2: Make it easy for clients to pay

This sounds obvious, but how many times have you been about to buy something online only to be distracted by a hilarious cat gif and never returned to complete your purchase?

Your clients are no different, if they’re busy running their business your email might simply get lost in their inbox or maybe they had to ask an employee to mail a check and forgot to follow up. If you’re providing ongoing value to your clients throughout a project or during a longer retainer period, why not save their payment information on file and save them the headache of adding their info again and avoid the possibility of them forgetting about your invoice. This is also the perfect time to discuss how a retainer agreement could be a great next step. Jennifer Bourn uses this technique to ensure fast on time payments at her design agency, Bourn Creative. She also previously wrote this extensive post about how creating consistent experiences can greatly improve your client relationships.

 

It’s often surprising to others, but most of our clients pay us the same day we send an invoice, some within minutes or only a few hours. For clients with whom we have ongoing retainer agreements for a set service each month, or a set number of hours each month, we set up automatic or recurring payments by credit card, so they pay us on the first of every month just as they would a gym payment or car payment.

The trick to never having a client question an automatic invoice is keeping them in the loop of exactly what you’re doing for them and why it matters.

— Jennifer Bourn, Owner of Bourn Creative

 

Explaining why your work matters can make a client payments a non-decision. Taylor Sundali takes a similar approach to making payments easy for clients.

 

Whenever possible, Compass stores a customer's card on file (via Sail) to make sure we can charge the card again at a later date. This helps us send invoices with a note "this invoice will be automatically charged to card ending in xxxx in 7 days" (or something similar)...

— Taylor Sundali, Founder of Compass

Automatic payments are also so much easier for clients, and in our experience, clients greatly prefer it — remember, they are focused on their running their business, not managing accounts payable. Note that it's important to keep up the communication when using automatic payments, as no one likes a surprise charge. As Jennifer Bourne puts it:

 

We stay in touch with our maintenance and support clients, letting them know when new versions of WordPress are released, when new versions of plugins are released, when security issues arise – and that we’re already handling everything for them. We provide them with key information and remind them that because we have their back, they have to do nothing at all. This interaction keeps us top of mind and reinforces the value we deliver by making their business and life easier.

— Jennifer Bourn, Owner of Bourn Creative

 

The Takeaway: Save credit cards on file and focus on reducing the number of decisions clients have to make before you get paid.

 

Tactic #3: Establish relationships

If you ask any established freelancer where they find most of their clients, most will say referrals. Building relationships with your clients isn’t just about getting paid today but also ensuring you’ll be paid months from now, too. Here’s how establishing a professional relationship early helps Ben Kochavy set an advantageous payment schedule for projects but also increase the value of clients long term:

 

Establishing trust through rapport is the foundation upon which I build my client relationships. Additionally, by positioning myself as a subject matter expert from the earliest stages of the relationship, I can set the structure of the engagement quite effectively without pushback from the client side (the expert is in charge of these kinds of situations). This all works together to facilitate 90% of project value getting paid before the project ends: 50% deposit, 40% at a fixed date set by the project timeline prior to delivery, 10% after delivery. By the time the 10% is due I have shown extreme amounts of value I created, built more trust and usually lined up a future project or a retainer to maintain the project; either way paying the 10% becomes a non-issue to the client because they want to keep the relationship.

— Ben Kochavy, Founder of Inov8

 

Freelance writer and columnist at Inc magazine Kat Boogaard has found that establishing relationships can extend beyond proving mastery of your craft.

 

While this doesn't have to do specifically with accounting, contracts, or numerous follow-up emails (gotta love those), I've found this tactic to be the most helpful when it comes to being paid reliably: When I'm just getting started with a client, I always try to set up a time when we can chat on the phone or via video.

Not only is this great for relationship-building and getting the engagement started on the right foot (you can get so much cleared up voice-to-voice!), but I also find it brings a more personal touch to our time working with one another. We get to make some casual small talk and feel like we actually sort of know one another—which I think is something you can easily miss in emails. It removes a lot of the anonymity from freelancing.

— Kat Boogaard, Freelance Writer

 

The Takeaway: Spend time personally connecting with clients and invest in the relationship for long term success.

 

Tactic #4: Set clear expectations

No one like surprises that hurt their bank account. So whenever you’re starting a new project, it’s a good idea to clearly explain how and when your client will be responsible for paying for your work.

It's important to set expectations in a way that provides value for both you and your client. Some questions you should answer include:

  • When are payments due?
  • What will happen if payment is late?
  • What will happen if work is delivered late?

At Compass, CEO Mike Wilner is usually the first person to talk to prospective clients and start the conversation about the cadence of payments during a project.

 

Customers gain a solid understanding of Compass's payment terms before they convert. During our sales calls, Mike will help them understand the payment cadence that they're agreeing to if they want to work with us. I find that setting these expectations up front, and in a friendly way, is critical for getting paid down the road.

— Taylor Sundali, Founder of Compass

 

Here’s what Jennifer Bourn told us about getting clients on the same page when it comes to invoicing and payment terms:

 

You can’t simply write your payment terms in a contract and assume the client read and understood them.

Before we ever begin a project, we have a frank conversation with clients about what we expect of them and what they can expect of us. This conversation includes when they will be invoiced, when we expect payment of the invoices, and the consequences of delayed payments. Then during our work together, when the project is nearing a milestone tied to an invoice, we remind clients that when we reach “X Milestone,” we’ll send you the next invoice.

This approach ensures that everyone in the project understands when invoicing will occur, when payments need to be made, and what happens if the payments are delayed. It also eliminates monetary surprises and the frustration that usually comes when clients aren’t sure what you’ve been doing and what they are being invoice for — which is often the cause of payment delays.

When clients are crystal clear about the value you deliver, the benefits they enjoy because of your relationship, what they are being invoiced for, and what the payment terms are, they are almost always happy to pay immediately!

— Jennifer Bourn, Owner of Bourn Creative

 

Setting expectations isn't just about telling a client when they need to pay but also about what will happen if they don’t. If you are responsible for providing a professional service, your client is equally responsible for paying for your work. Ben Kochavy clearly communicates the value of his work while gently reminding clients of the consequences of being overdue on a payment. 

 

I make it clear that all invoices are due upon receipt and become delinquent after two business days which means I start charging daily interest on them and the project gets put off until payment. I gently make it clear that if I’m working non-stop on their business, they can find the time to spend 60 seconds to pay an invoice. I discovered this combination of factors quickly eliminates any excuses I used to hear.

— Ben Kochavy, Founder of Inov8

 

The Takeaway: Be transparent about your process and lay everything out ahead of time to avoid nasty surprises later.
 

Tactic #5: Leverage Client Motivation

As a freelancer, you have the opportunity to delight your client by understanding their needs and solving problems they couldn’t fix themselves. You can take advantage of these aha moments by aligning your payment schedule with important milestones in a project.

Paige Brunton has crafted her web design process specifically to provide these opportunities.

 

Once my client has seen their site, given the okay and are all excited to launch, their final payment is due. I launch the site while on a live video call with my client, so while I’m working on launching the site, they’re pulling out their card to pay. Once their payment has gone through, I add them on as a contributor to their site and we launch it together. 

I am currently holding down a 100% on-time payment track record, and it’s all because payments are due at milestones where clients are motivated and ready to move forward!

— Paige Brunton, Owner of The Paige Studio

 

The Takeaway: Identify the points in your projects when clients are most excited and request payment to unlock the next step.
 

Tactic #6: Invoice Clients Regularly

During a project you're hard at work providing value. If you can invoice clients at a regular frequency, paying you will become a habit. Graphic designer and freelance artist Hannah Westerman finds that billing clients on a regular schedule helps avoid cashflow risk and keep client payments rolling in on time.

 

I bill my clients bi-monthly. As a freelancer with an unsteady income, it makes me feel more comfortable to cycle in payments more frequently. I allow my clients a month to pay me once they have received my invoice. The frequency that I bill clients allows me the leniency to give a full month before payment is due. I find that this bi-monthly practice helps keep projects moving forward and my clients focused.

— Hannah Westerman, Freelance Artist & Graphic Designer

 


It's not uncommon for freelance projects to last many months so charging payments at regular milestones can help maintain momentum. Freelance UX designer Hicham Moutahir explains how keeping payments a maximum of 2 weeks apart (preferably every week) makes sure everyone is aligned on the value being provided throughout the project.

 

I bill my projects weekly or at milestones no more than 2 weeks apart because it helps me to get paid for the value that i'm providing to the company rather than the number of hours I sat at my laptop. I used to get paid hourly but hourly rates incentivize you to work slower which doesn't help anyone because you're making less money and value isn't delivered to the client as fast as it could be.

Getting paid weekly also helps me align the scope of work with payments and ensures that the client feels they are receiving the value they paid for.

— Hicham Moutahir, Owner of Shibi Designs

 

The Takeaway: Charging clients as regularly as you can – preferably once a week.


Tactic #7: Always put payment terms in writing

If you’ve implemented all the tips we’ve discussed so far post, 99% of the time you won't need your contract to get paid. But what about the extreme circumstance when a client misses a deadline?

Creative director Dan Mall shared his tactics for getting everyone on the same page when it comes to payments. Dan is the director Philly based design collaborative Superfriendly and author of Pricing Design a great book to help freelancers get paid what they're worth.

 

The first thing that helps me get paid is having a solid agreement in place that establishes what our payment terms are so we're all on the same page. (For reference, I've open-sourced SuperFriendly's agreement so that clients can see if before we do any work and so other agencies and freelancers can use it.) That agreement creates obligation for things I need to do for my clients and things they need to do for me—and, most importantly, what happens if either of us doesn't come through with our obligations. That gives me the liberty to do things like stop work or not assign license if I don't get payment.

Aside from that, I haven't found a way to guarantee that every payment comes in on time. The closest I've seen is work on the things in my power: do the best work my team and I can do, be responsible and responsive partners, and work with clients I trust and enjoy working with.

— Dan Mall, Founder of Superfriendly

 

Payment terms and contracts are your last resort when it comes to getting paid on time. It's easy to send a long contract filled with jargon that a client never reads. However, if you take the time to make your contract readable, your clients will appreciate the effort and better understand the nature of the relationship. Sending professional looking documents can also increase your credibility and help build trust with new clients.


The Takeaway: Always put enforceable payment terms in writing.

 

The Takeaways

Building meaningful relationships with clients and handling payments professionally is the best way to get paid on time as a freelancer. 

Here are the takeaways:

  1. If you haven’t been paid, don’t start work.
     

  2. Save credit cards on file and focus on reducing the number of decisions clients have to make before you get paid.
     

  3. Spend time personally connecting with clients and invest in the relationship for long term success.
     

  4. Be transparent about your process and lay everything out ahead of time to avoid nasty surprises later.
     

  5. Identify the points in your projects when clients are most excited and request payment to unlock the next step.
     

  6. Charge clients as regularly as you can – preferably once a week.
     

  7. Always put enforceable payment terms in writing.

 

What You Should Do Now

There are still millions of freelancers struggling to get paid on time, if you have a strategy that works for you, we'd love to hear it. Just leave a comment below and share your tactics.

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Stuart Balcombe