This is part of why I started requesting 50% of my fee BEFORE starting work…
I remember reading about this from both Gary Halbert and Dan Kennedy, very early in my copywriting career.
Both had worked with very entrepreneurial clients. And the more entrepreneurial a client is, the less established they are, the more likely they are to flake out. Either intentionally, or unintentionally.
So both developed a three-part strategy early on.
First, it involved NEVER making 100% of your compensation tied to results. The famous rant from Halbert about the 10 reasons a copywriter doesn’t get paid listed ALL 10 as “Client screws it up.”
The second was to always collect a portion of the fee before even starting the project. This helps you cover costs. It assures you have a client that has at least enough money to pay that first fee. And it ensures you’ll never work for NOTHING.
And the third part of this strategy involved making the first half of your fee enough to cover your bills for the entire project. Because if you assume that you’ll never get the second half paid, you won’t starve or be out of a home.
Thankfully, I’ve never had quite this issue. I’ve managed to get in with a class and quality of clients who are happy to pay their copywriters, and happy to pay them well.
That said, I know that’s not true of everyone.
Which leads me to today’s question…
It’s Mailbox Monday, the weekly issue where I answer YOUR questions…
Every Monday’s issue of Breakthrough Marketing Secrets is dedicated to answering your questions. About copywriting, marketing, sales, business-building, freelancing, and more.
If you have a question you’d like me to answer in an upcoming issue, click here.
Here’s today’s question…
My question is about fees. Do you have challenges in respect of having fees paid to you as agreed? Or, in other words, have you experienced clients refusing to pay?
#1 Rule: Get clients who VALUE copywriters…
And if you’re not a copywriter, insert your role here. Does your client value you, beyond this relationship? Do they have a track record of valuing people in your position, in your relationship with the company?
Seriously, the reason I’ve never dealt with this issue all comes down with this. I only work with great clients.
The quality of your life and your business is primarily a function of the company you keep. If you surround yourself with terrible people, expect terrible things.
Of course, if you surround yourself with great people, you’ll have to make sure you play at their level as well. It’s a two-way street, but it solves most problems in this and other trust-related areas.
For more on what makes a great copywriting client, read this article: 9 Criteria of a Perfect Copywriting Client.
Check your beliefs — is this a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Do you expect clients to be dishonest? While you’re not necessarily at fault for everything in your world and life, there is something to be said for the idea of, “As you believe, so it shall be done unto you.”
If you expect dishonest clients, you may be doing things that attract dishonestly into your life.
Likewise, you may be more prone to dishonest behaviors, which makes them feel like they don’t need to treat you well.
If you believe your clients are fundamentally honest, trustworthy, ethical, and above-board people who want win-win-win relationships, and you treat them that way, you’re much more likely to get that behavior from them.
Follow up, assuming a mistake…
This is probably the closest I’ve come to dealing with any problems here.
If I’m not getting paid, I will send a note asking about it.
It will not be accusatory.
It will assume they’ve done all the right things. Or at the very worst, that there was just some mistake.
I will usually offer any help I can provide.
This has happened a fair number of times. And every time, I’ve gotten paid very quickly after the note.
If I had to follow up a couple times, I would. But it has rarely — if ever — come to this.
Do you have a contract?
If you have a contract, the following tips might be useful.
If not, if your business agreement was verbal or “a handshake,” you’re probably better off just moving on.
In this regard, it’s usually beneficial to at least create a record of any and all agreements, even if it’s just an email.
For big agreements, at the very least create a written agreement.
It doesn’t have to written by a lawyer (although it may be helpful if it is, or at least if you REALLY understand what a lawyer-written contract contains).
And it can be in plain language, without all the legalese.
But it should say what work is required, what the compensation is, what any other terms are, and so on.
This way, there’s a paper trail back if any questions come up. (Which can happen, even in the best relationships.)
The BBB could be your friend…
Okay, assuming you’ve followed up kindly, assuming a mistake… Assuming you had a contract… And assuming you gave them a reasonable length of time to pay (at least the terms dictated in the contract)…
It may be time for outside help.
If your clients are businesses, the Better Business Bureau in the U.S., or other similar business organizations can be helpful.
They are meant to arbitrate disputes between businesses and their customers and vendors.
You can file a formal complaint. They’ll reach out on your behalf. There will be a mediation process. And at the end, there’s a (slight) damage to their public reputation, if they don’t work with you for resolution.
This can be enough to light a fire under some businesses, without worse consequences.
Collections is an option…
Assuming you have a good contract and can prove you fulfilled your end of it, there are collections businesses who specializing in getting money out of non-payers.
Sending a business to collections will pretty much destroy any relationship, so it’s a last-ditch effort. But you may be able to recover some of the unpaid fee.
Most collections agencies actually buy the debt. So if you’re owed $10,000, they’ll pay you something like $2,000-$5,000, and you transfer the debt to them. Which means it’s no longer your responsibility. Now the client owes the collections agency, and the collections agency gets whatever they can collect.
Lawyer up, even if you never intend to press charges…
Dan Kennedy once mentioned that he pays a small retainer to his lawyer on the understanding that he’ll probably never use him to press charges.
Rather, Dan could simply write that he sent a copy of any client “threat” letters to his big-name law firm.
When the client read at the bottom of the letter that this copywriter was sending the letter to a recognizable law firm, they were much more likely to pay quickly.
Of course, having any collection requests on file with your law firm won’t hurt, should you ultimately need to take further legal action.
Ultimately, pick your battles…
At some point, you have to ask whether you’re more interested in doing what you do to create value, or dealing with legal cases.
Flagrant abuse might justify action.
But if you have a smaller project with a new client that falls through, and they don’t hold up their end of the deal, how much of your time is it worth to be distracted by that?
Follow the other steps above, sure.
But at some point, you have to choose to move on with your life, to maintain positive and productive focus and momentum.
One of my favorite bands, Tool, spent 13 years between their latest two albums. And a big part of why they reportedly couldn’t find the inspiration to create new art was because of a drawn-out legal case. I can’t speak to all the details, but I can tell you that an all-consuming dispute (whether in the courts or elsewhere) is likely to suck a ton of creative juice out of you. And this should be something you try to avoid unless it’s absolutely necessary.
If someone doesn’t pay me, I’m going to be absolutely pissed. And I will probably do a handful of things to try to collect what I’m owed. But ultimately, as Gary Bencivenga once wrote, “Getting rich is the best revenge.” So I’m going to keep going forward, and use the frustration as fuel for my next success.
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,
PS: Much more about running a freelance copywriting business — and getting paid — in my book, The Copywriter’s Guide to Getting Paid.