So you didn't sign a freelance contract, and now you're having some trouble getting the client to pay.
Forget the "I told you so". That's not going to make you feel any better, and we've all been there. I lost close to $300 from a client once cause I didn't think I needed a contract.
You definitely won't make this mistake again - what you need to know is how to handle the situation now that you're in it. This isn't a post about ways to avoid getting stiffed (but I'll include some of that too), this is a post about what to do if it's happening to you right now. So let's look at a few scenarios:
This is a tough situation for both you and the client. A new company struggling to get it together or an established company suddenly on hard times will look at your invoice and try and run the other way. You don't have a contract in place, so you can't hold them to the line for anything. The best thing you can do in this situation is maintain your composure and your kindness. If you haven't transferred any deliverables to the client yet, don't. Gently let them know you will be happy to send the product over as soon as payment comes in. Then, generously offer to set up a payment plan with them. Let me know you will accept your fee over the course of several weeks or months. If you keep a positive, warm, and caring attitude with the client, the more likely it is that they will feel badly about screwing you over completely and send you money when they can. If you set up a payment plan, make sure that you keep invoicing according to the plan. If the invoices stop, the client might think they are off the hook.
Avoidance Tip: Take a deposit. This eases the burden of one lump sum for the client and ensures you get at least some of the your money before you commit any time.
This one is harder. Without a contract, you don't have any exit strategies in place or any policies set up to deal with revisions or changes. An unhappy client is going to be highly resistant to paying you for something they don't want, regardless of the work you did or the time you spent. The best thing to do in this situation is to offer to fix whatever they think is wrong. Get very specific feedback about what the client doesn't like. And while I'm normally highly opposed to working for no pay, in this case, with no other means of securing payment for the work you've already done, you should offer to make these changes for free. If you are billing a fixed price for the project, one or two opportunities for revision is usually standard practice anyway. You can use this as an opportunity to show off your fantastic customer service skills. Show the client that you genuinely care about making sure their needs are met and hopefully they will give you the chance to keep working and eventually get paid. If you do a great job turning the project around, you might even get some great word of mouth from the job.
Avoidance Tip: Show them mockups, concepts, or sketches before you do any hard coding to make sure everyone is on the same page. Check in and show regular progress so the client isn't blindsided by a final product that's different than their vision.
Oh, by the way, if you want to know more about contracts and how to write them, please go sign up for my free course 3K in 30 Days. 3K in 30 days is perfect for anyone who needs a crash course in getting started as a freelance web developer or designer. If you've ever wanted to know about portfolios, writing SOWs and contracts, finding work then 3K in 30 Days for you. Think of it like Freelancing 101 - It's a really comprehensive, easy to digest 8 day email course, and it's totally free (you can register at the bottom of this page!). It's compiled from both my own experience booking 3K in work my very first month as a freelancer and the best resources available, all in one place.
The disappearing client is a situation that can happen with or without a contract, and proceeding with actual legal advice from a real life lawyer might be your best bet in this situation. But if you want to try on your own first, forget email for now. The best thing you can do is get on the phone. Give the company or individual a call and see who answers - is it a receptionist? If it is, ask to speak to the accounts payable department or with the person who handles invoicing. Regardless of who you get routed to, ask if your invoice has been received and offer to send it again. If you're getting voicemail and no call backs, send the invoice via certified snail mail. If you still don't get a response, send a quick email and mention that you'll be asking your lawyer about how to proceed. Without a contract you may or may not have any legal ground to stand on but the word "lawyer" might be enough to trigger a response from your elusive client.
Avoidance Tip: Take note of your client's response rate. If their responses are slowing down, or they seem more and more disinterested in the project, stop work and try and sort it out before they are gone for good.
If these tips don't work for you, the best you can do is contact a lawyer for some advice. Always be as polite and friendly with your client as possible. There may be times when you can just can't recoup the money, and in that case you should never send them the deliverable. Take this experience as a lesson learned and always work with a contract in place. And always take a deposit! What are some of your experiences?
Photo credit: the bowels of the internet - anyone have any ideas?