Client ran off with your project without making the final payment?
Updated: Oct 17, 2022
What can you do when a client doesn't pay? Maybe the client doesn't respond at all and is simply ghosting you.
Maybe they make one payment, but not the rest.
Maybe they took your 90% completed deliverable, declare it good enough and refuse to pay any further payments on their payment plan.
Do you take it personally or shrug it off as the cost of doing business? While there are no simple answers, here are a few tips to help get through this difficult situation.
You're probably feeling pretty angry, frustrated, and stressed.
Don't worry, we'll help you get it back!
Small business owners, always check your contract first
If you have a SIGNED contract, then we have a great starting point to see what options are available to you for late fees, admin fees, the rules for resolving the dispute, how long you may have to wait before getting a small business lawyer or the court system involved.
If you don't have a single signed document, you may still have a contract. Especially between businesses, emails and invoices can create a messy web of contract terms that can be seen as a whole contract. But its messy!
Contracts, especially informal ones like a bunch of emails back and forth, can be tricky so be sure you fully understand it by doing the next step.
Call your lawyer (preferably a small business & IP lawyer) at some law firm
Most folks would say call your client before you call your lawyer. But let me paint you a picture.
Pam Photographer reads over her contract that she borrowed from a friend and thinks she can now threaten her No-Pay Nancy with a hefty 20% late fee to convince her to pay. Pam Photographer picks up the phone, angry and hurt that someone wouldn't pay for her time and skills, despite getting a boat load of digitals on a rush order in time for Christmas cards to go out. Nancy answers the phone and Pam tells her that Nancy has to pay now and the amount is even higher because of the late fee (which is illegally high btw, but Pam doesnt know that). Now super irritated, Nancy tells Pam she doesn't like any of the digitals Pam sent her and not only will be not making the final payment, but she will call her bank and request a chargeback for the previous payments.
Not only did Pam not get the final payment, but she may have lost all the previous payments from that client.
So let's talk about how calling the right lawyer will help you determine a few things.
First, its going to help you calm down. Most business attorneys know they are a bit of a therapist for clients and the ones that charge by the hour will let you go on and on cuz it rakes up the bill they send you later. Fortunately for InLine's Chief Legal Officer retainer clients, each program is a flat fee, so there's no ever-increasing fee on the meter.
Second, calling your business attorney will help you see what options your contract has to resolve this so you don't accidentally breach your own contract or break the law (hello crazy high late fee!). Plus your lawyer can help you role-play how the conversation with No Pay Nancy is going to go.
**If your name is Nancy, sorry. I just like the alliteration.
Third, if your contract is weak for this particular fight and you don't have much to fall back on, you know you'll be bluffing if things get ugly and that it's time to go strengthen your contract.
(Note: if you need a better contract, clearly you're in the right place.)
Call the client
Take a few deep breaths, ground yourself. Know the facts. Stick to the facts and not your feelings. If you can't do that, have someone else make the call on your behalf.
I know you're anxious, but it's very important to NOT say anything that might come back and bite you later down the road. Remember what happened to Penny!
Any photographer, designer, florists, event planner, or other creative that provides a service for folks or custom artwork will run into this problem at one point or another.
Small business owners know that a thriving business balances the cost of time and money with the return. Sometimes, a payment plan that makes you both happy. Sometimes, just letting it go and taking the whole situation as a lesson learned is the best option.
If things went south, call your business lawyer back
It's time to discuss your options.
Letters from a law firm that might scare folks into paying, payment plans, filing in small claims court or even escalating to a courtroom for larger amounts in dispute. There are many options in business law that could suit your situation. Knowing all your options, with the help of someone with legal expertise, can help you keep a contract dispute from becoming commercial litigation.
Just make sure any significant arrangement comes with a non disclosure and non disparagement agreement so they can't go trash you on the internet or call the bank afterwards. No small business owner needs to take on the legal work.
When you’ve done the work, but your client is nowhere to be found, it can feel like all of that time and effort was for nothing. But there are some steps you can take if this happens to you.
If you don't know exactly what that process looks like for you today, maybe its time for a chat.
If you're in Virginia, I would love to talk with you about how I can help you at InLine, the only 100% virtual law firm dedicated to keeping creatives out of the courtroom and in the studio.
CEO Level Tip: Getting paid 100% upfront will solve most of these problems anyway and let you keep your money with fewer fights.
Pro CEO Level Tip: Having an in-house legal counsel (even part-time like what InLine offers) can help you with dispute resolution before it even becomes a big enough dispute to be concerned about.
**Disclaimer: This is only general information, not legal advice specific to your situation and does not create a client-attorney relationship. If you need legal advice, please contact a lawyer in your area.