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Collecting Your Writing Fee When the Check is NOT in the Mail

A guest article by writer and editor Carol McLeod

It doesn't matter when the realization hits you. You could be checking your mailbox, reviewing your PayPal account, or checking your email. But there comes a time to most of us when one of our clients has not paid us. Such a time is now and has left you wondering what to do next.

If the work is for a magazine or a corporation, they may be expecting an invoice. Call the business and ask for accounts receivable. Write down the name and title of the person who speaks with you. Explain who you are, the project and your contact's department and name. Give the representative the time frame of the work and ask what information needs to be included on your invoice and where to send it. Then send the invoice. You’ll also need to make a note so you know when you sent it and when to begin to expect payment or to start further action.

If you need to take further action, this is what I do. First, I'm not a lawyer. My suggestions are based on being a cashier at a hospital (I was the person who says, "Your bill is $25,670.24 and your insurance has denied payment. We take Visa, MasterCard, cash or check.") and working for a doctor for four years. The doctor sent me to a few collection workshops and I will brag for a moment and say I routinely collected more than 93 percent.

Here is my other disclaimer: One workshop suggested a specific technique that I do not list because it is illegal. So here are some caveats:

  • Do not represent yourself as a collection agency or have a friend do so. That is misrepresentation.
  • Do not claim you will resort to anything you are not prepared to do. That is harassment. If your client tells you not to call them anymore, don't.

You may be able to find out what recourse you have by calling your county's judicial system. If your client resides elsewhere, be sure to tell the clerk.

These are some of my collection tips:

1.  If you have sent an invoice and have not heard from your client, send a late notice with your late fee. I also include a statement like this; "If you cannot pay in full within fifteen (15) days, please contact me at XXX-XXX-XXXX or by email at ChampionWriter@blahblahblah.com to make arrangements." You may also want to add a reminder that copyright does not transfer to the client until all payments have been received.

2.  If you do not get a response within 15 days, you have to call the client.

3.  Remember, most people want to pay their bills. By now, you should be able to determine if your client is not among the majority. If he or she is one of these, you will either have to fight for your money or let it go. You must decide. Bear in mind this sets a precedence. Sometimes your clients know each other and they talk. If one client tells another you do not pursue nonpayment, everybody will know and someone else will try it.

4.  Approach your collection call as though you are doing the client a favor. If you have ever been unable to pay a bill, remember how embarrassed you felt when that billing envelope came? Your clients feel the same. So think of yourself as helping alleviate the stress they have from not paying you. Be as pleasant and cordial as you normally are.

My conversations typically go this way:

Writer:  Hey, Ms. Client. This is Carol McLeod. How are you today?

Client:  Um, ... Oh, hi. I'm OK, I guess.

Writer:  I'm calling about your account. I don't seem to have a record of a recent payment. Have you sent a check in the last few weeks?

Client:  No. My dog ate the bill.

Writer:  Well, gee, I'm so sorry. Is there any way you could send something today?

Client: No.

Writer:  OK. That's fine. How much time do you think you'll need to pay this in full?

5.  Never ask how much they want to pay. Most people will say $10 a month. At $10 a month, a $400 bill will take more than three years to pay in full. Instead, ask how much time the client needs to pay it in full. Few people when asked how much time they need say, "Three years." I have been amazed at the number of times people have told me 30 days. And they've paid their bill in that time.

6.  Get a verbal commitment for how much time they need. Repeat that figure. "OK. You're going to be able to pay this $400 bill in full within 90 days. Is that right?" The client will say yes because the time frame is the client's.

Writer:  "OK. Now are you sure that's not going to be a problem? Because I can give you an extra month if that will help." Go over how much each payment will be. For example, $400 paid over three months would be $133.33, $133.33 and $133.34. Ask on what day of the month would be best to send the payments. I usually offer another 30 days.

Writer:  "OK. Today is the 15th. Do you think you could get the first payment, $133.33, in by the 15th of next month?"

And so it goes. I have found if I approach a past due account in this manner, I get better results and do not alienate the client. Whatever amount of time they ask for, do the math for them, ask them if that's too much to pay at one time and offer to give them another month.

If you're wondering why I suggest this method, it's what works best for me. I know there have been times when we all struggle to pay every bill in full and on time. We've all had emergencies cause us to rearrange our budget.

You see that bill and you think, "Oh, I can't pay that. $400!" Then the phone rings and you know it's the person you owe. You pick up the phone expecting to be fussed at, belittled, called names. I read a newspaper article a few years ago about a woman whom a collection agent threatened to have killed.

So here you are, polite, courteous, and even helpful. If the client wants to pay the bill, he or she will pay it. You are helping work out something feasible given a change in the client's circumstances.

Now, about the other kind of client. The one who just doesn't want to pay. If you have a client who refuses to pay, won't return your messages, avoids you and you have tried everything, except of course having them killed, bite the bullet and file a complaint with your county’s judicial system.

Carol can be reached by email at cmcleod@carolmcleod.com

 

 

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