What To Do When Your Clients Aren’t Paying

March 14, 2017

By Rebecca Robertson

You submit an invoice, and ask that it be paid in 30 days. That’s rarely the end of the job. We asked photographers for their tips, tricks and horror stories about the delicate task of getting clients to pay what they owe.

Jonathan Chapman: “When I was first starting out, my wife on a couple of occasions would act as my bookkeeper, even though she wasn’t, and just say, ‘Hi, I’m calling on behalf of Jonathan Chapman Photography, my name is Michelle. I just wanted to let you know we have an outstanding invoice.’” Chapman says this was more effective than calling himself, and “it took me out of that loop” of dunning clients for bills.

When Chapman’s studio manager, John Fontana, sends invoices, he includes a note asking the recipient to confirm receipt, and let him know when they expect it will be paid. The approach is more “genuine” than an automated email that comes from Quickbooks, says Fontana.

He and Chapman also make sure clients understand that even though his might be a small business, their payment has a large impact. When Fontana contacts a client about an open invoice, he says, “It’s useful sometimes to let them know in email reply about an open invoice just exactly what’s at stake – ‘I’d like to be able to pay out our crew and take care of our vendors.’ It puts a face to what they’re paying for, and what we’re paying for with that money. It humanizes that monetary element.”

Saverio Truglia: “There are any number of reasons you’re not getting paid and a personal call can sometimes quickly get to the bottom of it. More than once, through an honest phone call, I re-negotiated payment terms for a client who was having trouble meeting their obligations.” In one instance where he re-negotiated terms, “I required the full amount but set up payments on a schedule, which they adhered to. I initiated the conversation when I was told they didn’t know when they could pay my invoice. This was simply unacceptable so I suggested we break up the balance into smaller chunks.” Sometimes even that is not possible. “When a client goes bankrupt, my first call would be to the client to see what I might recover,” says Truglia, though he has had little luck in that situation. But he points out, “The balance outstanding can be converted to the Bad Debt column and come off your tax liability.”

Peter Prato: Prato cites Best Business Practices for Photographers, Second Edition, by John Harrington as a valuable reference manual for payment issues. In Harrington’s book, he read, “If you put a line-item into your invoice giving a discount for [paying early], for example, accounting departments are required to pay those out first due to the discount. I don’t know if that’s true or not.”

Prato has taken other advice from outside the photography industry. “My favorite book that touches on the topic of getting paid and dealing with challenging clients is Design Is a Job by Mike Monteiro.” Monteiro, the co-founder and design director of Mule Design in San Francisco, “gave an acquaintance of mine who runs her own architecture firm…a baseball bat with a very large inscription on it that isn’t appropriate to reprint here, but it’s a message about getting paid. It’s good to maintain a sense of humor because fighting for pay can be demoralizing and waiting for money can be agonizing if you don’t have much of it.”

Linnea Bullion: “I did a small shoot for a musician. The shoot went well, and I was really pleased with the images, as was she—she sent me message after message telling me how much she loved them and how perfect they were.” Their discussion about payment started via text and Facebook messenger, but,“I switched to email to follow up regarding payment,” says Bullion. “I had already sent the deliverables despite not having secured payment (rookie mistake), because she was a friend of a friend and I trusted her word.” After several months without sending payment, the client, “claimed that she hated the photographs, and that she had been ignoring my requests for payment because she didn’t know how to talk to me about it,” Bullion recalls. After Bullion explained that that’s not how these types of agreements work, the client’s manager claimed the images wouldn’t be used and offered a third of the original amount. Among the evidence Bullion had saved was the Instagram post with the image, posted by the musician. “Luckily, I didn’t have to bluff [about] taking them to a small claims court,” Bullion says, and shortly after she made that threat, she got paid.

Yvonne Albinowski: When Albinowski was having problems with a client who paid erratically, “My producer friend suggested making an ‘aging summary sheet.’ This actually proved to be very helpful for myself in seeing each invoice separated out, line by line, and how many days outstanding each one was. I sent that over to the accounting department and I eventually got paid. However, it did take many phone calls and emails. I kept on top of it and made it clear that I needed to get paid fast.”

Allison Michael Orenstein: Back when Orenstein was assisting, “a producer was supposed to pay me and never did.” After six months, “I just went to her office and knocked on her door and was like, ‘Hi, I’m here for my check.’ She shut the door in my face and [said] ‘Hang on one second!’ I just sat outside her door and then she opened the door and wrote me a check and I left. I said something like, ‘I’m an assistant, I should be paid.’” Fortunately, Orenstein says, that “doesn’t happen that often anymore.”

Juliana Tan: “I try to have liquidity in my business so that I don’t have to keep chasing clients for payment if they missed a deadline. I do this so as not to annoy them and harm the working relationship.…Sometimes, when working with big organizations, it does take longer (two to three months) to get paid. I do understand that usually these companies have more complex processes and as long as the payment gets to me within three months, I am happy to work with them again.”

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