Bob’s 10 tips to getting paid on time


It’s the scourge of the freelancer – chasing payment. Why is it that companies who would go ballistic if you missed a production deadline (and rightly so) seem so relaxed about your deadlines, i.e. household bill deadlines, mortgage payment deadlines, etc? And why is it that so many company bosses who wouldn’t dare treat their staff with such a relaxed attitude to payment seem only too happy to let their suppliers (surely a vital part of their business, otherwise why use them?) suffer for weeks on end on a diet of baked-bean dinners, fingernail snacks and bargain plonk?

There are several reasons: computer glitches, simple human error, and by far the most common of all – forgetfulness. In the worst cases it’s deliberate.

There are some companies whose standard payment time to suppliers is 60 days – minimum. If you’re a regular, month-in, month-out supplier then it’s not so awful, it’s just like being paid in arrears, so after an initial two-month dry spell you’re then getting that chunk of dosh in your account once a month anyway. That still doesn’t stop it being grossly unfair. But for a sole trader who’s hired sporadically, and who’s having a ‘quiet’ spell anyway, it’s a nightmare having to wait two months before seeing anything.

It’s the bane of a freelancer’s life. So what can we do? Well there are a few simple things that can be done, and while they cannot guarantee prompt payment, they can, from my own experience, often work a treat. Here’s my 1o tips to help with prompt payment:

1. When you first get offered new freelance work (hurrah!) ask what their payment times are. If it’s 60 days, or even more, you might want to say, ‘no thanks’.
2. Get a purchase order number (PO) before the work has begun. Many companies will generate a PO which is a legally binding document between a supplier and a buyer. Basically it ensures that, (a) the company can afford a supplier’s costs, and (b) that they are legally bound to pay you that sum once the work is completed. Often it isn’t sought until after the job is complete. This can take days to get sorted, thus potentially adding to the time it takes to get paid as that PO number has to be on the invoice you send in. So it’s a good idea to push the company to send you a PO number at the start of the job, so as soon as the job is done you can include that on your invoice and send it straight in. Whoosh!
3. Keep an up-to-date record of all work undertaken. I use an Excel spreadsheet, but there are many really good tools to buy and download, such as Billings Pro, Harvest and Paydirt.  This record of work undertaken should include: the company, the work undertaken, the dates/hours you worked, the amount owed, a record of when the accounts department received the invoice, the date when payment is due, and when it was paid (if at all!).
4. Find out the name and contact details of the person in accounts who will be dealing with your invoice. Try and get their phone number as well as their email. Include those contact details in your notes for that company.
5. Whether you send your invoice to the editor/design manager or straight to the accounts department, write in bold ‘Please confirm receipt’. Make a note of the date that they confirm receipt.
6. Make sure you include on the invoice the line ‘Payment to be made within 30 days from the date of this invoice’. 30 days is a reasonable period of time to wait. Now, I know that doesn’t legally impel a company to pay within that time, but it does get noticed, and the person you’re sending it to might just mentally take note. Actually it’s surprising what a difference it can make!
7. On the day payment is due send the person in accounts a reminder that it’s due. Keep it polite, pleasant and professional.
8. If the payment date has passed then send weekly reminders (cc in the person who hired you). Again be polite. Don’t ‘lose it’. Polite persistence is the key.
9. If you’ve waited a month since the payment deadline then phone the accounts person. Make sure you speak to the actual person dealing with invoices. Be calm, friendly, but firm.
10. Once payment is made, whether it was on time or not, email the accounts department to thank them. Yep, that’s right. I know, I know – it’s their job anyway, and it was bloody late, but that phone call, and your pleasantness, will make them remember you, and next time you’re far more likely to get paid on time. Remember, it’s usually just forgetfulness on their part; it’s not personal.

Once you get the the much-awaited pay, sort your bills, have a beer and box of posh doughnuts and forget about it. Move on.

So this is my system and it seems to work (nearly) every time nowadays. I’m happy to say that in many cases payment is made on time anyway – there are, despite much evidence to the contrary, some very good and efficient accounts departments out there! But for those companies who regularly disappoint and who cost us freelancers much in missed mortgage payments, fingernails and sleep, try the above method. Good luck, and remember – it’s yours, you earned it, so, with polite persistence, go get it!

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