When a non-paying client "plays dead"

Non-paying clients are never fun to deal with, but it can be especially hard to deal with a non-paying client who “plays dead”: simply never responds to your phone calls, e-mails or letters. As a freelancer, what’s the best course of action when faced with a client who owes you money and practices nonviolent noncooperation? Here are a few thoughts.

First, bulletproof the financial arrangements from the start. Never, never, ever (did I mention never??) work for an agency without checking their history on Payment Practices or a similar translation client rating service. Never, never, ever (did I mention really never??) work for a direct client without following Judy Jenner’s advice that the best protection against non-payment is preparing a very detailed quote and having the client sign it before you start work. I also require anyone who is not an established business to pay in full in advance; for example when I translate official documents for individuals. These three steps can go a long way toward preventing non-payment situations to start out with. In my experience, if the non-paying client is an individual, there is simply not much you can do. Legally you might be able to take the individual to small claims court, but again, if he or she simply doesn’t show up, it’s unlikely that the judge will issue a bench warrant for someone who owes you $50.

But let’s assume that it’s too late for that…you’re already in the non-payment trenches and you need to decide on a course of action. First, assess the amount in question. Although it’s always painful to have worked for free, I would not sink a great deal of time into chasing after a small amount of money. Define “small amount”? Well, I’d say $100 or less. At that level, you’re almost certainly better off putting that client on your “never again” list and just chalking it up to experience rather than devoting hours of your time to the collections process. If you’re talking about a significant amount, keep reading.

“Playing dead” is one of the most maddening things that a non-paying client can do; I once dealt with a client who not only ignored my e-mails and phone calls, but refused to sign for a certified letter (“No one here by that name”). So, you have to get a little creative, with steps that might include:

  • Threatening some sort of public recourse. For example, “If this invoice is not paid by xxx, I will be forced to post a report of this transaction on translation industry payment rating services” or “I will be forced to refer this invoice to the American Translators Association’s partner collections agency for further action.”
  • Having a colleague act as your collections representative. I think that this can be very effective; all you need is a colleague with an assertive manner who calls the client and either speaks to them or leaves a message to the effect of “This is Corinne McKay’s collections representative, calling in reference to invoice xxx which is now seriously overdue. To avoid further action on our part, please contact me to arrange payment as soon as possible.”
  • Try to make a deal. Again, this isn’t going to suit everyone, but my hope is just to put some ideas out there for you to choose from. You could potentially contact the client and say that they clearly don’t intend to pay the amount that they owe you, and while that is extremely disappointing, you would like to arrange a payment plan or partial payment plan so that you can be compensated for some of what they owe you. Likewise, in my experience it can help to offer a non-paying client as many payment options as possible. I once worked for a startup agency in Europe who left me on the hook for 2,000 euros…not an amount I was going to give up on without a fight. They finally paid by credit card via PayPal which resulted in a hefty fee for me, but it was much better than not being paid at all.
  • If you’re positive that the client is not dangerous or unstable, you could go to their office in person or send someone else. Again, this could be your “collections representative,” popping by to check on the invoice status and ready to accept a check right then.

Other thoughts?

22 Responses to “When a non-paying client "plays dead"”
  1. Simone L. May 9, 2012
  2. Jeff May 9, 2012
    • Corinne McKay May 9, 2012
  3. Corinne McKay May 9, 2012
  4. Atalanta May 9, 2012
    • Corinne McKay May 10, 2012
  5. patenttranslator May 10, 2012
    • Corinne McKay May 10, 2012
  6. jameschan6 May 10, 2012
    • Corinne McKay May 10, 2012
  7. Atalanta May 10, 2012
  8. GB Translation May 11, 2012
  9. Gary Bentham May 12, 2012
    • GB Translation May 15, 2012
  10. Simon May 12, 2012
  11. Bart Vangampelaere August 8, 2012
    • Shawnie March 14, 2013
  12. Cornelia January 15, 2013
    • Corinne McKay January 16, 2013
  13. Luisa December 4, 2013
  14. Jake August 3, 2016

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