Failing to get paid for a translation you provided to a client is always a risk; I think it’s unlikely that anyone goes through an entire freelance career without at least a couple of non-payment situations.
In 16+ years of freelancing, I’ve been stiffed twice: once by an individual who dropped off the face of the earth after I delivered the translation–after which I started requiring individuals to pay in advance–and once by an agency that went out of business between when I delivered the translation and when the invoice was due (no, really). In one case, the non-payment situation showed me that I needed to change my own procedures. In the other case, there was really nothing I could have done differently. Following are five tips on how to minimize the risk of being stiffed by a client:
Vet all agencies in advance. This one is so basic, yet many translators skip this step. If you work with agencies, ever, at all, in any fashion, get yourself a membership to a translation agency rating service. I use Payment Practices, and the ProZ Blue Board is also an option. In my experience, the Blue Board tends to have more current feedback, and more feedback on agencies outside the US, but the feedback on Payment Practices is often more candid. I find it both heartbreaking and frustrating when I (not infrequently) get e-mails from translators saying, “I did a huge job for this agency and they never paid me!” And in–literally–30 seconds of searching on Payment Practices, I can tell that this agency never pays anyone. They’re scammers, and the translator could have easily avoided this mess, but either a) didn’t know that such rating services exist, b) was too lazy to check, or c) didn’t feel that they needed to invest $20 a year in not getting scammed.
Require individuals to pay in advance. Some translators hate working with individual clients. I happen to love it, but I also realize that individuals need to be treated differently from established businesses. In the non-payment situation I referenced above, the individual simply evaporated: didn’t pay me, didn’t answer my phone calls or e-mails and refused to sign for a certified letter. My only options were to try to go see them in person, or take it to small claims court (then try to collect?), or drop it, which I did. Now, I do not do an individual’s translation until they pay, even for large projects. Risk of non-payment=zero.
When in doubt, ask for a deposit. You know those e-mails we all get: “You don’t know me, but I have this great project for you”? Lots of translators spend lots of time trying to figure out if they’re scams–which they are, most of the time, but not all of the time. There’s an easy solution: reply, and inform this potential client that for all new clients, you require a 50% deposit, to be paid by credit card or wire transfer (not by check). If you never hear from them, it was a scam. If it’s legitimate, most clients will understand that–especially for largish projects–a 50% deposit is reasonable.
Stay on top of habitually late-paying clients. Many freelancers have clients who always pay…eventually. Whether due to a cumbersome accounting system, a lack of cash flow, or some other factor, these clients will exceed their stated payment terms by weeks and even months. In these cases, I think you have two options. With clients who just don’t get around to paying on time, increase your level of reminders. Upon sending the invoice, remind them, “Just for reference, this invoice is due on May 9 and I look forward to receiving your payment on or before that date.” Then, one week before the payment is due, remind again. “In looking over my accounting, I see that invoice number X for Y amount is due next week; can you confirm that everything is on track for that?” Hopefully, they’ll get the point. Sometimes, it is really just a series of unfortunate events. Last year, I had a client who owed me 3,000 euros for over three months: I was out of town in July, then they closed for the month of August, then the accountant went on maternity leave, etc. etc. But if it’s a pattern, they need to know it’s not acceptable.With clients that seem to be having cash flow problems, where you either suspect or know for sure that they are waiting until they get paid before they pay you, proceed with caution: limit your exposure to not more than you can afford to lose if they go bankrupt. Also remember that you always have the option to stop working with a client whose business dealings you find disrespectful.
Finally, don’t blame yourself if you’ve done everything right and still don’t get paid. This happens, especially if a client “plays dead” and simply never responds to you, or to a collection agency, or anything else (see above, about the client who refused a certified letter, claiming “There’s no one here by that name”). I haven’t experienced this with a non-payer, but I have experienced it with an agency whose outsourced writers plagiarized my blog posts, admitted to it, and then did it again. In the end, I had no choice except to take them to court, which is time-consuming, expensive, and a waste of emotional energy that I’d rather put into something positive. Sometimes, mean-spirited people will get the better of honest people, and you have to just let it go and chalk it up to the cost of doing business. So that’s a bonus tip: just as stores get shoplifted, you as a freelancer will probably get scammed at least once in your career due to no fault of your own.
Readers, over to you: your thoughts on making sure you get paid?