In which a freelancer politely asks for payment on very old invoices and is blacklisted for doing so
I’ve recorded this blog post. Have a listen if you don’t have time to read it.
It’s great being freelance. The freedom to work when you choose (which in reality is most of the time), the freedom to take holidays whenever you want (which is hardly ever), the freedom to work HOW you choose – and with whomever you wish to work. That part’s a joy. (We won’t dwell on the no sick pay/holiday pay etc etc. In this blog post I’m being largely upbeat).
But the big down-side to being freelance is dealing with bad payers.
Much of my work is delivered on very tight turnaround – sometimes customers need audio literally within minutes – so they rely on my supplying broadcast quality audio in a short time, to a high standard. For some customers, it’s appropriate to ask for up-front payment; maybe I’ve not worked with them before, maybe they’re overseas or maybe they’ve been…how can I put it?…tardy in paying for my services in the past.
I have an accounts guy who handles the financial side of my business. He does the invoicing, the banking, the horrible computer work, the VAT, all of it. But the shining beacon in the centre of his world is CREDIT CONTROL.
He loves it.
We’ve worked together for many years now, me and my Accounts Guy (actually since the 1700s) and we’re like a slick accounting-based tag-team of good-cop/bad-cop. Imagine Starsky and Hutch but with better hair and one of them being a woman (ie me).
My accounts guy is the buffer between me and my customers. He’s the insulation (asbestos?) that protects me from the burn of shirty customers reluctant to part with cash on time, and customers from the full-on Vinegar Tits wrath of me when I’ve not been paid for work supplied on time and in good faith.
Our standard practice is for him to begin by gently chasing cash for a sensible amount of time before becoming relentlessly insistent; he can be like a stone in your accounting-metaphored shoe. A carbuncle on your ledger. A terrier with his jaws clamped firmly round your double-entry.
But when his approach has failed, he gets me involved. It’s quite subtle. Just the casual cc’ing in of me into a credit-control email. This is my accounts guy’s signal to me that I need to get involved, lean on them, suggest withholding audio until the debt has been settled, and even – heaven forfend – that we might have to commence legal proceedings if we haven’t, you know, been paid. Within the culture of Clarke Gables, me being cc’d into an accounts email is code for ‘UNLEASH THE HOUNDS.’
So yesterday, I got such an email from Accounts Guy. It was to a long-standing customer who, it turns out, is an habitual late-payer.
Accounts Guy sits a couple of metres from my desk so I asked him about the history. Once he’d tossed aside the ravaged carcass of the gazelle upon which he’d been feasting, he told me my voiceover work had been done back in August, and the overdue invoice had been chased over several subsequent weeks and months.
“The guy’s just not replied,” said the Accounts Guy, wiping blood from his chin. “Do what you need to do.”
So I emailed the client, politely stating that if I don’t receive payment within the next seven days I’ll have no alternative but to commence legal proceedings. I signed off saying “Let’s hope we can settle this without having to take that step.”
Within minutes, there was a reply which was incredible as the customer had been ignoring us since August. He was not pleased. The client suggested I was being threatening, dramatic, in the “full blooded throws of litigation” and that he was going to ‘notify’ the producer to ‘source another supplier for voice over material.’ He suggested I’d allowed no time for him to respond; in classic sorry/not sorry style, he said that he was about to apologise for the oversight but my “immediate reactive threat of legal action…has now had a consequence.”
He reiterated that his company wouldn’t be using me again with a flourish: “I too have to be robust in my selection of suppliers.”
So presumably, only the ones who don’t ask to be paid then??
I’m gutted because I’ve known the producer who books me to work for this client for years – he’s a fantastic guy. I’ve known him for yonks and we have a brilliant working relationship. But what’s to be done?
A good customer is only a good customer if they pay you, and a fantastic customer is one who pays you on time. But the best kind of customer are the people who do all that and treat you with respect and consideration. The ones who don’t mansplain how to run your business, the ones who promise to pay and then actually pay you…and ones who don’t blacklist you if you have the temerity to politely ask them to pay a seriously overdue invoice.
Those guys? Well, frankly those guys aren’t worth your short and precious time on this planet.