In a perfect world there would be no reason to doubt our clients. The laws of contracting are simple: we offer clients services and we get paid what we’re due for the successful execution of these services. Unfortunately, any number of factors on the client’s end can muddle this simplicity and leave us staring at a bunch of overdue freelance invoices. If you want to get paid for your freelance work, and get paid on time (who doesn’t?), you need to take some proactive steps to ensure your rightful compensation.

We may like working with big companies and notable brands and we may have great relationships with them (for now), but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re the “big guy” and we’re the “little guy.” Power dynamics are always in play. So how do we use the power we do have to protect ourselves and our indi businesses?

Start with the statement of work

It’s hard to talk accountability if you’re working on a handshake. It’s one thing if your uncle needs a little help with his e-commerce website (you should make sure you at least get a free lunch out of your efforts), but in virtually all cases a detailed freelance contract with a clear SOW is essential to making sure you get paid for your freelance work in a timely fashion.

And thanks to the recently-passed Freelance Isn’t Free Act, clients who engage independent contractors for projects valued at $800 or more in the state of New York can actually face significant legal penalties for failing to provide their freelancers with a written contract (and not paying them within 30 days of delivery).

This is a big step forward for independents, especially in a state that thrives on freelance work, but it isn’t enough to merely have documentation of a project — you need to set some of your own ground rules to make sure you get the pay you need on the timeline you need it for. Waiting 30 days is still a long time, especially when rent looms large, and other daily expenses continue to accumulate.

You don’t need a long document that no one wants to read (let alone sign), but you should draft up a brief contract that, in addition to outlining your work responsibilities, includes these go-to points to encourage timely payment delivery:

  • A clear breakdown of your expected payment structure (see below)
  • A statement of rights (who owns what, when and for how long)
  • Consequences of the client not paying or delivering late payments (interest fees, project termination, revoked ownership of deliverables)
  • What constitutes a late payment

For a more thorough guide to creating the ideal freelance contract, check out the linked article to Mark Fromson of LocalSolo’s awesome guest post on the topic.

Make your freelance invoice as “fool-proof” as possible

While lazy or unattended payments often fall somewhere in the realm of the client’s fault, we need to take some responsibility for ourselves here.

I’m a big believer in giving people the optimal conditions to deliver their best results — this means taking some proactive steps to ensure that your clients’ freelance invoices are paid on time. This can also mean making these duties easier in some respects for your customers.

Here are some proactive points to get your billing process on the right track as soon as possible:

  • Make your client aware of your payment structure and expectations as early in the project planning phase as possible
  • Invoice upfront and include partial payment as a condition for beginning work (see more specifics in Fromson’s guide above).
  • Build a regular freelance invoice into your project proposal (weekly is best)
  • Create automated invoice reminders for your clients via Google Calendar events or a comparable platform. You can even set up your billing reminders as recurring events (this is especially handy with very busy clients).

No more Mr. (or Ms.) Niceguy . . .

The duty of confronting delinquent clients on late payments probably isn’t the thing that motivates people to pursue a career in independent contracting, but there comes a time for most of us when it cannot be avoided.

Carol Tice founded the Make A Living Writing blog with the intention of helping freelance writers protect themselves from opportunistic clients, and her article 5 Ways to Get Your Flaky Freelance Client to Pay Up is a must-read even for freelancers who work outside of the writing realm.

She recommends some effective and creative strategies for getting clients to handle those overdue freelance invoices:

  • Stopping current work and notifying the client as to why you have ceased further action on their projects
  • Re-submitting your bill with a late fee (Tice recommends a 2% hike to get them moving)
  • If you have tapped out all standard communication lines (email, phone, snail mail, personal message), politely and directly taking your problem to their social media outlets (“@magazine — Still looking for my $1,000 article fee due 3 weeks ago. When may I expect it?”)

While suing is an option, it usually isn’t practical unless several tens of thousands of dollars or more are on the line. The cost of legal fees can often cancel out the benefit of eventually receiving your compensation, and the mental burden it poses is nearly all-consuming. Simply cutting losses or employing the other methods mentioned above is typically much more productive.

If you want professional clients, be a professional yourself!

Freelancers have not always been known for their dependability or adherence to standard business procedures, so if we’re going to hold our clients to a certain standard of etiquette, we need to follow our own example.

If a payment is late, be clear and professional in your follow up. Hostility can drive action, but it rarely facilitates good long-term relationship dynamics. It’s difficult to encourage a healthy relationship if it feels like you’re the only one who respects it, but if you need to take a hard line with a client, give them no room to cry foul about your performance or conduct.

If you have been a complete professional by delivering all of your services on time and at a high level, upholding friendly and timely communication, and being attentive to their needs, you maximize your leverage to enforce their cooperation (and chances are they won’t want to lose you!).

Tried everything? Then call it a lesson learned

If you’re already in the sobering situation of fighting to get paid for your freelance work with an increasingly problematic client, the most productive thing you may be able to do is simply to learn from your mistakes. If you didn’t properly evaluate the delinquent client or ignored the warning signs that should have raised an eyebrow, then keep this frustrating experience in the back of your mind and let it inform your client selection in the future. If you’ve been burned, you won’t let yourself make the same mistake twice (hopefully!).

Not sure what to look for when vetting a client? Then be sure to read our post on qualifying leads. You may be able to eat one lost invoice, but any more than that could put you and your business under — do not stand for clients who do not respect your time and livelihood. You have better things to do and better people to work with.

Ben Shanbrom is a freelance writer, musician, and copy editor who works with artists and clients within his native New Haven scene and well beyond (ask him about tracking drums in the studio where Europe recorded “The Final Countdown”). Ben is a tried and true “coffee rings on his notepad” freelancer, and wouldn’t have it any other way.