A freelancer’s guide to getting paid and avoiding deadbeats

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Put the details under a magnifying glassThis post is for Catherine Christaki, aka @LinguaGreca, who ran a quick poll on Twitter on March 12, 2012 asking Tweeps how many non-payers they’d had in their translation career.

Stats I could see on my stream from those who responded were actually quite good. Since I only had one in nearly 20 years, and which did result in a partial payment after bankruptcy proceedings, Catherine nudged me to write a “how to”.

These recommendations apply whether you choose to go after a potential client or are contacted for a project. Disclaimer, your mileage may vary.

Due diligence, processes and instincts

A. Do your homework

We are incredibly lucky: with the Internet, digging for information is quick and easy.

Before working with a new client, I like to find out as much as I can about that company and the individual who has contacted me, or whom I plan to get in touch with. Knowing as much as you can about them is a smart idea to avoid getting stuck with a bill and to position yourself as a service provider who knows his or her clients.

“But it was a rush job! If I didn’t respond immediately,
I’d blow the project! You don’t always have time to check them out!”

A pound of prevention, and all that jazz. Ask yourself:
How much am I willing and able to lose?

Due diligence check-list:

  1. Web site
    • For whom have they done work? Do you know people/companies in common?
    • Where are they physically located? Can you, or someone you trust, go to their offices in case there is a problem?
    • What do their legal mentions tell you? These often hold interesting nuggets; and if they do not publish them, that’s a red flag. In France, commercial Web sites must publish legal mentions, lest the owner face stiff fines and/or spend a year in jail (how many freelancers with Web sites fail to publish legal mentions?)
    • Is there information on the person you wish to contact or who has contacted you?
  2. LinkedIn, Viadeo, Xing
    • Are some of the company’s employees listed on LinkedIn or another professional platform?
    • Does the person you wish to contact or who has contacted you have a profile? Is it a professional (credible) one or just an empty shell?
  3. Incoming email
    • To what domain name does their email address belong? I’ll zap those that come from Hotmail, most that come from Yahoo, and preview those that come from Gmail.
    • Is their email complete? In other words, do they provide their name, email, and contact info? If they don’t, I ignore the email. Period.
    • If the email seems legit, but something doesn’t sit right (see Instincts, below), check the full message header and IP address. This is smart to skirt phishing ploys.
  4. Incoming phone call
    • Does the caller give you his/her name, company name and phone number? Seems basic, but I had one caller who refused to identify himself before putting me through the third degree. That is not a good start to building a relationship based on trust. I won’t play.
  5. Company financials
    • Web sites such as Societe.com (FR), Better Business Bureaus (US) and Company House (UK), to name just a few, will tell you how long the company has been around, who the managers are, where headquarters are located, and provide general information on its financial health.
    • Does the listing jive with the company’s Web site and with what the prospect might have told you? I’ve, gratefully, managed to spot serious inconsistencies upstream and taken precautionary steps to avoid future problems.
    • Are the financials solid? If not, it’s wise to ask for a full or partial payment up front.

B. Have a process and stick to it (no excuses)

    1. Take a client brief
      That’s already a must to have the information you need to prepare a detailed and binding quote. It’s also an opportunity for you to discuss payment methods and terms. Each client is different and knowing how their accounts receivable processes work can help you avoid bad surprises later. Are their requirements acceptable to you? Are yours to them?
      For example, many years ago, I ended up refusing to work with a major American translation company because they wanted me to commit to a set rate in USD for a full year, regardless of project specs and regardless of the USD/Euro exchange rate (which at the time flew from extreme to extreme), they refused to pay in Euro and they refused to even share the $45 cost of international wires.
    2. Have the client sign your quote
      Insist on a formal client sign-off before starting work. Make sure your quote or proposal makes reference to your general terms and conditions or to those you’ve negotiated with your client. A signed quote or proposal is a legally-binding contract.
      I cannot insist on this enough. Were it not for that document and my signed T&C, I’d probably still be waiting for payment from a major listed French company whose accounts receivable department sent me *their* standard service provider contract weeks after I’d already invoiced. My client was not aware of his company’s internal processes. I would have refused the terms anyway.
      On occasion, I will work on a project with an oral or email agreement, but only for those I know very well and have had zero payment issues with. Trust is earned over time.
    3. Have new clients sign your T&C
      When you send off your quote to a new client, send along your T&C for signature and insist both be signed before you start working. You only need to send your T&C once, before the first project you do together. If you’ve negotiated particular terms with your prospect during the brief, you can adapt your standard document to reflect that. Signing off  protects you and your client and provides conflict resolution procedures.
      I will not work with a prospect who refuses to sign my T&C. Period. If they won’t or can’t, something is amiss. In all these years, I’ve only had one prospect who refused. Most find it professional and reassuring.
      If you don’t have T&C and don’t know what should be included, you can download those recommended by the SFT (in French and English) or ITI and tweak them to suit your needs.
    4. Invoicing
      Invoice at the time that suits you or that has been agreed on with your client. I tend to invoice when a project is finished; others invoice at the end of the month. Each country has its own legal mentions that must appear on an invoice, so make sure yours is complete.
      For new clients, or those that seem to need reminders, I send a friendly email about a week before the due date. And then send them a thank you email when payment has been received.


C. Instincts

We all have them. I feel mine in a spot about 3 inches above my belly button. Listening beyond your brain helps you “hear” beyond facts or rationalizations.

Ever feel funny about something or someone, but you couldn’t put your finger on why?
Ever get the sense when starting a project that it was not going to be smooth sailing?
Ever just get “bad vibes” even if things seemed hunky-dory?

Don’t ignore that. Your instincts are providing you with precious information. Your instincts can make or break deals. It’s then up to you to weigh whether you should proceed or not.

I’ve learned over the years that I need to listen to what my “little voice” is telling me. It’s usually right.

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Comments: 2

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  • Great article Patricia, you are obviously very careful when it comes to taking on new clients, as you should be!

    I don’t translate, I run an agency so have a different perspective, but agree with most of your points above.

    I would add that it is very important for freelancers to actually read t&c’s they get from a client. So many linguists sign our terms at the start, without knowing what they are – what if the terms don’t suit your business?

    Secondly, I am 100% with you on the email domain addresses. This is SO important. Last year many freelancers lost out to someone posing as a livingword.co.uk employee – closer inspection showed that she used a hotmail email and inconsistent contact details.

    CHECK before you work for a contact you don’t already know. The only sure way is to take a check the given tel no on the company website, then call and speak to at least one person there to verify your new contact. Sounds extreme, but agencies wouldn’t mind at all, and it would have saved those translators a lot of heartache, time and money if they had called our office first.

    On that note, if you have payment issues, always call, you will likely get a much better, and faster, response than sending emails 🙂

    The only point I don’t totally agree you on is terms and conditions from freelancers to clients (agencies). Agencies have literally hundreds or new applicants each week, so be aware that if you want to ask your new client to read and sign your terms, even the ‘best’ agency could find this a hassle and go elsewhere. This doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘something is amiss’, just that there is another applicant just as good with less paperwork. Of course, if you are in a position to be picky with new potential customers, go for it, the extra reassurance for you is ideal if you can get it!

    Interesting read, and nice to see such professionalism.

    Kath Marr

  • Thanks for your comment, Kath. It’s useful to hear the agency perspective!

    As I work overwhelmingly with direct clients – and on consulting and copywriting projects in addition to translation – I should have made a more explicit reference about translator-agency dynamics. Terms should be discussed before the first project, regardless of whose T&C are used, to ensure informed consent (and adapt/negotiate where necessary).

    I’m stunned that you’ve noticed many translators don’t read your T&C before signing them. That’s scary…and a rather lackadaisical way of running a business!