This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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A couple regular clients of mine recently have been slow to pay.

This is a familiar scenario most freelancers will repeatedly face throughout their careers.

It requires a well thought-out decision on how to proceed and deal with the situation.

This is not always an easy thing to figure out. Especially if it is a returning client (or potentially returning client) for whom you do regular work.

Back in the day when I was starting out, an old freelancing mentor told me about the “STOP AND GO” system with which to consider what to do about returning clients who are slow to pay. I’ve never seen it in print before and so have no idea as to its origins.

The point is to think of your situation and client and most appropriate response all categorized symbolically by the lights of a traffic light – red (stop), yellow (proceed with caution) and green (go ahead). Its name is also a memorable acronym that all freelancers should come to know, love and take to heart. STOP AND GO stands for Still Talking? Onwards, Probably. Anticipating No Dough? Get Out!

Good, solid, pithy advice already, right? But there’s more…

What follows may not be for everyone but it has worked for me (in one form or another) consistently over my long and varied career as a freelancer. I’ve updated and modified what I remember of it to better suit modern times. Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule and those that follow are subject to this maxim too.

The “stop and go” system

RED LIGHT

Conditions may include…

• The client refuses to return calls, emails or communicate in any manner

• You’ve never worked for them before and so have no history with them.

• You haven’t received a properly executed contract yet from them.

• You’ve received no payments for work done to date.

• An online search reveals they are listed as “Unfair Engagers” under various names by various guilds.

Decision

Red light!

Stop further ongoing work immediately. Do not proceed until contracts are properly executed and payments owed to date are received. (You really shouldn’t be working for them without a fully executed contract anyway.) If they are listed as an “Unfair Engager” you really should not be working for them at all.

Follow up

• Continue to attempt to engage client via email, texts, phone calls and registered letters.

• Do not send in any more instalments of your work until the matter is resolved (if ever).

• Contact relevant guilds for assistance. Consider reporting client as an “Unfair Engager.”

• Consider turning up the heat by taking to social media. Warning: This could backfire if not handled well and harm your reputation within the industry. You might also end up being sued if you post anything false or libellous. While we should never, ever be afraid of claiming what is rightfully ours, this step must not be taken lightly. It should only be entered into when the situation seems otherwise hopeless.

• Consider small claims court, as a last resort, to get what you are owed.

• It should be noted that sometimes the best decision (having exhausted most other options) can also be the least professionally satisfying, namely, to just walk away as fast as you can. Invaluable lessons have been learned and you can now proceed with your other work. Perhaps a controversial choice but on occasion the most pragmatic. The decision to make is how much more time and energy you’re willing to put into it versus the likelihood of any positive outcome.

YELLOW LIGHT

Conditions may include…

• Client has kept in touch, on and off, with seemingly plausible explanations for delay in payment.

• You may or may not have history with them.

• You may or may not have a fully executed contract. (Again, if not, why not?)

• You have received at least one (and preferably more) payment(s) for work done to date.

• An online search reveals no evidence of client being listed as an “Unfair Engager” on relevant guild sites.

Decision

Yellow light!

Proceed with caution but continue with any ongoing work.

Follow up

• Do not stop working but explain your discomfort with the current situation to client as it stands and request it be resolved at the earliest possible convenience.

• Continue to maintain a professional attitude at all times despite provocation.

• You may choose to send in at least one further instalment of your work – or not (until you see some sign of an improvement of circumstances). On the other hand, they may need it to obtain further funding to pay you. Use your best judgment.

• Request contract be fully executed immediately as an act of good will. If it has been returned fully executed already, request partial payment owed at the very least for work already completed as an act of good will.

• There can be any number of legitimate reasons why a client is slow to pay. The trick is trying to determine if it appears temporary and legitimate and likely to be resolved or something more permanent and possibly underhanded. If it appears to be something fraudulent (such as an attempt to rip you off) or even attributable to basic incompetence on their part, a yellow light should quickly become red. If it appears the delay is temporary and with plausible reasons, proceed to continue work but with caution. Continue to monitor the situation closely.

GREEN LIGHT

Conditions may include…

• Client is in full and constant contact with updates on payment delays. The reasons offered are plausible and make sense with a satisfactory resolution in sight.

• You have extended history with the client and it is all good.

• You have a fully executed contract with client.

• You have received multiple payments in full and on time in the past.

• An online search reveals no evidence of client being recently reclassified as an “Unfair Engager” on the relevant guild sites.

Decision

Green light!

Carry on with your ongoing work.

Follow up

• Keep in constant communication with your client as frequently as possible to monitor any developments in the situation.

• Send in your next instalment of work as required – and continue to do so – as a sign of good will on your part and confidence in them to resolve the current delay(s) as soon as possible.

• As stated above, there are always legitimate reasons for delays in payment. The trick is determining the intention of your client. Is it to ultimately behave competently and honourably and with transparency – or otherwise?

• Any history you have will ultimately dictate how to respond to any delay in payment. A good history filled with prompt payments and effective communications should always be considered and weighed in favour of continuing to work as normal. The current delay can therefore be seen as an an isolated incident and not as a deliberate method of operating their business.

• In the event that the delay continues beyond what you feel is a reasonable amount of time or any of the above listed conditions change or deteriorate, consider reclassifying the client and the situation under the “yellow light” category. You can always return them to “green light” in your mind later once the matter is resolved to your satisfaction..

The takeaway

In an ideal freelancing world, payments owed are swiftly sent out on time and relations with employers are transparent and mutually satisfying.

In the real freelancing world, however, payments can be delayed for perfectly legitimate reasons when ongoing work is still required. Under these circumstances, unless properly respected and cared for, even the best of professional relations can become strained. The key is constant communications from both parties.

Payments can also be delayed for unacceptable reasons.

The trick is to decide what category the client/situation is in (using the “Stop And Go” system or any other of your own design) and to act accordingly and appropriately as quickly as possible to protect your interests, conserve your resources and best continue your career.

Finally, ahem, should any of my slow-to-pay regular clients accidentally happen to read this… Please don’t worry, you are all still definitely in my “Green Light” category.

But let’s stay in touch and sort things out soon, OK?

A working freelancer has bills to pay, just like you.

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