How I got clients to pay upfront

Quill CEO Fatima Zaidi explains how she gets clients to sign off and why the arrangement is beneficial for everyone.
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By Fatima Zaidi

Most of us small business owners and freelancers share two big fears that keep us up at night. The first is not having enough clients. The second is not getting paid by our clients.

There’s nothing more frustrating and soul-destroying than having worked hard to provide a client with an agreed-upon service or product, only to have them either ghost at the payment stage, delay settling the invoice, or flat out refuse to pay fees entirely.

In my experience, many clients feel entitled to either take their time paying up to make sure that the work is up to standard or use the “reward” of payment as leverage to broker additional work. I’ve even experienced clients threatening to withhold payment for similar reasons. I can recall far too many occasions where securing fees required an unnecessary number of calls, emails, and texts, not to mention ulcers and headaches.

I decided very early on that I wasn’t comfortable taking on the risk of doing work that might go unpaid. So, I decided to eliminate the risk entirely by mandating that each and every client pays in full upfront, without exception. If they don’t like it, I’m happy to introduce them to other vendors who are more flexible on payment options.

This is for everyone’s benefit. For starters, it requires expectations for both parties be managed upfront, which is especially helpful when unclear expectations often result in countless issues and misunderstandings. It’s also a way to test the waters of a relationship. Everyone has taken on a difficult or demanding client or vendor who they wish they’d turned down. Demanding payment upfront isn’t going to completely rid you of nightmare partners, but it is going to help you weed out some of the more unreasonable ones.

Time spent following up on a payment also represents a significant cost. I grew tired of those 15 follow-ups asking for what was rightfully ours, as well as the unanswered phone calls, brush-offs and endless negotiations. If you’re a small business owner or freelancer, it also helps you lessen the stress that comes from worry if or when you’ll next be paid.

All that being said, many of you are likely already convinced of the myriad of reasons why upfront payments are preferable. But how can you go about actually getting your clients to pay upfront?

Have a transparent transition process

It can be uncomfortable to even think about disrupting the status quo, especially if you’ve already established yourself as someone who charges upon project completion. You may balk at the idea of contacting repeat clients to let them know that your payment terms are changing. My advice is to set a very clear transition timeline and keep your clients informed every step of the way. Finish up whatever projects you have already agreed upon, honoring your existing terms and conditions. At the same time, set a strict date or time frame in which your new terms and conditions come into effect. For new potential clients, inform them as soon as possible that you require payment upfront so that you don’t waste anyone’s time.

Remain professional and resolute

Do not succumb to the pitfalls of apologizing for or arguing about your terms and conditions. Whether you’re a freelancer or business owner, you have already had to market yourself, and presenting these terms as a reasonable part of doing business with someone as competent and capable as you makes the client more likely to accept. But if you come across like an amateur, the client will understandably be hesitant to trust that you can and will deliver your end of the bargain. And bending the rules for one client creates a risky precedent, especially if you rely on word-of-mouth for lead generation. If the client refuses to pay upfront, simply wish them the best and move on.

Provide value

As with any other kind of negotiation, value is key. It’s a matter of supply and demand, particularly if you know that you fill a gap in the market. Perhaps you provide a rare product, hold unique expertise, or you deliver a faster or more convenient service or one of a higher quality. Do everything you can to ensure that you create value to the client – and then highlight that value. Publish past testimonials, reviews, and recommendations or feature examples of your work to share with potential clients.

Incorporate a guarantee or other incentive

Payment terms are very much a give-and-take situation. It’s only fair that the client should be as protected as you are when you mandate payment upfront. A full or partial refund clause in client agreements give them an avenue to recoup their investment if, for some reason, one should fail to meet their end of the bargain. It also shows clients how confident you are that you will hit your deliverables. It give them a similar level of risk reduction that payment upfront gives you. Alternatively, some kind of incentive or discount for upfront payments could sweeten the deal.

Take a deep breath and just go for it

A simple fact of life is that you won’t get what you don’t ask for. There will never be a perfect time to make the switch to upfront payments. Yes, you likely will face a few disgruntled clients at first. But you’ll have to do that anyway, even if you never ask for payment upfront. It’s hard at first but it gets easier with time. Think of it this way: when was the last time you paid for a cinema ticket after seeing the movie? At some point, certain business conventions become standard, and your clients will accept them as a given part of doing business with you.

There are very few legitimate reasons for a client not to pay you upfront, unless they don’t trust you, don’t have confidence in your work or weren’t planning to pay you in the first place. In the first two instances, the client might withhold payment as a form of control, to ensure they are happy with the finished work. But if the project specifications and deliverables are very clear from the get-go and there’s some type of “guarantee” in the agreement, the customer can be assured of their satisfaction. And as for the third type of client…they can, respectfully, go pound sand.

Although establishing a strict upfront payment policy may ruffle some feathers and even cause you some discomfort to begin with, the benefits will far outweigh any fleeting unpleasantness. Much like in our personal lives, implementing and enforcing boundaries is healthy and helps to ensure a fair, sustainable, and productive relationship with the client.

Fatima Zaidi is the CEO and founder of podcasting hosting platform and production agency Quill Inc. and CoHost.

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