Delayed and non-payments: the scourge of freelancers


Not being paid sucks. However, I’d like to think that my clients are reasonable people and reasonable people do want to keep their accounts current.

So why do companies not pay on time? The most common reasons are:

  1. Paperwork bottleneck
  2. Financial problems
  3. A mismatch of delivery expectations

We shall discuss the first two because they are the easiest to address.

Paperwork bottlenecks are the easiest to prevent and the fastest to solve. Don’t be the bottleneck yourself. Send in the invoices on time and if the delay is merely administrative and not related to your service…send them gentle nudges.

If your client has financial problems, then there is nothing else you can do on your end. We discuss this at the end of the article.


If delayed payments are attributed to your service, that is when it gets tricky. Clients usually withhold payment for non-delivery of service, even when you feel you had done your work. This can be further categorised into:

  • Real non-delivery
  • Perceived non-delivery, otherwise known as dissatisfaction

It is not always easy to differentiate between the two and you have to consider the reason for dissatisfaction.

When freelancer and service buyer start work, they are often all too eager to begin work and fail to take steps to communicate and carefully document the deliverables.

Use as many tools as you can to quantify as much as possible what is required:

  • Spreadsheets
  • Tables
  • Appendixes
  • Pantone codes/ material samples/ wireframes
  • Timelines that are accurate to the date
  • Print/video/graphic samples
  • Pencil mockups

If your work is in the area of creative work, do as many pencil drawings as you can to capture what your client needs. Try to avoid subjective language. In fact, try to avoid language. If your area of work is non-verbal, it is quite useless to try and describe milestones by words.

If your work is technical, you need to draw up a list of deliverables, features and document how they expect the user experience to be.

Finally, get everything signed off.

Dedicate lots of time and a lot of paperwork to capture and document client expectations as much as possible. It is better to spend more time at this stage than to build something that the client reviews and tells you is not what he wants. It might seem tedious, but consider it an economical expense of time.

How to deal with cancellations/change of plans?

Cancellations do happen, as do changes in direction. Your contract must discuss this difficult issue. It is normal practice to ask for up to 50% payment upfront before work commences. The client must know that if there are cancellations, you have the right to retain the payment. There are costs to pay for after all.

If the work is starting to take another direction altogether, your client must understand that there were costs involved in starting work and these changes ought to be re-started in a new contract.

If it is a retainer contract, pay careful attention to how the contract can end. You cannot assume that a client will continue to use you, no matter how good the relationship is.

Now, what if it is not your fault but a client withholds payment from you?

Don’t start with talking about your legal rights at the slightest surface of problems. Legal demands are a turn-off and when you begin with the big stick, you risk losing any claims to your fee and have to take the very troublesome, expensive and time consuming route of engaging a legal battle.

If they are struggling financially, perhaps negotiate for partial payment. This may turn out well because a struggling client today, may become wealthier later on and this gesture today can work in your favour.

Use soft nudges, nag a little if you must. But always keep discussions open if a client has cancelled or is slow in paying you.

When non-payment or delay is persistent, you might want to consider withdrawal of services. Generally speaking, non-payment could amount to breach of contract and you are not obliged to continue delivery (this is of course subject to your unique contractual circumstance).

If the client insists on not paying, even though your end of the bargain has held up… don’t take out your legal guns yet. Invite them to mediation at the Singapore Mediation Centre or ask if your association/guild provides these services (assuming you have joined a guild or association).

Finally, if all else fails and if your claims are not above $20000, you can consider taking your case to the Small Claims Tribunal. Tribunals are good places to hear the case. It costs very little money and no lawyers are allowed to represent the parties.

So to sum up:

  • Engage in copious amounts of communication and take charge of deliverables
  • If the client has real difficulties, help him out
  • If the client is just being an arse, look for mediation
  • The courts may possibly be one of the worst places to seek resolution for both parties. Use mediation or go through your association/guilds first.
  • Mismanagement of expectations is the most common reason for delayed payment. Document everything, write good contracts and leave nothing to the client’s imagination.


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