What to do when a client won't pay
You’ll have probably watched some YouTube clip of a builder, plumber, or other tradesperson, taking their revenge on a client’s property after not receiving payment for the work completed.
It’s makes for good TV…the tradesperson marching into the client’s home or garden and ripping out the bathroom/fencing/extension they fitted. It also allows them to vent the frustration they likely feel after chasing payment time and time again.
Unfortunately, there are bad clients out there. People who engage the services of tradespeople even though they have no intention of ever paying for the work completed. It’s not right, it’s not clever—in fact, it’s a big pain in the rear; however, there are things you can do if you find yourself in such a situation, which don’t require you to smash up the results of all your hard work.
Some of the following suggestions could also apply to fellow traders who may have failed to settle their credit account with you, if you’re a merchant of some sort; however, for the purposes of this article, we’re going to talk about business-to-consumer, where a tradesperson has provided a service to someone that has improved their property then they fail to pay part, or all, of the bill.
Ask for a deposit
Insisting on a percentage of the overall cost before work starts won’t necessarily stop someone from not paying the remainder; however, it will prevent you from being massively out of pocket whilst you follow other methods to get the rest. It’s wise to ask for an amount that covers the materials, then it’s only payment for your labour/time that’s outstanding.
By insisting on a deposit before work begins, you will likely flush out a lot of the timewasters and crooks planning to take you for a ride.
It’s also a good idea to carry out credit checks on new clients, so that you can see how they typically deal with debts. Experian is one of the larger credit reference agencies, and there are others out there that you can consult for this information.
Communicate in the first instance
As the work progresses, keep in contact with your client and inform them of anything important, such as time delays, material supply issues, or any unforeseen challenges.
If they don’t pay their invoice within the allotted time, before taking the legal route, get in touch and ask why they’ve not made payment, as there could be a genuine reason. They may have suffered a bereavement or lost their job, for example. Whilst neither reason warrants non-payment, a little understanding if there is a reasonable excuse will help your reputation; suggest a payment plan if finances are the issue, or a bit of breathing space if they’re dealing with a death in the family, for example.
Exercise your rights
Of course, for every bona-fide reason, there will be some that are absolute tosh. As mentioned, there are some people that can only be described as stains on the fabric of society who try and pull a fast one wherever they can.
With every client, you should both sign a contract of works before you begin. In this contract should be your policy on late payment and the action you will take if the money isn’t received when due.
If you can’t get in touch with the client or they’re just giving excuse after excuse when asked for payment, engage the services of professionals who will legally pursue the outstanding debt, e.g. go through the small claims court or pass the debt on to a collection agency, etc.
If the allotted time to pay has expired, you’re within your rights to charge interest on the outstanding amount; if you plan to exercise this right, ensure this consequence is detailed in your initial statement of works/contract with the client. If payment isn’t forthcoming, point out to the client that the debt will increase if payment is further delayed. What began as a manageable amount could soon spiral into something much more significant, which they would be liable to pay. The law is on your side.
If the reason the client won’t pay their bill comes down to a complaint about your work, in the first instance, try and come to some agreement with them with regards to rectifying the issue. The client can’t legally hold back the full costs of the work, only the sum related to the element they’re complaining about.
Obviously, this takes some negotiation, and it may be that the client insists on using a third party to make things right—if this is the case, they may ask you to deduct the cost of the remedial work to be deducted from the overall bill.
This scenario can be straightforward or a nightmare; it depends on the nature of the complaint and whether you and the client agree on it being your full responsibility. If, after negotiations take place, no agreement can be reached, it may be a matter for your solicitor/the courts.
It’s likely that 97.5% of your clients will be fully satisfied with your work and will pay up, without quibbling, the amount owed when payment is due (or before). The remaining 2.5% may drive you to such distraction that you feel like throwing in the towel; however, just remember that they’re a small, unfortunate and negative aspect of being self-employed. Luckily, there are a number of professionals who can help you recover your payment. Remember also that the law, ultimately, has your back.
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