A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column with "25 Rules for Better, Happier Clients." I frankly thought it was just common sense, but I have received a torrent of emails from readers saying this column has changed the way they do business.
One typical response: "I have printed out your column, reduced it to the size of a Post-it note, and I am having copies laminated so I can keep them on my computer, in my wallet and on my bedside table."
People seem to like "list" columns, so here's another one, but this time one focuses on tips and advice for billing clients so you can keep the number of "deadbeats" to a minimum.
No. 1: Bill early and often. Clients are more likely to pay frequent, small bills than a single, massive one when the job is done.
If you send your bills out late, your customers will pay late. Set aside one day a month (the fifteenth, the last Monday of the month, whatever works), type up your invoices and email them out promptly. When you finish a big job for a client, send them the invoice right away while their memories of all your hard work are fresh.
No. 2: Always, always, get some money upfront. Once you've done the work for a client, you can't take it back. Getting an upfront retainer fee sends the client a strong message that "this is someone who must be treated with respect."
No. 3: Make sure your client knows exactly when payment is due. Your client contract should state clearly that "payment is due within X days following the invoice date." Payments that are due "when the project is completed" or (worse) "when the client accepts the work" are open invitations to a fee dispute.
No. 4: Make sure your contract allows you to charge interest on overdue fees. Believe it or not, in most states it's illegal to charge interest on an invoice without warning the client first. The penalty rate should hurt: 1% or 1.5% a month is typical.
No. 5: Flat fees should always be at least 125% of what the bill would be if you charged by the hour. Don't give your clients a discount when charging a flat fee. You are taking a risk that the job will take longer than expected, so build in some padding. Make it "nonrefundable" if you can.
No. 6: Small or discounted fees should always be payable in advance. When charging a discounted or courtesy fee, you shouldn't wait to get paid. That's adding insult to injury.
No. 7: Never charge a flat fee if you are not in control of your time. I never charge a flat fee when negotiating a document with another lawyer or when the timing of a transaction depends on circumstances beyond my control. That's always an hourly fee, with perhaps a nonbinding estimate of time based on prior experience.
No. 8: Bill the most amount of time on the activity(ies) clients find most distasteful. My clients hate drafting contracts; it's a boring, tedious and frankly scary job (these suckers have to be letter perfect). So, when I bill a client, I allocate the maximum amount of time to, guess what? Drafting contracts.
No. 9: NEVER, EVER, EVER SEND A CLIENT A BILL THEY ARE NOT EXPECTING!!!!!!!!!! The surest way to get a client to hate you is to send them a bill they are not expecting. If your fee quote was $1,000, do not send a bill for $2,000 without calling the client first and working through the time spent with them.
No. 10: Never send a bill on a Friday. Especially the Friday before a long holiday weekend. If you do, it will likely be forgotten or "prioritized". Mondays are best for billing, especially late mornings when the clients are awake, refreshed and focused on their businesses.
No. 11: Always send detailed bills. Never send a bill that just says: "For services rendered ... $XXX." Those always get questioned. Show the client exactly what you did and when, and they are less likely to question the amount.
No. 12: If you did spend too much time on a project, give the client a "courtesy" reduction and show it on the invoice. This is a real ninja trick. Bill the entire amount for the work you did, but then give the client a "courtesy reduction" in the bill itself. A client who feels you were "spinning your wheels" is less likely to ask for a further reduction in your fee if you offer one up front.
No. 13: When a client stops paying, stop working! Big accounts receivable almost always start out as small ones that get out of hand. When you realize you've dug yourself into a hole with a client, stop digging. If your professional rules of ethics require you to keep working, get a HUGE upfront payment from the client to protect yourself.
No. 14: When a client stops paying twice, get a "lump sum" settlement and terminate the contract. "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." Your time is too valuable to deal with chronic deadbeats. Squeeze as much money as you can out of this loser, write off the rest and move on to a better client.
Cliff Ennico (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our Web page at www.creators.com.