When a client won’t pay

Last week, for the very first time, I removed a client’s website from their host. The website has been up for over four months and we have yet to receive one cent in payment. In a saturated web development market in which our company (like many other small agencies) sometimes has to struggle to convince clients of the value of quality design and code (versus the “nephew with a copy of FrontPage”), we actually like to get paid for the work we do. I find it disturbing and inexcusable that a client will consciously ask for a website, approve the quote (in writing), and then simply not pay when the work is done. No excuse whatsoever.

If this client had informed me of any complaints which were heavy duty enough to withhold payment (there aren’t), I would have listened. If this client would have informed me of cashflow problems, I would have listened. But not paying, never being available by phone, never returning my many calls or responding to the many letters, and still enjoying the benefits of a new website? Uh, let me think. No. Delete.

We take pride in being flexible and providing clients with the best possible service, and we have some mighty important references who’ll back that up. I guess I’m a bit surprised about this because it’s never happened before. But maybe it comes with the territory.

Anyone have similar horror stories? How did you resolve? Please share.

14 thoughts on “When a client won’t pay

  1. I had the same problem, twice! A website is a custom made product and if a client doesn’t pay, you can’t do anything with it and just have to delete it. There is nothing to do about it (so far as I now). I am also curious if someone found a solution other than a bailiff.

  2. Colin, I hope to never have this problem a second time, but I guess it’s all part of the business. It would be much worse if we as designers weren’t in the position to remove the site. Think about all those print designers who’ve paid all the print work, but in turn don’t get paid! Often, the client already has the printed work in their possession. That’s tough!

  3. What happens if you’ve pulled a site from the client’s server for non-pay?

    I have admin privs on the machine.

  4. @Jim: I’m not sure what could happen, I only know that in my situation, it was completely appropriate to remove the site in question. Some clients can get quite nasty; I would consult a lawyer when in doubt.

  5. I thaught that this would never happen to me.

    I worked 2 full weeks on a website for a client that asked to be online asap. Though the client is satisfied with my work (I know because the person that referred the client to me told me), I still haven’t received the check a month after.

    I called the client 2 weeks ago to ask him in a polite manner if he unsertood the bill that I had sent him. He then told me he would send the check the week after.
    Still, nothing.

    It is very frustrating. People don’t realize the effort and money you put to create website. I will never work again without being paid upfront.

  6. I am in this situation now. I created a site for a client… had them sign a contract and they paid all but $50.. while developing that site – he asked me to make a mini site for them, Its not included in the original contract. well , we finished the mini site, I give them a quote, posted it live… then started receiving emails saying they wanted documentation, and training, and would not pay me till they got that. (I never considered that in my quote). Well they changed the FTP information and now I feel like there is nothing I can do.

    I tried to be persistent, but now they are saying that they don’t owe me anything, and that it was in the original contract! So I ended up getting a lawyer. Its obviously not in the contract – and especially because they are planning on reselling my work! This makes me never want to do freelance work again! =(

  7. @Tanya: Sorry you’re in that situation. I’ve been in your shoes. I’ve found the following practices helpful:

    • Quoting up front
    • Getting written acceptance of the quote before beginning work (yes, a contract)
    • Any work not explicitly mentioned in the quote has not been quoted, and is therefore additional work which will be quoted separately as above.
    • The site goes live only after written acceptance of the work provided. After all, if they’re unhappy with the site, there’s no reason to go live, is there?

    Unfortunately, I had to discover this through trial-and-error, as I tend to trust people too easily. The above is a pretty effective filter against the unscrupulous.

  8. Thank you for your advice – it really helps to talk to others that have been there and know what it feels like. =)

  9. Get all the money up front if the project is under $2500. If it’s over $2500 then take a $2500 deposit. Once you do $2500 of work make them pay more before you go forward.

    Needless to say we’ve never been beat out of a job.

  10. I built a nation specific news portal for the new nation of South Sudan. After months of wrangling I was paid for the site but its been nearly a year and I still haven’t been paid for the hosting even though I’ve asked numerous times.

    In my last email to him I said that if I was not paid within a week I would reposess the site. Normally when hosting is not paid the site is removed. However I thought the site would be worth more to me up (as its an example of my portfolio work and I control the hosting).

    I have since reposessed the site and own it. Has anyone else reposessed a site like this.

  11. @David: Isn’t keeping the site up like giving them free hosting? You can show a portfolio without having the project public. (e.g. private server or something). If they have paid for the site but not the hosting, you could just give them the files and cancel the hosting account.

    But as long as you’re doing what’s best for yourself given the circumstances, then you’re fine.

  12. I have a client, a big fashion brand. They asked me to develop something for them. So I did, and worked in a tight deadline. I got about 90% done and had to stop the job because of a family emergency. Now they said they used my budget to pay another developer to finish the job. I said I don’t care, pay me for the hours that I worked. We are going back and forth now.

    Should I get a lawyer? I am angry because these guys screwed me many times before with their tight budgets… And underpaid me many times. I don’t want to let this go, and want to squeeze the last penny from them.

  13. I’m not a lawyer, so I would always advise you to find a good one and ask them for advice. It could be that trying to get the money you’re owed will cost more than the amount due. Your lawyer can advise you on this and more. In my case, I ended up hiring a lawyer and having to pay them as well as never getting the money I was owed (the client had covered his tracks with all kinds of legal tricks). Small consolation: he never got the site—although he did hire someone to try and make a design that looked somewhat like ours. I doubt that firm ever got paid, either.

    Just be careful and get legal support if you’re not willing to just cut your losses.

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