Feb 13, 2018
A guide for freelance tutors to the ins and outs of ensuring that your invoices don’t go unheeded by clients – and what to do in the unfortunate event payment isn’t made.
Getting paid for a job well done is half the pleasure (or more) of doing business. A client’s failure to pay for your tutoring services therefore can be a major financial burden, especially when your business cycle is slow. At the very least, it can be a difficult conversation to have with your client.
It’s important to bear in mind that every client's situation is different – something all tutors can appreciate. So your response to a late payment will be different every time, too. For some clients, you might be comfortable with a more lenient policy of following up on late payments. For others, depending on the circumstances, you might adopt a stronger approach.
In any case, here are some simple guidelines to making sure you have a clear financial relationship with your clients, and what to do in the worst-case scenarios when payments aren’t being made.
First off, this is more a wise precaution than a step in the process of getting paid on time.
By taking the proper precautions to set up your business relationship in the first place, you can save yourself and the client a lot of stress down the track. What’s more, the more preparatory work you put at the start, the more professional you’ll look handling any problems down the track.
Ideally, you should have a written contract with your client that sets out:
Written contracts don’t need to be fancy. As long as they contain the above terms in plain language, and the client is capable of understanding them and signs and dates the contract, you have an enforceable agreement.
In the event you don’t have a written contract, not to worry, the law has you covered. While it can be more difficult to enforce specific terms (or not all, like late fees), an unwritten agreement for your services can exist where:
Depending on your client’s financial position, you might consider the smart option of asking for pre-payment for services to be rendered. You can even include a contractual term that states if you don’t provide the quantity of services as billed, you will refund the difference to your client, or apply it to the next billing cycle.
Ensure that your invoice is written in a clear, succinct, and professional manner.
A proper invoice should include:
Generally, you should give your client sufficient time to fit the invoice into their own financial planning. While your client should already be aware of when they need to pay you (e.g., at the end of the month), including language on your bill like “Please make payment immediately.” or “Please make payment within seven (7) days.” will focus your client’s attention.
Now that you’re covered as far as contracts and invoices go, what happens when clients don’t pay?
Non-payment of your invoice could be for any number of reasons. A client may be under financial stress or too busy (especially if they’re a parent, after all!). Or they may have simply forgotten about it.
A first notice should be simple and to the point, but also understanding of potential complications that prevented payment in the first place.
If you have an upcoming session with the client or their student, you can gently remind them that you have an outstanding invoice. It’s good business practice, however, to always follow up with things in writing. So, if you’ve spoken to your client and they promise to pay an outstanding invoice, you can send a follow up text or email after your meeting, such as:
Thanks for discussing my late invoice! I confirm that you’ll pay it by next Friday. Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns before then.
A written record protects you, and provides your client with a convenient reminder of their contractual obligation.
This is where things can get critical, and should be in writing.
If a client promised to pay your outstanding invoice after receiving a first notice, your second notice should be more forceful, but polite. After all, you want to preserve a client relationship wherever possible and mutually beneficial. Your client’s financial stress may have gone further south and they’re keeping details from you. All’s fair in the world, but excuses won’t get you paid.
Before issuing a second notice, try to contact your client. If you can reach your client by phone or in person, ensure the conversation stays on track about non-payment. Do they need to negotiate a payment plan? Do they need more time? These are questions only you can answer, depending on what terms you’re comfortable accepting.
Whatever the result of your conversation, use clear and professional language to communicate when you expect to get paid, and what will happen if payment is still not made. If your terms included any late fees, include them in your second notice.
If you intend to terminate your services if payment isn’t made, your second notice should be explicit about that as well. By remaining courteous in your language, you can let clients know that you’re sensitive to any financial pressures they may be experiencing while enforcing the terms of your agreement.
If your student is under the age of 18, remember that they are not your client for the purposes of your contract. Your contract is with the person hiring your services, namely their parent or guardian.
Your student shouldn’t be involved in any financial discussions with your client. Maintaining a professional distance between you and your student ensures that you protect them and you from any unnecessary drama.
However, in the event that you may be terminating your services, you can kindly explain to your student the situation. They don’t need to know all the details. Keep the conversation short and sweet, and encourage them to focus on their studies.
Like anyone providing a service, freelance tutors need to prepare themselves for the remote possibility that a business relationship may just not be worth it. If you’re experiencing difficulty in broaching finances with your client, and an invoice is going unpaid, follow through with your intention to terminate your services.
Terminating your services upon not receiving payment, after providing fair and reasonable notices, is your way to communicate to others that you’re a serious professional.
However, if you and your client come to an agreement about past services and payment, and you’re comfortable proceeding with the relationship, consider asking for payment upfront of any negotiated past sums and any services going forward.
If it’s a small sum in question, and your client is suffering financially, you might write off the invoice as a lost cause. But if it’s money you’d prefer in your wallet, and it doesn’t exceed $5,000 (in New York; other states’ small claims amounts may differ), suing your client (or anyone, for that matter) is always a last resort.