Email Cheat Sheet: How to Get Clients to Pay You

Illustration by Atipus via

Clients can’t seem to stop emailing you when they need assets, edits, and updates on projects. Yet when the project wraps and you want to get paid, an uncanny email silence often ensues. When the client needed things from you, the emails flowed like water. Now that you need something, the well runs dry. How to deal with this aggravating situation?

The best way to avoid having to beg your clients for money is to anticipate this unsavory situation — and plan to avoid it — long before it arrives. That means having an honest and professional conversation about money upfront with all your clients. These are the key issues you should address:

Set the terms for payment before the project starts. What is your fee? On what schedule will it be paid? For example, you might require 50 percent on project start and 50 percent on completion. How will it be paid (e.g., check, wire transfer, PayPal, etc.)? The client will be extremely motivated to work out these details if you clarify that they must be firmed up before the project starts. If you wait until after the project starts or, worse, when it’s finished, the client is significantly less invested.

An example of how you can broach the subject of payment after you agree on a fee:

Hi Tim — Excited to be collaborating on this project! Before we get started I want to make sure we’re on the same page about fees and payment terms. (Boring, I know, but it helps me keep the lights on.)
My standard billing terms are a 50% deposit on project start and then the remaining 50% due upon project completion after I send you final files and they are approved. Because we’re in different countries, PayPal is probably the easiest payment system for us to use. Does that work for you?
If you can confirm, I’ll pop these details into a brief contract and shoot it over to you for electronic signature. Then we can get going on the fun stuff!

Have the client to sign a contract. Once you’ve agreed on the terms, put them in writing and have the client sign a contract. Then if things go south, you have legal protection. But more importantly you have conveyed that you have a professional attitude toward managing your projects and getting paid. When you share the agreement with your client, bear in mind that no one is going to fax you back a paper contract in this day and age. There are a variety of online services and apps that allow you to source basic contract templates, tailor them to your specific needs, and send the final document for electronic signature. Shake and Docracy are both great resources for sourcing and signing contracts.

Invoice the client promptly. Much to my chagrin, many of the freelancers I’ve hired over the years were terrible about invoicing in a timely manner. The longer you wait to bill after the project is complete, the more distance the client feels from owing you anything. What’s more, people like to get rid of money when they’ve budgeted for it, not months later. All of which means: Leverage the natural momentum of the project and bill immediately upon completion. (And if you’re doing a deposit to start the project, do not start the project until the deposit is received.) An example of a follow-up email to invoice a client:

Hi Tim — Glad the final files looked good! It’s been a real pleasure to work with you guys on this project.
Attached is my invoice for the 50% balance due on project completion. I’ve included my email address on the invoice so you can send payment via PayPal as we discussed.
Looking forward to working together again in the future!

Basically, if you seem like you’re serious about money, the client is more likely to take the idea of paying you seriously. If it seems like you don’t have your shit together and don’t really care about getting paid, well, can you really blame the client for not caring either?

This email “cheat sheet” is from my new book, Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done. For 18 more email cheat sheets on everything from managing angry customers to reconnecting with old contacts to delivering criticism, pick up a copy here.