This serious business problem is unfortunately as common as sunrise. We have advice that worked for us on how to get paid and how to prevent future problems.
Client didn’t deliver the content and now I can’t finish the website and get paid. How do I make him pay?
The situation unfolds like this:
- The client pays the 50% deposit and the web agency begins work. Design first, development second, content last.
- The agency finishes 95% of the website and waits for the client to start delivering the content.
- The client can’t seem to find the time to create content. The agency calls the client every week and urges him to deliver or enter content. Weeks and months pass; still no content.
- The agency now starts calling the client to demand payment. The client refuses because “the website is not finished and the contract says we should pay after project launch”.
95% done and only 50% paid. The agency is now held hostage by the client. This situation used to majorly disrupt our agency’s cash flow. We were not alone. Take a look at what this agency founder said, emphasis mine:
One of my biggest personal challenges whilst building and growing our digital agency was getting content developed with clients. This became such a challenge that on multiple occasions it nearly put me out of business.
Here’s what you can do right now
I’m going to assume that you’ve signed the contract with the client, agreeing the remaining 50% (or the whole sum) to be paid “after the website is finished”. You cannot change the contract now, but you can do three things which I had success with.
Call the client and respectfully explain your situation in the least aggressive, least apologetic way you can.
Tell him that you’ve completed 95% of everything you’ve agreed on and received only 50% of the payment. Explain to him that, although your contract says what it says, that it is assumed that the client would delivered the content within a reasonable time frame. What you’re experiencing now is not what you expected.
Make them a direct, reasonable offer: they should pay 45% of the project value and the remaining 5% after website launch.
Say something like this:
Do you feel it’s fair that I now ask to be paid 95% if I delivered 95% of the project, given that I am willing to wait however long it takes for you to deliver the content?
Only an unreasonable person would say no to this. With an offer like this, you’re determining what kind of a client you’re dealing with here. You’ll make important decisions later based on how they treat your offer now.
The words “feel” and “fair” are key here. Most clients do feel like they’re fair people and they will want to act in consistency with how they feel about themselves.
Some clients will be reasonable enough to pay you. Maybe they make you a counter-offer and maybe it will be something that you’d be willing to accept. Anything that gets you closer to being paid in full as soon as possible is good.
If they say they will pay you, you need to agree on the exact date of payment, which should not be far in the future. Suggest that they should pay by the end of this week. Tell them that you’d be sending them an email summarizing what you just discussed, and that they should simply reply to it to confirm.
This email is very important. You will need written communication later, should there be any serious problems with this client.
If they fail to pay you on that date, call the client the day after and remind them of their promise. Again, how they behave and how they treat you in this process will tell you everything you need to know to make important decisions later.
Use this as an opportunity to uncover problems and sell additional consulting services.
Your client may be stuck in content creation for various reasons. Assume that they are good people who are not fully aware of your problems because their problems seem more important to them. Your client also probably lacks education about content creation and needs guidance.
Call your client and offer (billable) help with content creation. Remind them of the importance of their website launching as soon as possible (they will start getting new leads and new sales as soon as the website launches).
Tell this to your client:
I could send someone over / schedule a phone call with your colleagues who are in charge of content creation, and work with them. Our usual hourly fee would apply and I guarantee that our involvement will significantly speed up the whole process AND make the content better.
A client who needs his website up as soon as possible will be delighted to hear what you can do to help them launch sooner. You might learn that they thought you didn’t offer consulting about content planning and creation.
If they sound interested, sell them a package of, let’s say, ten hours or more, and move the project closer to completion. Needless to say, they should pay for these extra services immediately.
If they are not interested, the website is not high on their list of priorities. That’s up to them, but paying you fairly and squarely for your services rendered should be - if they are fair people.
Your last option is to simply wait and get paid in the future.
You really have no ground to take this client to court or forcefully get your money. You could if your contract was clear about how to resolve a situation like this. I assume it’s not clear and that you are now being held hostage by someone who you thought was a good client.
Only for clients with whom you’ve already gone through attempts #1 and #2 we just discussed, prepare the following speech (and don’t forget to later send an email that says exactly the same):
Mr. Client, we have been waiting for you to deliver on your part of the deal and we cannot wait any longer. You said that you don’t want to pay until the website is finished and that you do not need our consulting services. That’s fine. We have taken on new projects and we’re putting your project on hold. When you’re ready to continue the project, call me and I will schedule your project for completion.
It is in your best interest to be firm yet polite: you’re waiting to be paid a lot of money which you have earned with your work.
What you’re not telling your client is what happens when they do call.
When they call, they will be probably be in a lot of hurry. You will then demand to be paid the remaining 50% upfront. You will schedule the project to the first available time slot only after the client has paid you. Tell them that verbatim. It is them who need to prove themselves to you now and you can demand this without feeling bad about it.
This works. A big client of ours once owed us a non-trivial amount of money for six months. We urged them to pay, they said they would every time, but they never did. We could have taken them to court because we have delivered 100% of the project, but we decided to wait. And never once lost our cool. At some point, they called to ask us to do some urgent work for them. We politely reminded them that they have a big unpaid invoice and that we would continue working with them after they’ve paid the bill. They did, without giving us any hard time, and we proceeded as if nothing happened. They are still our client.
Do not agree to be paid 45% or any less than the full amount now. That offer has expired a long time ago. This is an important demonstration of your attitude and determination which will come handy in future discussions with this client.
Some clients will not like your attitude. They will tell you you’re unprofessional; some will threaten to sue you; others will disgruntledly pay the same day and then demand that you pause work on all other projects and jump to theirs.
Expect this to happen. It is normal. Clients who resort to intimidation are used to getting what they want that way. It works for them most of the time.
You will not fall for that. It’s a bluff. Don’t let the client intimidate you with anything that might be in your contract because they will most probably not act on that (they know it’s them who haven’t played nice).
This is a filter, remember? If you don’t get any money from them, it’s a good thing because you’d be losing a jerk client. You’ve already made peace with losing that money months ago. What you’re now doing is damage control and assessment of the possibility of future cooperation with that client. Filter out the jerks and work only with clients who behave respectfully in stressful situations.
And when they finally pay you, schedule the project for after you’ve completed your ongoing projects. There is no rush because you have obligations toward other clients who do keep their promises. Do not reschedule other projects just because this client is now in a hurry.
Again, how you act now is an important demonstration of how you handle clients who don’t keep their promises and expectations. The most professional thing you can do right now is to honor the promises you gave to your other clients and schedule this resurrected project in the first available time slot. It’s your other ongoing projects who deserve to be treated preferentially, not this client. Clients who will give you any seriously hard time about this are trouble. Reconsider whether or not you want to keep them as a client after you’ve finished and launched their project.
Do not act as if you’re teaching anybody any lessons. You’re simply reacting to how you’ve been treated. People achieve best outcomes by first cooperating and then simply doing onto others as they do onto them (the famous ‘tit for tat’ strategy in the game theory).
Prevention is much cheaper are friendlier to your cash flow
Don’t beat yourself over this if you’ve waited a few months for a client to pay you your other half. So many of us go through it.
The important thing is to learn something now and act immediately to prevent anything similar from happening in the future. You got out of this easily now. The next time it could be worse.
This is how you protect yourself.
Sign a contract and define strict and explicit payment terms.
Define the exact dates of payment. For example, spell it out in writing when you’d be invoicing your client and how much exactly they should pay:
- Deposit: $xxxx, no later than March 1st
- Next payment: $xxxy, March 20th
- Final payment: $xxxz, April 10th
Your contract must state that payments are due no matter how much of the project has been completed. I also suggest that you go over this specific clause with your client in person or over the phone so that there are no misunderstandings whatsoever about payment. Not everybody reads contracts! Do not be afraid that the client will cancel the whole deal now based on your demands. I’ve never had a client back off just because I spelled out my payment terms clearly.
Have other clauses in the contract defining what happens if your agency screws up anything. If you don’t define that, your clients will ask about it and may insist on modifying the payment terms. Do not let them touch your payment terms!
If your clients ask you why they need to pay you before you’ve completed the project, tell them honestly about your past experiences and be positive about it. Do not bad-mouth other clients! Explain that you understand that all your clients are busy, but you need to get paid on time, and your contract only makes sure that you’re not suffering damages from situations outside of your control. They will understand because at that moment, they don’t see themselves doing the same to you.
Change your web development process to “content first” approach
We’ve written a whole post about “content first” approach to website development.
This is a big change and I don’t expect you to jump straight to it. I’m just going to nudge you a bit to think about the sequence we web developers use to build and deliver websites.