Originally published on November 19, 2015.
It's a matter of when, not if. You are going to have at least one client who tries to weasel out of a deal with you, contract or not.
When Bad Things Happen to Good Creatives
When I called off my wedding in 2012, I already had deposits on a videographer, venue, dress and invitations. There was some kind of contract in place for each one of those things, except my invitations, which I purchased off of Etsy. They were to be hand-illustrated to look like us standing in front of the venue where we were getting married (I still think the idea is cute!). The illustrator was in high demand, and even though we didn't have a contract per se, she did state in her seller description how the payment worked, and I clearly owed her money in consideration of the other clients she denied to have time to work on my invitations.
As much as it hurt to send her $700 for literally nothing, I did it anyway. I guess I could have been a real you-know-what and walked away, but that's not my style. I'm not an angel though- the thought definitely did cross my mind.
So what do you do if you have a client who decides not to send you the money? Or show up for her photo session? Or cancels after you've turned down five other brides for her date? What do you do if the flowers are already purchased, designed and in place and the bride calls off the wedding the morning of? Or if someone spills beer all over your laptop at the reception? Or what if YOU'RE the client and your creative counterpart doesn't deliver?
What do you do when your client goes rogue?
Everyone talks about "oh, you need a contract," but no one seems to be discussing what you actually need to do once your contract terms are breached. Whether there is a breach of your contract and what you can recuperate is going to be very fact-specific to your situation, but hopefully this general guide can start to point you in the right direction. I know I always feel better when I have a game plan, and I can't be the only one. So here's your game plan ladies!
Step 1- Do some research.
Determine if you think there actually has been a breach of your contract with your client. In some cases, this is easy, such as the bride with cold feet who doesn't show up to her wedding. However, real life is rarely so simple and generous. Often it's necessary to do some research to see if she actually has breached your contract. The first place to look is in your own backyard- go back and re-read your contract. Grab your highlighter and highlight anything you think is relevant that is good for you in one color, and anything you think might be detrimental in another.
Step 2 • Cool off
This is crucial for Step 3 to succeed. If you are seething mad, you're not going to do anything to help you or your client in this situation. Unless you're in jail, there aren't many legal emergencies. In fact you probably have at least six months in your state to take action, legally speaking (oral contracts usually require faster action.) Now is the time to write that scathing email and leave the space next to "To:" blank. Save the email as a draft. Don't ask me where I learned this (I read wayyy to many psychology books), but research has shown that when we are angry ("how dare she!") or frightened ("I'm not going to be able to pay my rent!") our minds get really, really clear. We are able to focus and solve problems at a faster and clearer rate. How much do you feel like you want to DO something, anything, to solve the problem that made you angry or scared? Yeah, it's biological. So just chill out for a day or two. A day or two probably isn't long enough to scare off potential clients if you don't answer their emails or miss out on booking someone else.
Step 3 • Talk
This may be the most important thing you can do, BUT only if you can do it nicely.
After you've cooled off for at least a day or two (and maybe vented to some biz buds), you might reach out to the client or creative who owes you something under the contract (money, photos, design work, etc.). Remember, kindness kills. The energy you bring to any situation is the energy you're going to get back, so choose wisely. Rather than rattle off that angry email, try picking up the phone and calling them. Write out a 'nice-lady' script if you need to in order to kick off the conversation in a good way. A great way to reach a mutual understanding is to ask the other person, "what's going on? do you need someone to talk to?" As Elle Woods said, "Happy people just don't shoot their husbands." Not that I want to be like Elle, but she is a fake lawyer with a real point. Brides don't just run away from their wedding because they're so in love. Designers don't just stop responding to texts and emails because they enjoy what they do too much.
Chances are, the bride or creative is going through something, and the last thing they need is another angry/disappointed/mean person in their life. Talking can resolve so many problems, including money issues. Just showing you care about them is enough to make most people pay what they owe, because they would feel awful if they didn't. Money isn't everything- I'm not advocating you manipulate this person, but I am asking you to put yourself in their shoes. What would you want someone to say to you?
Helpful Hint: Fair warning, this might ick some of you out. Check out the recording laws in your state. You may be allowed to record your phone conversation without telling the other person. If you eventually need to take legal action, you have your conversations in addition to any written correspondence like email to provide proof of the breach. Even if it's icky, it's important to remember you need to take care of yourself to keep providing your creative gifts to the world.
Step 4 • Be persistent
We are all busy and sometimes need reminders. You might need to call and email this person a few times to make everything right. It only takes a few minutes of your time (I know, and lots of your sanity) but if you rinse and repeat steps 3-4, it will resolve most issues.
Step 5 • Get an Attorney Involved
Y'all, we're already five steps in and I'm just now bringing up anything legal. This is important because I believe you have the ability to make powerful decisions for your creative business on your own. You don't always need an attorney.
If the potentially breaching party has stopped responding to your texts, calls and emails, it might be time to contact a lawyer to see if they can do anything for you, like send a demand letter (demanding payment.) I've said it before and I'll say it again- most lawyers offer free consultations and your state bar is always able to point you in the right (sometimes free) direction.
STEP 6 • DON'T LET IT HAPPEN IN THE FIRST PLACE
I saved the best for last. Don't let this happen to you from the start! Make sure you get all the funds you need to cover any initial out of pocket costs in your client retainer, and clients should expect to pay professionals prior to delivery of services. For example, most wedding photographers get the full amount due at least 15 days prior to shooting the wedding. And I don't know any successful calligrapher who sends out final invitations prior to getting 100% paid.
I would recommend you try to get any outstanding balance 30+ days prior to the event or wedding date. Show your clients why you're worth it through amazing branding, outstanding (but accurate) testimonials, and satisfaction guarantees in case they have concerns.
Questions? Comments? Hit me up below (for real! I read them!)