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How do I avoid disagreement over fees at the end of a project?

Community member Amy S. asks about a situation where her client thought she was working for free - and asked "How can I avoid this happening again?"

"I recently had an issue with a client where I had written a piece for them and then when I sent them an invoice they claimed it was a test/sample piece. How do people avoid this? The piece was over 2000 words and they admitted it was publishable, but refused to pay as it was apparently a 'test' - something we had not agreed on."

Amy's situation is unfortunately not unusual, especially with copywriting and journalism - and all too often, there's an expectation that work might be done for free - but how do you avoid the situation from happening?

Amy asked the community for advice, and you answered.

"In the future, try as much as possible to agree on a contract, terms and payment terms before starting with a company."

The very best way to avoid any awkward conversations or miscommunication after you've completed the work is by making sure you've agreed in writing what you're being asked to do. This might be called a contract, a scope of work, a purchase order, a quote, but whatever label you want to give it - it's simply an agreement from your client that they are committing to the project. The agreement should include at its absolute minimum what you've agreed to deliver and how much they'll pay for it - but can also include when you'll deliver and what any sort of acceptance criteria are. It can also include things like how long they'll take to pay you, what you'll need to get started, any agreement on upfront part-payments or deposits, but at the very least - make sure you have an agreement on what you're delivering and for how much before you start work.

"ALWAYS follow up with email and terms document that they have to agree"

Don't rely upon conversations on the phone, zoom, or a handshake face to face - follow up in writing with your agreement which they agree to. It can feel like a boring admin task to do, but there are tools which you can use to automate it to a certain extent. Freeagent, for instance, has a "quotes" feature which allows you to send a quote and get it approved. Hellosign and Docusign have tools to get a digital signature easily, and even if you're not using those tools - you can create a proforma document with the details you'd want included.

"I charge 50% upfront for clients. It feels like anyone serious about what they’re getting from a freelancer won’t ask for this sort of thing - when you go in with the 50% invoice that’s when shiz gets serious - if they’re a decent client they won’t hesitate to pay it."

Getting a deposit is another way of securing confidence from the client that they're entirely serious about taking the project forward. What percentage you choose to charge will depend on your relationship with the client, the length and scale of the project, and ultimately how confident you are in asking, but if they refuse to pay at least a small proportion of the project upfront, or are not willing to sign off on a contract to start, this should be a major red flag, especially for new clients.

"I think it’s unfair of the client not to have been upfront about this. I’ve come across clients who want a sample but that’s been clear from the start."

It's entirely possible this situation was entirely a miscommunication - which is why it's essential to be upfront and clear in communication about what you're delivering, but at the same time, asking for a sample of work should never come at a cost to you - you're more than likely to have an existing portfolio of work which they can review, and even if you're brand new to freelancing, creating work for free is never acceptable. If you are willing to create a sample for the client, be absolutely clear that you own the work, and they are not allowed to use it, unless they've paid for your time.

"Don’t let it put you off. I think you were unlucky to start off with such an unprofessional client."

These sort of experiences are unfortunately all too common, and to a certain extent, it is part of the experience - so do what you can to minimise the frustration by putting small habits in place around how you work, like contracts up front and sign-off documents when you've submitted work. It will help reduce the situations from happening too frequently, and help you avoid engaging with bad clients.


Thanks to David, Nik, Letitiah, and Eleanor for offering their advice and support to Amy.

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