The Last-Ditch Letter That Might Help You Get Paid

finalnoticeIn our last post, we discussed ways to help make sure clients pay for your work. Most clients are fine, upstanding ones, and they’ll usually demonstrate that they uphold their end of the agreement, even if they’re not happy with the work.

But sometimes, despite your best efforts, you’ll run into a client that has no intention of compensating you for the work you’ve completed and delivered.

He’s gone. He’s walked off with the goods. He’s also not answering emails, and you’re short the money. What should you do?

You have a few options. You can stress out, get angry, complain to other people and feel used or frustrated. You can feel like a failure and cry over losses. None of that is very healthy.

You could take steps towards legal action, if you choose. Should you go that route, you may be in for more heartache and headache than you need. It’s nice to see justice occur, but it may be a long road before you see any money from a client who refuses to pay. You also may not ever see money, even if a judge grants you the win.

The truth is that legal action probably isn’t an option for you, especially if your client lives in another country.

But you do need closure. You need to know that you’ve done everything you can to be fairly compensated for the work you were hired to complete. You need to be nice, be fair, be understanding and be ready to compromise or make arrangements.

Failing that, you need to make one last-ditch effort to be paid in a way that lets you cut your losses and walk away with your head held high.

Here’s a letter that you can use to accomplish just that. And before you ask, yes, we’ve used it exactly twice in our career. It worked both times.

Dear Client,

I’m writing to say thank you for reaffirming that you can’t trust everyone and that caution in the freelance world is a must.

I believe that people are essentially good and that they won’t take advantage of me. I like to think that everyone I work with is essentially decent and fair about business. But you’ve shown me that it’s important not to become too comfortable with that mindset.

For all the times I’ve told myself that people are inherently good, you’ve proved that it just ain’t so.

When you ran off with [insert work description here] and didn’t pay me for the time and effort I invested in its creation, you reminded me that there are still plenty of people out there ready to screw me over. It’s sad, but it’s true.

I earn my living through [writing/designing/marketing/whatever]. I work hard for long hours. Sometimes my kids complain that they don’t see me enough. Sometimes my family has to eat Kraft Dinner, because I’m certainly not a rich person.

Having you walk off without paying the [insert dollar amount here] hits hard, but I want to thank you anyways.

You’ve helped me be a better person, and you’ve given me a life lesson I can pass on to my children. It’s hard for me to tell them why they can’t have that new toy or why we’re eating spaghetti for the third night in a row, but I use those moments to teach them that staying positive is important.

I’m going to share the lesson you taught me to tell them a story about good values, like trust, faith and not giving up, even when times are hard. People will hurt them, people will disappoint them, and they have to look for the good in the bad. You’ve reminded me how important all this is in life, so thank you.

I honestly wish this situation between us didn’t have to happen. I wish we could have settled the matter like adults. It seems we can’t, despite my best efforts, so I have to move on.

Please note that I retain full ownership and copyright for [insert description of project]. You cannot post this work, publicize it, use it in any way or alter it in any way.

Should you decide that you feel benevolent and want to pay the outstanding amount, my PayPal is [insert account here] and the amount due is [insert amount here].

Thanks again,

Your Name Here

Alright, so the letter plays up the guilt factor an awful lot, and it taps into some seriously psychological strategies. You can edit out what you don’t like and keep what you do, but we feel that all’s fair in love and war. A client who takes advantage of you definitely deserves a letter like this.

Even better, a letter like this makes sure you come out of this in a good light. It demonstrates a cool head, diplomacy, and a positive attitude. No one can show others this letter to try and make you look bad. They’ll just look like an ass.

Most important is that this letter lets you get the closure you need.

You’re telling yourself that you’ve done all you could, and that you’re closing the books. You’re giving yourself a message that it’s over now. You’re taking control of the situation, and you’re not going to stress any more.

You’ve done what you could. There are good people out there waiting for you, and it’s time to move onto better things, don’t you think?

Would you write a letter like this? Have you ever needed a way to get closure on a bad situation? What have you done to achieve that peace of mind? Share your thoughts and let us know.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. That’s outstanding. Can you do a version I can send to just anyone, instead of just those who owe me money?

    Now I almost can’t wait to get bummed out by a client.

    Simian Antics´s last blog post…Non-satire warning

  2. I love that!!!!

    So, do you retain copyright to that letter or may we use it ourselves without payment? 🙂

    Yes, you’re living up to Naomi’s description…. LOLOL!

    When my bookkeeping client disappeared without paying I just decided it was partly my fault and to cut my losses. It would have cost me a lot to track him down, and I realised that I shouldn’t have done such a huge job without milestone payments or some structure in place. Lesson learned and wrote it off as a bad debt. *shrugs*

    Melinda´s last blog post…Clutter vs Motivation – Clutter Wins But Not for Long!

  3. Brett Legree says:

    Would I write a letter like this?

    No. I have had the opportunity to do something similar though, with a former employer that owed me over $7,000 in back pay – right at the time when my wife was pregnant with our triplets. Christmas was pretty lean that year.

    I resigned from the job, held my head high and got a new job.

    Then I thought about writing such a letter, after having sent many polite emails and talking with them on the phone.

    And I chose not to do it.

    I closed the chapter and got on with my life.

    I just didn’t figure it was worth my time thinking about it anymore.

    Maybe that way works for some, and maybe it doesn’t.

  4. James,

    That is fully The Best Thing I have ever read on what to do when it comes to the end of the line. I was nearly standing up and cheering, and the next time I get to the end of the line (twice so far) I’m stealing it. No bullying, no snarkiness, no whining. Just you-oughta-know.

    Effing brilliant.

    That, my dear, is why you are a copywriter. Because sometimes, you write something and the angels sing through your pen (keyboard).

    Is that too much praise?

    Genius. Bookmarked, printed, and Stumbled.

    Regards,

    Kelly

    Kelly´s last blog post…Inspiration Points: Reality Is Not on a TV Show

  5. LisaNewton says:

    I’m not a freelancer, but the letter you’ve written, the feelings it evokes, and the closure are perfect for other situations.

    The next time I’m stressed by someone’s behavior, I think I’ll use some of the ideas you present here. It’s amazing what life lesson’s you’ve demostrated.

    Thank you.

    LisaNewton´s last blog post…Charming Larchmont Village

  6. I absolutely love this James. It’s exactly the way I would handle the final communication.

    When I was a kid, really little, maybe 5, my mom took my sister and I on an adventure. We knocked on the door to this big house on Ocean, a beautiful street on a bluff with a straight gorgeous view of Catalina. A gentleman opened the door and before he could open his mouth, my mom opened hers. She was on her knees in between me and my sister. She pointed up at the man while speaking to us and said, “I just wanted you to see the man who cheated us out of all that money….” She proceeded to pontificate about the things we didn’t have that we needed and how it was a shame that someone who obviously had so much was willing to cheat those who had so little.

    This was in about 1982. My parents had done a big party for the guy and he owed them about $500 – an absolute fortune for us back then as the store was two years old and we were three years off welfare. I didn’t quite understand it at the time, but it was a lesson I never forgot.

    Writer Dad´s last blog post…An Ode to My Boy

  7. Wow, the letter makes me feel really grateful that I haven’t had to send something like it.

    I’ve had a few (fortunately very few) clients pay a little bit late, but none so late that I’ve needed to send something like that.

    However, here’s the nagging question that I bet a lot of us are wondering:

    Did it work?

    Did you get paid?

    Laura Spencer´s last blog post…How To Position Yourself As An Expert

  8. @ Simian – Only if you have really good reason, and only if you’re SURE that it’s not you wearing your values-filter of the world trying to get someone to be like you. If the guy’s just an ass, sure!

    @ Melinda – Like I like to say, there’s a positive for every negative. There’s usually actually a few if you look at the situation right. Hard lessons aren’t always fun, but they’re usually the best ones!

    @ Brett – Disclaimer: If it works for you, that’s great. My thoughts: I’m uncomfortable. I think handling situations in this manner is dangerous. It’s too easy to say, “I’m above it; not worth my time; closing the book” and just turning our backs. That’s ignoring an issue, running from it and not dealing with it.

    However, if you’ve done all the introspection stuff and thought through what you felt, why you felt it, etc etc, then that’s a different story. Just saying the comment you left sounded like head-in-the-sand behavior and I could be wrong.

    @ Kelly – Hehehe… Never too much praise. You had to ask? (Okay, maybe you weren’t asking ME but I was first to answer.)

    @ Lisa – Every time I start feeling stressed out, I sit down and think about why I am, why I feel that way, what’s making me feel that way (it’s usually me) and what I’m going to do about it. Helpful!

    @ WriterDad – Oh man, I laughed, but I *bet* that stuck in your mind! Good for your mom!

    @ Laura – In the two cases that I’ve had to use it, it worked like a charm both times. People don’t typically feel comfortable when someone suggests they have bad values. Even when they’re jerks.

  9. Wow, that’s a hard-hitting, kick-ass letter! I feel like sending money even though I have nothing to do with the situation! Haha!

    I’m definitely saving that somewhere for later.

    I’ve only had one project go awry before (and one that I’m very worried about right now). I found that the emails back and forth just caused negativity, so I picked up the phone and, believe it or not, sorted it out. People might be mean behind the screen, but they are generally pretty nice when it boils down to it – either that or too wussy to defend their wrongful actions on a phone confrontation.

  10. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing as I read that letter. I’ve never seen one quite like it (and I definitely never received one like it).
    Unfortunately, having to fight with clients about money is an occasional part of the Freelance life.
    The best strategy for making sure you never get completely screwed is to take payments in thirds. 1/3rd before you start working. 1/3rd when you deliver a first draft (or at some halfway point in the project) and the final 1/3rd when the project is over.
    Even with bad clients you’re always going to make the first 1/3rd because you don’t start without it. You usually get the second payment because it’s not worth stopping in the middle of a project. The most you get taken for is 1/3rd of the project (credit to Nick Usborne with teaching me this method).
    I like the letter but it’s always best to minimize your loses if they really are heartless enough to let your children starve.

    Henry Bingaman´s last blog post…Comment on Services by Adjusting The Story | Henry Bingaman – Copywriter

  11. Brett Legree says:

    @James,

    It all depends on the situation, so I didn’t mean for it to sound “head in the sand”. Where I work and where I’ve worked, that would never be effective so that’s why I said I wouldn’t do it.

    My situation was more complicated – the company I worked for didn’t have the money because a major US airline (our main client) had filed for Chapter 11.

    Writing a nasty email to my old boss wouldn’t really have accomplished much because he had no direct ability to change things, and I might have needed him for a reference.

    You said the letter worked for you, and that is good – how well it works may depend on whether or not you can get the letter to someone who cares enough to be guilted into paying, and whether or not that person has the ability to pay.

    For example, let’s say I owe you money but I can’t pay you. Perhaps I can’t pay you because if I do, then my kids don’t eat. So in that case guilt’s not going to do it for me.

    (I’m not saying *I* would do that to you, I’m just saying some people might.)

    Or, if the person who receives the email can’t do anything about it, they might just delete it.

    I do have personal experience there, somewhat. I’ve been on the other end of it in that same small company – when my company wasn’t paying the bills because they couldn’t even pay us, suppliers were calling us up and getting quite upset with us.

    They were not using guilt like that though, they were getting quite rude on the phone.

    At first I tried to work through it with them, tried to explain to them that they would receive their payment and tried to direct them to our financial person (but you see, as a field engineer, they had me as a contact).

    After a month or so with no pay and receiving rude phone calls from suppliers, I just started hanging up on them.

    I know this is a personal example but I just felt it might be worth mentioning that this approach might only be a magic bullet in some situations.

  12. Susan Johnston says:

    James, I could have used this post a few months ago when I was going through this &$@% with a ghostblogging client. This approach would have given me a lot more closure than stamping my foot and insisting they remove my content from their blog if they weren’t going to pay. Yours does the same thing in a much classier way. I’m bookmarking this for future, but hopefully I won’t need it!

    Susan Johnston´s last blog post…Guest Post: How to Cure Your Writer’s Block

  13. “I’m writing to say thank you for reaffirming that you can’t trust everyone and that caution in the freelance world is a must.”

    Oh I love that!!! Beautiful client letter indeed; this post is a keeper.

    Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach´s last blog post…Squelching Unquenchable Rage

  14. Wendy Maynard says:

    Ugh. After 10 years of business, I’ve had this happen several times. It’s often a small amount, but it just burns me up that people contract us for work and then don’t pay.

    One of the worst incidents, though, was a contractor who was supposed to create a custom software program for us. In good faith, we paid him a retainer and he skipped town with our $750.00. We got no product and no return. Grrrrr.

    And you’re right – yes you can pursue legal action but unless it’s tens of thousands of dollars, it’s the lawyers who win.

    Thanks for the letter.

    Best, Wendy

    Wendy Maynard´s last blog post…Entrepreneurial Lesson #2: Every Relationship Matters

  15. Brett Legree says:

    I re-read what you said about how you thought that turning your back on this is running from the issue – I fail to see how anyone thinks that writing a letter like this is confronting the issue head-on.

    Up above it was suggested *not* to take legal action because it probably won’t work.

    Calling a lawyer seems a bit more proactive to me than writing a sob-story and hoping it will make the person feel guilty enough to pay you.

    I agree, in many cases legal action won’t be worthwhile (that’s why I didn’t do it) but I also have to say, if someone sent me a letter like this, I’d be inclined to say “What is this, high school? Why don’t you just tell me what you *really* think.”

    Brett Legree´s last blog post…viking fridays – the mind and the heart.

  16. Um…what about using a Collection Agency?

    Friar´s last blog post…Enter Friar’s Contest and Win a Prize

  17. @ Friar – Across borders? I haven’t found one that will accomplish that task yet. It’s a good idea, though.

    @ Brett – I seemed to have caused you some offense. I’m not saying *you* stuck your head in the sand. I’m saying that I know many people who use the ‘I’m moving on’ technique as a way to avoid dealing with their own feelings about situations.

    I’m not saying a letter like this is the cure-all to end all woes. Don’t confuse my thoughts about your comments and my thoughts about the letter. I was responding to your comment and a behavior I see in many people to avoid dealing with negative situations.

    I’m sorry you had to go through gunk, and I’m glad you found a solution that gives you peace.

    *waves white flag*

    @ Wendy – I won’t deny that I’ve seen this situation go both ways. I’ve watched “freelancers” do the duck and run or provide crappy work and keep the money. I don’t think that’s right either, and they deserve a letter like this as much as anyone else.

    @ Barbara – Thanks! Just don’t forget that trust is a thing where you have to give first before getting back!

    @ Susan – I find a lot of personal satisfaction in discovering ways to achieve a goal without getting frustrated. When it works… Ahhhh…

    @ Brett again – In my post on Wednesday, which was the beginning of this two-part series, I clearly stated that there are many clients who want to pay and just can’t. I’m fully aware that 95% of the time, most clients aren’t out to screw you. Revisit that post; you’ll see where I’m coming from.

    (Though they really need to learn to be upfront with their situation and work out arrangements, I think.)

    @ Henry – Yup, there are all kinds of ways to work out agreements that protect both parties and that make sure NO one is left empty handed!

    @ Chad – Please, feel free. Don’t hold back. Just whip that over to ilovemoney@james.ca 😉

    (Heh, now we’re even. I loved your ‘special one-free’!)

  18. Brett Legree says:

    @James,

    Put away your white flag Brother! You didn’t offend – I thought this was a good discussion and I’m just being a contrary bugger on a Friday afternoon 🙂

    Yes, I remember your post from the other day and I know where you’re coming from.

    I do see some situations where you could do this, and you’ve done it twice with success, so there is something to it.

    No white flags – wave your beer instead 😉

    Brett Legree´s last blog post…viking fridays – the mind and the heart.

  19. *whew – thought I’d pissed you off.*

    Chin-chin, my friend. Shiraz-hour it is.

  20. Brett Legree says:

    Nah, I’m tougher than that, I used to work in sales 🙂 enjoy your vino…

    Brett Legree´s last blog post…viking fridays – the mind and the heart.

  21. What a well thought out response. For weddings, we do get a retainer (“booking fee”) at the time of booking, and the remaining balance by the wedding date.

    As an (unintended) assurance, we also usually do a pre-wedding “engagement session”, so the clients already see what they look like through our lenses.

    Corporate jobs are different though, with (possible) down payment, and then invoicing and waiting 30-45 days (sometimes).

    Dave´s last blog post…Katharina’s Pregnancy Portraits

  22. Hi James – I haven’t used a letter like that – but it is outstanding. And there’s nothing wrong with playing on these people’s guilt – they should feel bloody guilty.

    I once sent a copy of an invoice to someone who had taken way too long to pay and in handwriting I put, “Please pay, I have no money.”

    The payment came by return.

  23. Unfortunately, clients who stiff you tend to be serial cheaters. If you dig a little, you usually find out that you’re not the first person they’ve cheated. They simply don’t allow themselves to dwell on the hurt they’re causing. Makes you wonder about their upbringing, doesn’t it?

  24. Excellent letter, James. I would definitely use it. Luckily however, I have not had a problem thus far.

    Now I wonder if this note could be altered for the people who you spend lots of time with before you start work and then one day they just stop replying to emails and disappear. hehe

    Copy and pasted. Thanks.

    John Hoff – WpBlogHost´s last blog post…Welcome To WpBlogHost and My Blog’s New Home

  25. Good stuff.

    I like the fact you shared something from the school of what works.

    J.D. Meier´s last blog post…Why Your Talents are Enduring and Unique

  26. Closure: yes but sometimes revenge is even better. I worked for a university for three years on a part-time contract, and twice I’d come back to a promised timetable that simply wasn’t there! Then despite having done the job for three years, when it was advertised as a full-time post they said there were no suitable candidates. I bit my lip and carried on for another three months, during which time they gave my best paid class to another member of staff and asked me to help sort out a new curriculum with him for no pay! A week before Xmas a production company offered me full-time job: I waited until the Xmas party to let it drop into conversation that I wouldn’t be back in the New Year. Head of Department galvanised and speechless! YES!! Childish? Yes! Satisfying? Definitely!!! =:-)

  27. This… This..? This is your last ditch effort? What about legal action? Someone who steals a product and doesn’t pay won’t be guilted by a letter. I’m sorry just how I feel.

  28. A great letter indeed!

  29. Absolutely brilliant! I love it!

    It sends a clear undeniable message to the former-client, delivered like a lead fist in a velvet glove.

    I wouldn’t expect anything less from you 😉

  30. Daniel Sydnes says:

    Mike Monteiro (Mule Design Studio) has a counter-argument to this:

    F*ck You. Pay Me.
    http://vimeo.com/22053820

  31. Brilliant letter! I do intend to use it if I need to. I have lots of experience in the service I provide but I’m relatively new as a freelancer. Because I’m unemployed, I’m living off my business sooner than I was ready to and I need every single penny I earn.

    Well, I’ve now run into a non-paying client for the first time and I now know I’m getting the runaround. Client is in another country so I’m limited where legal action is concerned, but I’m investigating every angle. I too made the mistake of not collecting a deposit first before starting work, and agreeing to accept a paper check from abroad (I know, I know – beginner’s stupidity but I’d heard of others doing it with no problem!) instead of PayPal like everyone else I work with.

    You did a great service by publicizing that letter. It’s truly a last resort because I will look into every avenue I can, but when someone contracts for a service they know they won’t pay for — a service that is not a life necessity — I am astounded at the difference in values that connotes.

  32. I have been an active freelancer for 20 years. Sorry, but most clients who steal work are impervious to appeals. They have already justified it in their heads and a long meandering letter like this is really not going to get read or acted upon. A client who has good intentions needs a few prods perhaps, but they will pay up with a shorter appeal. I am finding that the sure fire way to get paid is not to turn over work until it is paid for. Period. To that end, I am now working out a system where documents can be reviewed on Google Docs but not downloaded or printed. If the client wants that, they press the magic button and pay online by Stripe or PayPal. I do not want to spend my time collecting bills… but the truth is, once a client has your work in hand, you sink to the bottom as a priority.

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  1. […] favourite trio who fell in love with a girl and broke their pact to each other, posted The Last Ditch Letter That Might Help You Get Paid. The men have used it twice themselves and according to them, they got paid both […]

  2. […] The Last-Ditch Letter That Might Help You Get Paid – a sample letter from James of Men with Pens for the (unlikely) chance that the worst comes to the worst and it looks like you’re not going to get your money. […]

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