Signs A Client Won’t Pay You (And What To Do About It)


If you run an online business (or any other business, for that matter) there’s a good chance you’re going to have to deal with at least the occasional late payment. While this is unfortunate, it’s also completely normal. More often than not, the client is in good faith and the matter can be resolved quickly and amicably. No harm, no foul.

Unfortunately, though, there are times when, whichever way you look at it, the client was in bad faith. Perhaps they tried to talk themselves out of paying you with a variety of excuses. Or, even worse, they simply went AWOL the minute you delivered the work.

It’s a sad fact of life that there are unscrupulous people who take advantage of the veneer of anonymity the Internet provides to score free work. And, if you’re not careful, you could end up putting in a lot of time and effort into a project without getting paid what you’re due.

Thankfully, it’s very easy to weed out these people from legitimate clients and to nip any potential problems in the bud. Here’s how.

1. Early Signs

Sometimes it’s pretty obvious from the start that a prospective client isn’t legit or is going to be problematic, if only you can recognise the signs. The dodgier or more problematic a prospective client seems, the likelier it is you’ll run into trouble when it’s time to settle your invoice.

Here are five red flags to look out for, BEFORE you’ve committed your time to a project:

  • Email accounts that look unprofessional or downright spammy (,, – you get the idea).

  • The prospective client is cagey, makes contradictory statements or is unsure of what he or she wants.

  • The prospective client takes a long time to answer back.

  • Incomplete, curt or vague replies to your questions about the project.

  • The prospective client seems to lack a basic understanding of the value you provide and the effort and skill required to do the job well (stuff like “This should be fairly easy to do.”or “This shouldn’t take you long.”).

I think these signs are pretty self-explanatory, but I’m going to break it down for you just in case.

Firstly, you will never, ever be able to get it right if someone is unwilling or unable to communicate clearly what they want from you. Garbage in, garbage out. It’s that simple. When someone gives you incomplete or unsatisfactory answers – intentionally or otherwise – you simply won’t have the tools to create work they’ll be happy with.

Secondly, if someone is already taking ages to get back to you at this early stage, it’s likely this is symptomatic of a bigger problem.

Finally – and most importantly – if a prospective client is unable to appreciate the value you bring to the equation, there’s a good chance they’ll feel like they’re spending too much money for what they’re getting in return. This will make them feel resentful and prone to quibbling on everything, including your invoice.

2. Research The Prospect

These red flags should make you turn the project down faster than you can say Jack Robinson.

Even with enquiries that look legit, though, it’s still worth investing five or ten minutes to do some research before you hit the reply button.

Google the person who contacted you and the business name (if you know it). See what turns up. Look out for any negative news on their financial situation or whether they’re associated with known scams.

Even better, why not get personal and suggest a quick Skype call to discuss the project? That way, you can speak face-to-face, get to know each other better and build a real personal relationship. This will lead to a much more productive and fulfilling business relationship for both of you.

And if the prospective client ignores, dodges or outright refuses your request to talk in person? Well, my friend, that’s a big, fat red flag.

3. Be Clear And Upfront About Your Expectations

There’s an old Italian saying that goes: Patti chiari amicizia lunga. Loosely translated, it means that a clear arrangement makes for a long friendship. Personally, this is a philosophy I take very much to heart.

Many relationships – both business and personal – go sour simply because the parties were unclear about their respective expectations. These arguments are very much avoidable. Just as prospective clients should be upfront about what they want from you, you too need to be upfront about your expectations. It’s a two-way street.

You need to hammer out all the details clearly and comprehensively before you start the project; and this includes your payment terms. That way, both you and your new client know exactly what to expect and how it’s going to work. There must be absolutely no doubt and no room for interpretation.

Which brings me to my next point.

4. Sign A Contract

It never ceases to amaze me how many freelancers do work for people they’ve only just met (and when I say met, I mean exchanged maybe a couple emails) without having a contract in place. I’ve heard many justifications for this. One argument that crops up a lot is that, if an amount is relatively small, a contract won’t make a difference, because suing won’t be financially worthwhile.

To this, I’d answer in the following manner: you’re missing the bigger picture. There’s a lot more to signing a contract than the possibility of enforcement should the client default.

For one, a contract sets out clearly, black on white, what both your and your client’s respective responsibilities are. It’s about setting expectations and being clear and upfront about them.

More importantly, a contract is a statement of intent. Serious businesspeople will have no problem signing one, because their intentions are legitimate. Contracts are a normal part of doing business; and it shouldn’t be at all surprising or unexpected for you to bring it up. In fact, they might even propose one themselves.

On the other hand, those who plan to bail without paying you will most likely get all cagey and defensive when you mention a contract. Again, a red flag.

5. Ask For A Deposit

Asking for a deposit before you start working on a project is par for the course in the freelance world. Don’t let anyone tell you any differently. How much you ask for is really up to you, but it’s standard practice to ask for 50% upfront.

There are various reasons you should do this.

Firstly, just like signing a contract, paying a deposit is a statement of intent. Serious businesspeople won’t have a problem paying a deposit, because a) it’s normal; and b) they were going to pay you the whole amount later, anyway. Remember?

Secondly, a deposit minimises the chances a client won’t pay the full amount. After all, in for a penny, in for a pound.

Most importantly, even if the client decides to disappear, you at least have half your money. This isn’t ideal, but definitely better than nothing, right?

6. Trust Your Gut

Last but not least, you need to learn to trust your gut.

If you can’t shake the feeling that a project is going to go south somehow, it bears at least some reflection. Try to look at the situation objectively and honestly consider why you’re getting such a bad vibe. If you’re convinced your misgivings are legitimate, perhaps you shouldn’t take the assignment at all.

What are your strategies for weeding out potentially problematic clients? Sound off in the comments below.