Menu Search
Jump to the content X

Dealing With Clients Who Refuse To Pay


As a designer, you will eventually have to face a couple of unfortunate truths in your career. Number one: just because you wear a bathrobe for most of your “business” hours does not actually make it business attire. Number two: at some point in your freelance career, you will encounter a client who does not respect the work you do. The most unfortunate part of this unfortunate truth is that it will all too often present itself in the form of a client who refuses to pay for your services once all of the work has been completed.

However, you can put some safeguards in place to guarantee that if this kind of client disrespects you and a dispute arises, that you are not left without any leverage to help you resolve the situation. Because whether they admit it, some loathsome characters deal with freelancers merely because they believe these smaller independent businesses would have little recourse should they not hold up their end of the bargain. They think that once we have taken the time to complete the work and deliver it, that they have all the power to control the outcome of the business transaction. But now more than ever, this is not the case.

Financial in Freelance Contracts: Dos And Donts

One thing these clients overlook is the community that freelancers have at their disposal via the Web and various blogs and social media outlets. Freelancers have an established network of support and guidance through such connectivity that it almost feels effortless at times. And we have been turning to the community for years now to improve the working environment of designers, by discussing methods and techniques of dealing with common issues that arise in the field. This network has spawned some inspiring ideas for addressing these client-related problems.

In fact, we here at Smashing Media turned to our friends on Twitter for some ideas on dealing with this particular issue, and we want to thank everyone who replied with so many great suggestions.

Through the volume of answers we received, a staggering fact became quite clear: that too many people have been burned by this type of business interaction, which only reinforces the necessity of a post such as this. So, armed with stories of clients who were not willing to pay for completed work and who were determined to leave freelancers reeling and damaged, we have compiled some helpful safeguards and talking points to help you steer these situations towards a more positive outcome for you.

Also consider our previous articles:

First Things First Link

The main thing to remember if you find yourself in this position is that you are in the right, and you do not have to stand for being bullied by a client simply because they are a client. You have the right to be compensated for the time and effort that you put into the project. Even with no physical contract, the client knowingly entered into a verbal agreement and is therefore completely liable for upholding the terms of the agreement. Sometimes — not always — you may find that the client has challenged the payment only to see if they can get away with it; and once you stand up to them and demonstrate that you will not be undercut, then they go ahead and pay.

But this will not always be the case, and your situation may be cumbersome. So, be sure to remain civil, consistent, confident and above all resilient to make it through this tiring ordeal. By doing this and employing one or more of the strategies suggested below, you might not only keep your business comfortably afloat but also retain a bit more of your sanity.

Use A Contract Link

One standard safeguard is a comprehensive project contract. This sets up a payment structure that usually prevents an unfavorable outcome, or at least prevents the client from withholding full payment for whatever reason. Use the language and structures that most contracts follow. Most contracts call for a deposit at the beginning, and partial payment at various stages of the project. But this is not always preferred by the client, or even occasionally by the freelancer.


Pros Link

A contract is a clear and simple way to outline the specifics and expectations of a project for all parties involved. It includes a timeline for completion and delivery, as well as other checkpoints. The payment structure in the contract can ensure that you at least get paid something for your time and effort. It also provides you with some measure of legal recourse in the event of a breach of contract, such as non-payment of the final invoice. A contract also projects an air of professionalism and sets you up to be taken seriously.

Cons Link

While the payment structure in a contract can be a pro, it can also be a con, turning off many clients who are not comfortable paying a deposit. Clients might also be turned off by contracts because they don’t know what they want or how to describe it, and they feel a contract would lock them in too tightly and not give them enough room to revise later. Another con is that if you are unclear in the language of the contract, you might actually leave yourself open to be taken advantage of, and by the time you realize it, you are contractually obligated to complete the project.

Overall Link

Long story short, with both pros and cons a plenty, the contract route can safeguard against clients not paying you in part and, in some cases, in full. But it could also keep you from getting clients, so use with caution.

CSS Kill Switch Link

Another route that some freelance Web developers opt for when they design websites for clients is to install a kind of CSS fail-safe, in order to have leverage if payment disputes come up. CSS Killswitch4 is a freelance coder’s dream come true. By simply linking to an external CSS style sheet, which can be activated with the simple click of a button, you can black out a website if the client refuses to pay — even if they have changed the password and locked you out of the back end, which is the only circumstance under which this should be done.


Pros Link

While it should be used only with the strictest caution and as a last resort, the kill switch has two major pros. The first is that it gives the freelancer leverage, putting them in a position that they have not traditionally had access to. This leverage could give the freelancer the upper hand and might get them paid in the end, as the client scrambles to make their website visible again. Another pro is the ease of use and installation of the CSS kill switch, relative to some of the other solutions explored in this article.

Cons Link

Naturally, if and when you exercise this option, know that it won’t be a popular move with your already difficult and possibly volatile client. Your results may vary, and it could further postpone final payment. Another con is that all of these Web safeguards like the CSS kill switch, while easy to use, are also easy to detect and disable if the client’s staff is knowledgeable enough. And while you are merely taking steps to get paid for the work you have done, initiating a kill switch on a client’s website could make things costly and litigious for you very quickly.

Overall Link

When all is said and done, the CSS kill switch definitely has its upside, even if it does reside in an ethically questionable gray area. It offers the freelancer an effective tool to negotiate with difficult clients on more level ground. But use it at your own risk.

Maintenance Mode Link

One workaround to temporarily “disabling” the website until payment is made — though not always as effective as the kill switch — is maintenance mode. Switching the website to maintenance mode gives the freelancer a bit of leverage with stubborn clients. While similar to the kill switch, maintenance mode is a milder course of action.

So in Effective Maintenance Pages: Examples and Best Practices6

Pros Link

One pro is that maintenance mode is even simpler to install and activate than a kill switch. You need access to the website itself in order to pull it off; and if you do still have access, you are likely dealing with a client who does not have much background in the Web. And so they may not be aware that you are actually able to pull their website down once it is up. This gentle flexing of muscle may be all the push-back you need to let them know that you are no push-over.

Cons Link

Once again, this route could incite an already agitated client to take drastic action against you, even though they are the one who violated the terms of the agreement. Also, if the client figures out how to get the website back and changes the password to lock you out, then you have lost your leverage. Unfortunately, this tactic is much easier to fix than a kill switch, so your advantage may not last long.

Overall Link

While this may work with some less experienced or resourceful clients, others will not be put off for long and will get things back on track with a quick Google search.

Withhold Launch Link

If you pick up on signs early on that your client may be difficult, one surefire way to keep them from withholding payment is to do a little withholding of your own. You always have the power to withhold the launch of the website until final or full payment is made. But you cannot just decide to do this at any point in the project; you would need to establish these terms at the beginning of the working relationship.

Criticism in Web Design Criticism: A How-To
Image source7

Pros Link

An obvious pro is that this tactic is more likely than others to preempt a client dispute. If the client knows up front that the product will not be fully delivered until they have made all payments, then they are less likely to attempt avoiding payment. It puts most of the power in your end and allows you to basically steer the project’s outcome.

Cons Link

Just as a contract can be a deterrent for some clients, stipulating that you will withhold delivery until payment is made can have a similiar effect. Some clients will not be entirely comfortable with the idea of paying for something that is not in their possession, especially if they are already operating outside of their element.

Overall Link

As far as your options go, this is one of the most effective. By simply refusing to deliver the product to the client, you maintain the upper hand.

Send A Project Summary Link

One of the more diplomatic ways to handle a dispute is simply to send the client a complete project summary detailing the timelines and benchmarks that were established at the beginning. Be sure to highlight in the summary just how you met or exceeded these expectations, and provide any reasons why certain deadlines may not have been met. Being extremely professional, this tactic shows respect for your client, rising above the emotion of the moment to drive your point home. Let them know how you have met your end of the agreement, and they should respectfully do the same.


Pros Link

As mentioned, this is a very business-like way to address the situation, even if the circumstances warrant a more aggressive response. It could be a big boon to your freelance business. Another pro is that you show the client how calm and collected you are in the face of disrespect, and this composure will do wonders for your reputation.

Cons Link

If you are dealing with a client who is already refusing to pay for completed work, chances are that this respectful reporting of facts will not move them to respond in kind. If that is the case, then this is a double disadvantage, given the time that would be required to put this document together. Another con is the time you would reasonably have to wait to see whether this has had the desired effect on the client, before you follow up or take other steps.

Overall Link

After all is said and done, and if time is not critical, this is one of the most professional approaches you can take. It is also a very business-like way to start before trying more drastic measures.

Get Their Attention With Social Media Link

This approach is not as diplomatic as the last: that is, taking your gripe to social media to alert the client and others that this situation is unresolved and far from over. Members of the community at large may want to hear about projects that have ended unfavorably for freelancers, so that they can avoid working with those clients in future. Turn to Twitter, Facebook and other networks to share your tale.


Pros Link

One advantage to this approach is that it will likely elicit some kind of reaction from the client, whether positive or negative, especially if they have a competent social media staff. Another pro is its accessibility to the freelancer. Most of us already populate social media outlets, so this route to a resolution lies at our fingertips.

Cons Link

This course of action could have some unwanted repercussions, one of which is not so much the client’s reaction as the reaction of potential future clients who are turned off by your open griping about others. Also, those who follow you on social networks might believe that you are being unprofessional by airing your grievances this way. Did we mention that it could reflect poorly on your business? Because it well might. So again, use caution when going social.

Overall Link

While social media has given us an outlet with a long reach and has proven effective in getting responses from businesses that are plugged in, it is not always the best or most professional forum in which to address your problem. But that may not be a concern for you.

Wrap-Up Link

Assess your client’s temperament before deciding on a path to pursue in recovering payment. Whatever the situation, you have options beyond costly legal action. Feel free to leave suggestions below on how to deal with clients who refuse to pay for services provided by a freelancer.


Footnotes Link

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9
  10. 10
  11. 11
  12. 12
  13. 13
  14. 14!&id=100445

↑ Back to top Tweet itShare on Facebook

Rob Bowen is a staff writer for Web Hosting Geeks and Top Web Hosting, a longtime freelance designer, and burgeoning videographer and filmmaker whose creative voice and works can be heard and found around the web.

  1. 1

    There should be no question about a contract. Use one. Even if the project is hazy, you can still figure out a way to capture that on paper.

    All deliverables should be withheld until final payment. I have print material shipped to me. I withhold login info.
    In fact “Final Delivery” is an event stipulated in the contract, in which I train the new site owner on the CMS; hand over login info, source files, and print matter; and conduct training. Payment is due during that event.

    And you should always collect something up front. Yes, some clients are going to not want to pay up front. That’s your first sign that you shouldn’t work with someone. If they won’t pay you a deposit, they won’t pay the balance either. Include a provision in the contract that you will return their deposit if they decide to not move forward upon delivery of the first draft (or other milestone), and if they still won’t pay upfront, you should walk.

    Which brings me to my last point:
    Don’t work for clients you think won’t pay.
    Some freelancers live so closer to the edge they think they can’t afford to turn down work. But if the client isn’t going to pay, you can’t afford to not turn it down.
    What are the signs they won’t pay?

    Well, if they act like this:
    That would be one good clue.

    • 2

      “Yes, some clients are going to not want to pay up front. That’s your first sign that you shouldn’t work with someone”

      This is 100% true ALWAYS.

  2. 3

    I heard the story of a web developer registering a domain name like and sent the registration note to the client. Long story short, the bill got paid.

  3. 4

    100% payment upfront.

  4. 5

    Working with a contract is mandatory.

    Also, I think it’s good to ask for a down payment before work begins.

    Your tips on how to lock a website are well appreciated :)

    • 6

      For a start is better if you have the access to their server or better if you are providing the hosting service, then change the password…

      • 7

        That´s the way I like more. Even in the few cases the client has its own hosting, I use my reseller hosting until the project is fully finished (and paid). Only then I move the site to their final place.

    • 8

      I’ve never used a contract in 7 years of freelancing.

    • 12

      simon delos reyes

      July 5, 2010 6:01 am

      how about selling the designs you made for them, are you gonna be legally sued for that? I’ve been working for this company for 3 years, they have just made a payment of $750 for all the designs I made and always promise me that they will pay. Every month I send email and every month I fail, I did this for 1 year already. Now I have a client who is interested with the design and I am holding it.

      Anyone can help me with this

    • 13

      yea…must ask for at least 50% money b4 starting a project

  5. 14

    Shake ’em by the ankles.

  6. 15

    I’m with Birgit, I either get a 50% deposit before I start and the other 50% before the site goes live or, if it’s a larger project set 4 x 25% payments in line with key project milestones and don’t progress the stages until the payment has been made. It’s been a 99% successful strategy but there’s always one client that manages to foil you. I’ll employ one of your great tactics to deal with them in the future!

    • 16

      We work the same way. We bill the project according to phases in advance and do not continue until payment for next phase is paid. If potential clients balk at this, then best not take them on because they could be trouble, anyway.

      We never develop sites on the client’s server. We develop on ours and transfer files when last phase is paid.

      We don’t use a contract, but instead us an agreement. An agreement isn’t as strong as a contract which can be used against you, but can be used if necessary in court. This, at least, educates your client so they know everything up front. Education is key.

      • 17

        I too use the deposit to start, final to end method. I have also found that those unwilling to pay a deposit are terrible clients, and you’re best just to skip them and move on.

      • 18

        Isabella Schlögl

        April 11, 2010 11:50 pm

        I follow the same process as Deborah’s – develop on my server, then transfer files over when the final payment is made. This seems to work best for me and almost guarantees final payment.

    • 19

      I do pretty much like you, though I don’t use the term deposit on the contract, but retainer, as a deposit is refundable and a retainer is not. This would cover the first expenses if the client decide to drop the project. Also I build the website on one of my own server and transfer the final product to the customer once the final payment is done. I never had to do it so far. I apply the same rule “no delivery before full payment” for print design, this is of course stated in the contract.

  7. 20

    I have a client in the name of Ryan Roberts at E1even Inc and of who after doing the work for has decided to completely ignore all forms of contact to the point where even their accountant hasn’t been able to find out any answers from. I am owed quite a large sum of money for my time and effort and this has left me fuming.

    I would like to point out that in future I will be using this article as reference for my freelance work. Thanks for posting it :)

    • 21

      One of the pitfalls of doing business on your own, This happened to me so much that I learned to be a BS blood hound. From my experience the kind of client you describe is best dealt with discreetly or not at all, posting their names online will likely incite more crazy behavior and in my experience the crazies can always yell louder.

    • 22

      The way he is screwing you in the azz, his site should be called KiteRunner, not

    • 23

      While I sympathise with your situation, it’s incredibly bad form to publicly name and shame until you have exhausted all possible avenues. Get a lawyer and resolve it properly.

      • 24


        I don’t think it’s bad manners to call out a client who refuses to pay, screw the lawyer that’s another expense altogether.

        I’d call him out publicly and if that doesn’t work…then call a lawyer.

        • 25

          Not an identical situation but… there used to be a local business man hereabouts that had a trade counter with a glass top. Anyone that gave him a bad cheque had it taped to the underside so that everyone could see who was writing bouncers.

      • 26

        Completely agree with you Matt, I was pretty shocked to read that comment. There’s no place for it here.

    • 28

      As the owner of Eleven Inc and I’d like to clear up this slanderous post. Danny, the work you were asked to do was never completed properly. The attempts to collect what you felt you were owed by contacting my significant other on Facebook, harassing our accountant, and sending emails threatening to take legal action was very unprofessional. Hopefully you can use this situation as a learning experience and move on. I know we have.

  8. 29

    Register their domain for them upfront and transfer ownership (or give them the password after they’ve paid). As a last resort (if you’re definitely not getting paid) you can easily deploy their site but with copy detailing their approach to agreements and directing prospective customers to their comptetitors.

    • 30

      I have a rule that I only work on sites that I host on my own server. That way I have complete control. If they do not pay, I can cut them off. I know this does not work in every situation, but if you can work yourself into this situation, it is definitely the way to go.

      I actually have a client that I cut off and will not transfer their domains until they pay the bill.

  9. 34

    This post could not have come at a more appropriate time for me. I am currently in dispute with an agency that I have been carrying out some freelance work for, all along the way they have trimmed budgets and pushed down the original agreed hourly rate, they are refusing to pay the final invoice of £300 over a £50 job that they want to reduce to £25, while this might not seem like alot there comes a point when you have been beaten down so much on price that to come down any further would be detrimental to your confidence as a freelancer.

    How do you argue against a client who refuses to pay because they say they don’t like the final result? (bearing in mind theyve only raised this after the work has been done)

    • 35

      Small claims court costs £100 to start the process. If they refuse you can threaten them with that. You can also add the £100 to their bill. As long as you have some proof that you’ve done the work that you’ve asked for and that the work is as described.

      Some clients want to test you and see how for they can push you, afterall they are thinking it’s only £25 and they may give you more work in future but remember don’t sell your soul to the devil, charge for your time and remember any client that doesn’t value what you’re doing for them isn’t someone you should work for.

      • 36

        thanks for the advise Antony, I think theres a lesson to be learned here; what doesn’t put you out of business only makes you a better businessman.

  10. 37

    Wow, this are very keen tips. Be aware that using CSS Kill Switch, Maintenance Mode or Social Media Attention might lead to enormous legal threats in Germany and most parts of the European Union.

    Just to make clear, this is far from being a civil way to get payments. Depending on what your client is doing with your site, this might lead to sale disruptions for which you will be made responsible for. In short: don’t do this, its illegal and you will have to pay for any damage done to your client – whether he pays or not.

    • 38

      I don’t know about the EU, but I doubt it’s illegal in the US. In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine it’s illegal anywhere. Since they have effectively stolen your work, how can you legally be bound to provide your product?

      These days I just develop my sites on my own production server and don’t release them to the client until payment has arrived. I can’t image why this isn’t the standard everywhere. You don’t go into a store and expect to leave with a product before paying for it. Why should designers give automatic credit terms to everyone without even a credit check?

      • 39

        Yes definitely a nice way to go, upload until payment! and for sure if they dont pay they are stealing from you you should sue their asssseeess!

      • 40

        I like your comparison!

        And regarding upfront payment – the client usually choses the designer/developer based on their portfolio/previous projects, so they already are aware of your skills. And if they have no excuse to pay a balance upfront. Afterall why work with a client that doesn’t trust in you as a designer/developer, you are the professional!

    • 41

      Damn countries and their laws! whats fare its fare!

    • 42

      I disagree, Stefan. If there’s no contract, no one can be held responsible (Kenn’ mich in dieser Hinsicht ein wenig aus). Neither you nor him. You cannot (by simply showing the original source codes) claim ownership of the website design/code. And in worst case scenario – assuming a developer/designer followed one of this advices – your client cannot prove that the website which you shutdown is his own…

      Means: If there’s NO contract, you can use any method (mentioned above) to (try to) get your money back.

      Two things being ‘not so OK’ as per European law would be a) illicit work and b) tax evasion :-)

    • 43

      The safest method to implement any of the less savoury methods illustrated here are to develop your client’s website on your own production server and only transfer once the client is happy and has paid up. Yes, you do need to do your homework to ensure that the site will work on whatever hosting has been provisioned on their behalf, though this minor inconvenience far outweighs giving up any “power” you had by giving them the finished article prior to payment.

      I do this for two reasons:

      1. The new website stays with me, it’s not much good to me if the client pulls out, but at least I’ve not done them any favours.

      2. I will not harm their business by pulling their new site. They still have whatever they had in place originally (even if that is nothing) and therefore cannot be held responsible for any loss of business on their part.

      As Stefan said, you cannot implement a new live site and pull the plug, particularly if they had an existing site selling their products or services. Doing so may result in a loss of business, and whatever the problem, you don’t want to be the one facing the lawsuit.

  11. 44

    I had a guy ask me on a forum to help him with a menu (I think he was doing it for some company) and he said he would paypal me $50 if I helped. I’ve done this thing before many times without problems so I didn’t take any precautions, I just did and sent the files to him. Now it’s been a month and I haven’t seen any money, nor received any replies. What can I do? The only thing I’ve got is his name and his gmail address. Please help if you can!

    • 45

      Hi Eddy,

      I do know the feeling, like you have been badly deceived but believe me the best plan here is take the moral high ground. For $50.00 you are better to write it up as a design life lesson. Also, consider the time spent after the fact and realize that although it requires an acceptance of wrongful behavior, it will save you money through additional time not being spent.

      Good luck in the future!


    • 46


      I had a situation like this where a guy wanted me to prepare an email campaign template for him and then email it to him (I think he intended to steal it). However, because that would send the code to him, I did not do that. Once I had the email prepared, I rendered it as a pdf and once he approved, he could send payment and I would release the code.

      I guess my advice would be is to prepare a demo in a one-time project deal. For a menu, you might could do a screencast of the menu demo and once they approved it, then have them send payment and you the code to them. Of course, you could run off with the payment and not give them the code, so trust is a two way street. If this is someone you will be working with on a consistent basis, you need to establish a basis of trust and do the work and they pay you on an agreed schedule. If it is a one shot deal from someone you do not know, do a demo that does not expose your work to theft. However, beware of someone promising you lots of work. First time out, always get paid before releasing the code. Trust is earned.

  12. 47

    Geoffrey Reemer

    April 9, 2010 3:56 am

    Hey jono253! It kinda sucks if you did exactly what your client asked for and then they find out they wanted something very differently, doesn’t it? Did you write the scope and deliveries of your project in a contract or project plan? That’s what I always do: make a document of what I will deliver and how much it’s going to cost and I make my clients sign for that. Then you always have something to show them: “look, mate… we agreed on these deliveries for this price. I upheld my end of the agreement, now you’re going to uphold yours.”

    Here in Holland there are companies who can offer some great help if clients refuse to pay. Those invoice agencies will take the bill, take legal action against the client and make sure that all extra costs are billed to the client. Once they see the invoice suddenly going from 300 to 500 because of added invoice costs, they usually get the idea :-).

    Good luck to all of you!

    – Geoffrey

    • 48

      Thanks for the advise Geoffrey, in hindsight having a clearer scope would have been useful, this particular piece of work was rushed through by the client who saw felt that a broader scope was costing valuable time. I think when it boils down to it the message across the board seems pretty clear; put as many preventative measures in place at possible at the beginning, if your instincts are still telling you its not a good idea then walk away before you invest your time and effort.

  13. 49

    Geoffrey Reemer

    April 9, 2010 3:59 am

    @Eddy: take your loss and learn from it. I always ask my clients for their personal information to add to my books. In Holland, it’s even required by law to do be able to properly identify your clients if there are any tax-questions or other legal matters.

    • 50

      Yeah, I should have done that and I will do it from now on. But I still want to something about that client. Maybe I should post his gmail address all over the place? I might sound crazy, but if I don’t get my money, at least I want revenge.

      • 51

        The man’s a liar and a cheater. You can’t use the information you have to force him to pay, so yeah… Go to 1,000 different porn sites and sign him up for all their newsletters. Go to a Starcraft forum and say you have a beta key that you’re not gonna use. The first person to email you (at his gmail address) and correctly guesses your birthday gets the key! Things like these will give you your $50 worth of fun and probably cause him to have to get a new email account. I call that winning.

        • 52

          I’ll try to do everything I can to get the money and if it doesn’t work, I’ll probably have to resort to that.

      • 53

        Why not contact paypal and raise a dispute? this will freeze his paypal account. Or contact gmail and report email abuse, it might only get his free email account removed, but it might be important to him.

        • 54

          I just noticed that you can request a payment through paypal from an email address so I did that and I’m hoping it might be enough. If not, I’ll contact paypal.

          • 55

            hi eddy

            if you can recall the name of the client he asked you to provide the solution for why not email him and cc the client in too asking for the money owed. if you have the original email then include this in the message. state clearly what the request was and what the deal for doing so entailed… be polite about it though because if you do not get a reply from your original point of contact you have at least made contact with the company that needed the work in the first place and they in turn have made contact with someone competent in that field.

            good luck

      • 56

        Despite how annoyed you may be about your client, it’s a pretty foolish thing to make some of the comments you’re making. Especially up on the web.

        Now that you’ve publicly stated you’d like to get revenge, and discussed employing some tactics that have questionable legality, you’ve left yourself wide open for legal action.

        And if you ultimately do need to go to court, your comments and threats will likely not be taken as a point in your favor. The law takes a pretty dim view of people who employ dirty tricks to get what they feel is justice. Even just making comments to that effect might damage the credibility of your entire claim in the eyes of a judge.

        First rule if you’re out for some payback: Don’t talk about it before, during, or after. Do what you will – but always keep your mouth shut. Forever.

        Second rule: think about “getting some back” all you want. Then forget about it, grab a drink, and call your attorney. ;-)

        • 57

          The world would benefit greatly from your silence.

          Do your part and shut the fuck up.

      • 58

        As SM mention above you may loos a potential clients if they see you do like that. I think the best thing is to forget about that and don’t wast your time.

  14. 59

    In the past 10 years I have had one customer who could not pay because he went bankrupt during development. Of course I have had my share of bad payers, but until now I always asked this question in those cases:

    “Did I do anything wrong, or is the website I built not working? No? Then Why don’t you pay the bill?”

    Until now this always resulted in a payment within a week. Maybe I was fortunate, but don’t hesitate to confront the customer with his behavior and show them you are on top of it.

  15. 60

    To remove money from a client that doesn’t pay……/…. its simple…. just send a recovery agent to get the money…. or kidnap his family and then ask him to pay……!!! and if he doesn’t then kill them!!! ;) hahah

    • 61

      This tactics can be implemented only in afganistan and pakistan.

      • 62

        “This tactics can be implemented only in afganistan and pakistan.”

        Such a defeatist attitude…

      • 63

        Vikash you Slum Dog

        April 13, 2010 9:19 am

        This tactics can be implemented only in the Indian Slum Dogs.

        Maybe exchanging your family for default payment, will kill all birds with one stone. You get rid of your family, and so no need to work and get paid. Then you can kill yourself and the client can celebrate and attend your burning ceremony.

        Adding Hahaha should keep the post here.

      • 64

        @ Jay you should respect others if you want others respect you

    • 65

      I say kill them even if they do pay.

      If anybody has a problem with your actions, ask them what they’re doing for the planet; You’ve just reduced the carbon foot-print of an entire family of pricks to zip. Kudos, you sir are an eco-warrior.

    • 66

      You seem to be unaware of the price of such services. It might cost you a bit more than your design.

  16. 67

    Good post. I have suffered this a few times and now I insist on not only having control of the domain name until final payment, but I host them now too. This for me has the same effect as a kill switch, except we just call it ‘terminate’ or ‘suspend’. It’s always a serious last resort.

    Worst case scenario though is completing the work and then a website suspension not working and being told they no longer require the extensive website you just built… Arrrgh!

    • 68

      Good luck with that – might work with really small clients but any decently sized business will be well aware of the brand equity and asset value of their domain name and will certainly not allow you to go anywhere near it.

  17. 69

    Another idea is to do your site development on one of your own servers (if possible). Once development is done, have them approve the final product, but don’t move it to their own system until you have received final payment.

  18. 70

    I’m taking legal action against a client that refused to pay.

    In fact I threatened him with legal action as a result of bullying tactics to retain my services and add more and more features to his site. I’d just lost my Mother at that point too so wasn’t of the frame of mind to argue so I did some extra bits that I wouldn’t usually, however, the straw that finally broke the camels back was when the client said he received feedback from someone and that they didn’t like the design, as a result he expected me to redesign the entire site until he was happy (despite the existing design being driven and signed off by the client some months prior).

    As you can imagine, I was very frustrated particularly as the project was over time and budget (through no fault of my own). I threatened the client that no further changes would be made without an additional budget and that if he refused to pay I would start litigation.

    The client thought he’d have the upper hand by suing me first, I’m counter suing and have my hearing shortly. In addition I have a Service Level Agreement and a contract and witnesses too so should be okay. Whether I’ll get the thousands I’m owed is another thing entirely.

    Just goes to show that even when you take deposits, have a solid agreement in place there’s always some jackass out their ready to rip you off. I did have one thing going for me, as part of the deal and as part of the contract I host the website. It stipulates within the agreement that I retain all works until such time that the agreement is paid in full, so after I filled the paperwork the website was moved.

    It’s always quite difficult chasing for money particularly if you’re just starting out, you don’t want to cause offence and would like to get more work out of them in the future. For me anyway prospective clients that don’t value my work or want me to reduce costs with the promise of more work or want me to undercut quite simply are not my clients. I believe in offering a good service and offer value for money. Remember to stick to your guns, don’t sell yourself short and don’t be scared to ask for payment!

    • 71

      @Antony, if you are taking legal action, its probably best to not post something on a website, forum, social site, etc… Anything that can come back to bite you is bad. I’m not saying what you posted was bad, I can easily empathize with your story. I’m just saying its an important lesson to remember that when in legal battles (or just in general), best not to post anything regarding it (or your clients) in case they stumble upon what you write (granted they would have to know your usernames, handles, etc…) but still, I have heard of many people getting in trouble because of this kind of thing.

      • 72

        There’s absolutely no issue. No names mentioned, terms of contract etc. Providing I’m not making any direct derogatory or slanderous comments against the client or anything that could bias the case it’s completely safe. Additionally small claims court is a totally different beast to high value civil cases, it’s designed for individuals to (hopefully) get a resolution with a dispute that two or more parties can’t resolve themselves, it doesn’t usually involve solicitors and it’s relatively low cost which makes it ideal for a freelancers or small companies to take action for dispute involving less than £5,000. This obviously relates to English law, it could be very different in other territories.

        To be extra safe I’ve been taking advice from a solicitor but thank you for your concern!

  19. 73

    Great post! This is a very helpful tips for us online entrepreneur specially for web developer like me. I’ll take note this and might be able to use this to one of my hardheaded client.

    Thanks again.

  20. 74

    While I sign contracts with my clients, if I have one that I trust, I’ve done work before with him and I get the 50% deposit, I don’t find it neccessary.

  21. 75

    An alternative to the kill switch which is way too drastic could be to add a small information message in all the pages that mentions that the message will disappear once the final payment has been received. In the message, you could link back to yourself mentioning that the site is your work, it should be a one or two liner at most. It could be placed just above the main content area.

    • 76

      The point of the kill switch is that it is on another site somewhere giving you access at all times. If you placed code on the site they’d just get another designer to take it off…

  22. 77

    Thanks for the plug on my CSS Killswitch applet, Robert. Appreciate your balanced pro/con approach; great article!

  23. 78

    Hey Robert – thanks for mentioning our article from Freelance Review at the bottom of the post! This is very in-depth and well written – I know it took a lot of effort. Nice!

  24. 79


    contracts, contracts, contracts.

    a client unwilling to work out and sign a contract is a client already setting off alarm bells. a designer who doesn’t expect a signed contract for work may even set off alarm bells for a good (and experienced) client. a signed contract is just the sign of a good professional relationship.

  25. 80

    Excellent, I’m in this situation right now, if I had made a contract it would have had a different ending. I’m in the process to blackout the website, but my ethical principles are stronger. What should I do?

    CSS Kill Switch looks great :)

  26. 81

    Great article. I had situation like this last year. Luckily, I had a great bookkeeper that knew the rules of small claims court. Once the nonpaying client received that notice, they were ready to pay. It’s also helpful to consult an attorney. I learned lots of options that I didn’t know I had.

  27. 83

    I use a very simple approach when it comes to these kinds of issues. First, as the article points out, use a contract. With that signed contract I collect a deposit on the project, 50% if I’m charging a set amount. When I’m done with a project I show the completed work, but do not turn the work over to the client until final payment has been received. This may be a bit heavy-handed for some, but it works. It also requires specific contract and project documentation.

    • 84

      That is an excellent approche and i works.

      I think we sometimes aim to please the client to much and forget that this is a business and we need to make money.

  28. 85

    30% deposit with the signed contract. Always!

    If you are afraid of losing work then you need better clients. 80% of people I have worked with don’t have a problem paying a deposit and the other 20% can go and find some other mug to do their work.

    The client is paying for your ideas.

  29. 86

    I’ve never heard of a CSS kill switch before, but it’s a great idea.

    I’d also pair this up with a javascript kill switch. Link to both an external CSS and javascript file, and you can really do some damage. Imagine a lightbox popup that shows up on every page after a couple seconds saying, “Don’t you think this site should pay its freelancers? Click here to send them a reminder!”

  30. 89

    Excellent article… I can speak from personal experience, after loosing a large $1800.00 job because I thought the client was a friend and I thought a handshake should have been enough. I never work without a contract and deposit anymore. It only takes one big loss to learn that lesson but by that time it’s too late.

  31. 90

    This is really good article for those who have bad experience with some clients like I experienced. {I lost 3,500 $ in 2 months, 4 projects from same client}

    Contracts are best options, keep your contracts small and easy to understand.

    Keep posting. Thanks

  32. 91

    The reality is once the client has what they want they don’t have any urgency to pay you.

    I use a development server to stage the site for the client and only upload the site to the clients server after they have paid.

    If your client’s in a rush then they should pay you in a rush don’t fall in that trap.

    Never give the client completed files till you are paid in full.

  33. 92

    Anonymous Coward

    April 9, 2010 7:44 am

    What would you guys do if you were offered a lucrative job but had to be done in a very short period of time (ie. a week). If a proper client agreement was sought for, it would probably cut short your already available working time by half.

    Would you guys still take the job without any detailed specifications or contract and all you had was some mockups? (Talking webdev work here).

    Anyone experienced situations like this?

    • 93

      Been in the same situation. The short deadline stuff was purely a way of diverting around contracts etc. My particular experience ended up with me (and 3 associates) doing almost a weeks work in two days and even though the client liked the work they decided not to ‘proceed’ with it.

      My advice to you is if you get caught in a situation of super short deadlines then there’s a high chance it’s either a way of diverting around contracts to avoid any commitment or it’s poor time management, in either case unless you have a prior relationship with the client don’t touch it, unless of course the work you produce is of some value to you if it’s not bought by the client or you have free time that you don’t mind using up for it as a gamble.

      • 94

        Anonymous Coward

        April 9, 2010 8:12 am

        In this case, if he decides to walk away, or refuse to pay (at all) because I “did not want to work on a specific task” which was not in any specification or in the mockups provided, do I still have any recourse in getting my money?

  34. 95

    taking legal action does pay off when a client just refuses… I hired a lawyer for a client that refused to pay (contract had clause about lawyer fees) and after several months the judge awarded me with a handsome copyright violation judgement. I told the client if they payed me the amount owed, plus interest, plus lawyer fees in one week I’d graciously ignore the 100k in damages awarded by judge. I got the payment the next day. Wasn’t an easy route but for a client who doesn’t respect intellectual property it quickly sets them straight.

  35. 96

    Threatening to vandalize a client’s site is the perfect way to make yourself look completely unprofessional, especially if you follow through with the threats! CSS killswitches and maintenance mode should never be employed unless you’re left with absolutely no other choice. There’s a legal system in place by which you can take a client to court (UK small claims court for example), but if you start yanking client’s sites in retaliation it could very well be you who finds yourself on the wrong side of a court case.

    • 97

      Here, here. Those suggestions in the article are frankly absurd and no reputable publication should be advocating their use.

    • 98

      Do you start to pay a lawyer 1000$ to recover 500$ finalising payment ? The client knows it.

    • 99

      thats why i never deliver the job, without he money. for print works, i send 72 jpg in 80% of size. for web i use my own server. latley i ad the options to pay by cart ( visa ……)

  36. 100

    Great piece. Sometimes its always too much work for some clients to sign on project terms, so they simply tell me to go ahead with the project. At the end of the day, they still mess things up.

  37. 101

    I agree with Birgit. A project agreement should be mandatory. If a client is unwilling to sign one, I generally consider it the first sign of trouble ahead.

    This is an awesome article and thank you for all the tips!

  38. 102

    Many years ago, I had a boss who told me, “Anyone who doesn’t want to sign a contract doesn’t want to pay you.” Indisputable truth.

    We always wrote careful, complete contracts that delineated the scope of work; stated the process for Project Change requests, budgets and approvals before work on changes began; detailed the production schedules; stipulated costs, payment terms and payment schedule—always tied to specific milestones on the production calendar; and penalties if either side failed to deliver required materials according to schedule. If the client balked at full payment at or before delivery, we made sure that all actual costs of production were covered by the time of delivery, leaving only a percentage of profit for after delivery.

    One of our clients kept asking for changes, and was “surprised” that the changes weren’t included in some kind of mystical “blanket” dollar number. We were able to keep saying, “That’s not in the contract. We’ll write up a Project Change Notice for that.” They were so impressed with our contract and change process that they had us deliver a “contract seminar” for their execs, so that they’d stop screwing themselves on their own contracts.

  39. 103

    Great tips. Currently trying to get $500 out of a client who is refusing to pay.

  40. 104

    great article, 2 bad i didn’t know this earlier, and CSS Kill Switch is awesome!

  41. 105

    Bruno de Florence

    April 9, 2010 9:32 am

    I am based in the UK and had an issue in 2004 with a private client who stubbornely refused to pay my £300 fee, although the web design work had been done to satisfaction. His reasonning was that although he had agreed that I should be paid, an exact figure had not been agreed in advance. I took him to the Small Claims Court (a branch of the UK judiciary which handles litigation between private defendants), and the judge ruled in my favor on the principle of buyer’s beware, as my general demeanour was of a professional standard. Of interest if the fact that under UK law, a verbal agreement has the same strength as a written one. To me, it was the principle which was important, not to mess me about because I am freelance. So hopefully, others in the UK may be able to rely on my case’s ruling.

  42. 106

    Advocating the use of CSS Kill Switch, Maintenance Mode or Social Media Attention is simply absurd, no matter how far the freelancer has been screwed.

    You’re on dubious legal grounds as well as undertaking highly unprofessional behaviour. While it’s true that an unethical client may have got the freelancer into this position in the first place, it is not a professional course of action to publicly name and shame or deface a client website. The freelancer ends up looking just as bad — or even worse — than the client.

    You should always take the legal route to resolve these issues. Resorting to cheap and dubious tricks make you no better than the crappy client who screwed you over in the first place.

    • 107

      When you don’t pay your electric bill, is the standard first action an electric company does is hire an attorney, or cut off your electricity? When you don’t pay for Netflix, do they cancel your service, or continue sending you movies while suing you? When you haven’t paid an auto loan do they repossess your car or send an officer to serve you? I can think of no business that delivers a service, who will continue to provide that service while you don’t pay and merely sue you while providing the service.

      Come on, cutting someone from your service for nonpayment is wholly legal and the right thing to do. As the designer you own the copyrights to all the intellectual property you create, they should merely license it.

      Suing someone immediately and taking legal action is the wrong thing to do and is more sleezy than professional. Do you know how much it even costs to file a lawsuit? You do understand the difficulty of even having the person “served” right? It’s going to cost you money up front and perhaps yield you nothing. Taking any legal action whatsoever makes that legal action public record for all to see. Cutting off the client’s service doesn’t leave a marked history on their life.

      If people don’t pay, I cut them off and then I get my payment. No attorney needed to get involved. That’s just smart business there. I save myself my own time and money.

      • 108

        You’re assuming that by “cutting off their service” they are going to pay to get the service back. By and large, clients who refuse to pay will *never* pay, and probably never had any intention of paying anyway. Maybe you’ve been lucky.

        Your only recourse in that situation is to pursue a legal channel. And that doesn’t have to be an expensive lawsuit either, here in the UK it’s relatively cheap to go to the small claims court, which is primarily what I was thinking about. Often the perp doesn’t turn up and you win the case by default.

        • 109

          win by default??
          win what?

          If by “win” you mean, have a judgement declared – then the collection joy begins.
          what if they decide to play hard ball and start to issue subpoenas for all kinds of ‘records’ and countless court filings which you HAVE to respond to?

          “Having a contract” is only 1/2 the battle and poorly done, you are worse off than even without one.
          Example: You have a contract that specifies payment in phases, 1, 2, 3, 4. Great!
          Phase II is a deliverable which you completed and represents 5,000 of work, but the contract does not specify how long the company will have before they have to approve or pay – or even how many revisions are allowed!
          Legal fees. If your contract does not specify WHO PAYS legal fees, then you are sunk.

          For me, experience has proven that the defense is multi-layered.

          1. Pre emptive bullshit detection and avoidance.
          2. Send them a copy of the GPL warranty disclaimer notice.
          This means, do not send emails back and forth other than your initial email(s)
          Instead, install a free forum, create a board and set it up where they can only see their posts within their area. All the comments and back/forth are now on YOUR site.

          It also means that its a little bit more work for them to forward the helpful conversations you have to another person.
          Another plus is when they upload attachments (via the forum) they are already ready for use on your server-or on a server you control. Its easy to do an ftp->ftp across servers, even from an Iphone on the road!

          4. Learn how to build Soap Services, far from the ‘css kill switch’ the ENTIRE APPLICATION resides as a soap service(s) on my server!

          download it and put it on another server w/o paying? HAH!
          both the stolen clone AND the original stop working!

          • 110

            >download it and put it on another server w/o paying? HAH!
            >both the stolen clone AND the original stop working!
            Your server goes down for two hours? HAH! ALL your clients’ sites stop working for two hours.
            Data loss on your server? Forgot about the expiration of your domain registration? HAH! Your clients are going to be happy, man!
            Think about who can sue who here… They didn’t do anything wrong, you just fucked up at some point and you’re going to have to pay quite a huge amount in damages.

            I’d rather go with the “develop on your server and transfer only after final payment”, just adding that all assets are to be obfuscated, prints downsampled etc until finalized.

            But I’d just say that in the end, you usually are able to spot quite soon if the client is going to be problematic or not, and adjust your behavior and retaliation strategy accordingly. _Usually_, I said ;)

  43. 111

    Great article.

    Chances are any client unwilling to sign a contract will also be unwilling to meet payment terms or schedules, and a contract is 100% better to go by than an email history

    I’ve never had a problem with a client who I’ve made sign a contract, and send a 50% deposit before I start any work. This way they’ve already invested into the project, so it’s a lot harder for them to walk away from.

  44. 112

    I have never had a client flat out refuse to pay, but I also don’t release any print artwork without full payment and for web don’t release any logins for content management (all my clients are on a cms of some sort). My bigger problem is that clients who know end of project means a bill will be due will sometimes procrastinate on final approval or final content because they are short on funds. My solution has been a simple term that for each phase of the project feedback is expected in a timely manner (14days) and if no feedback is received the balance will become due. It works. Even though I’m still getting my contracts written up I send a written “welcome letter” that briefly outlines what to expect in terms of my responsibilities and process, milestones, payments, and client’s responsibilities.

    My other note is that I used to only accept checks or bank transfer but I realized (duh) that some people may not have the cash on hand. Offering credit card payments has brought my slow pays down to nil. I’m happily getting paid on time :)

  45. 113

    I only do freelancing occasionally to earn a little extra income, so I’ve never really bothered with contracts or written agreements. I had a client a few months ago who sent me work on an as needed basis. All the work was done on existing sites hosted on their servers, so I didn’t have much control over access. I should have known it would end badly when I learned how incompetent he was about web development, but still insisted on being involved in every aspect of the process, which made everything take twice as long to get done. He would also try to do things himself at the same time I was working on the site. That really screwed things up. I spent more time fixing his mistakes than I did doing real development. Despite all the frustration this caused, he was always friendly, and seemed very satisfied with the work. Then after about a month, he suddenly stopped calling me. I got in touch with him and he suddenly had a huge list of grievances, all of which were due to his messing with the process, or in some cases were completely fabricated. Needless to say, he refused to pay me and disabled my login before I had a chance to take action. Luckily I was only owed $290.00, but when you have a wife and two kids to feed, that money can go a long way. I’m not really all that worried about my reputation as a freelancer, because I deal with local clients who really aren’t connected in the design community, so I might start a little smear campaign. Signing him up for tons of spam and stuff sounds like a great idea too. I’m gonna make sure I keep this article in my arsenal of dirty tricks. It’s revenge gold!

  46. 114

    If you go in without a contract, expect not to be paid. If you don’t create milestones, expect not to be paid. If you deliver prior to receiving full payment, expect not to be paid.

    If you mess around with a live site, expect to be sued… and not paid. If you talk badly about a client in social media, expect to be sued for slander, not paid, and have those words used against you in the future with other prospective clients.

    If you need to sue someone, don’t threaten to do it… just do it. It takes just as much effort as a threat and will require their immediate attention. If you think it will cost you more to deal with a suit than what you’ll get back, write it off, send it for collection or otherwise move on.

    Think like a business person, not like an artist if you want to get paid.

  47. 115

    JoeJaber is dead on. The entire time I was reading through the comments I was thinking that. Of course you turn it off… if you can!

    Taking the legal route is simply not a viable option in many cases. Even for a few thousand dollars. The lawyer is going to cost you that much alone. Yeah if you win you might recoup those costs but at what risk.

    I had a client that told me my check was in the mail for 4 months. Finally I yanked it. They called me all confused and politely informed them that it would not be back up until I received payment. They needed it up immediately, so I offered to let them hand deliver a check to me (being nice at that point because they could always cancel it). They did so and I put it back up in minutes.

    The key is to be professional about it. I put up a message saying the site was temporarily down. I did not try to embarass them or damage their reputation even though I really wanted to.

  48. 116

    I go the whole hog – contract; own servers only; transfer their domain to your control; 50% up front (and make sure the 50% covers ALL your costs ie: You could do the job for that price and live) and lastly give them a breakdown of milestones by time taken not dates so when they sit on the copy approval for a month you are still within your contractual time-line.

    To make up for this control make the contract open for the client to get his/her stuff back for free so you’ll give them a CD of their site for free (and suggest good hosts) or transfer their domain away from yourself for free at any time so long as they’ve paid their bills. At the end of the day most clients are pretty good to work with and you don’t want to stiff them with hidden costs so make sure all the control you take comes with a justified and demonstrate-able benefit for the good clients.

    This works for me and no problems so far.

    • 117

      Again, that’s a very limiting business approach. As an admittedly extreme yet still valid example, do you think that if you won a contract to do some design work for Microsoft, they would transfer to you? Of course not. Are they guaranteed to pay you? Of course not.

      This approach only works with tiny businesses who don’t understand the value of the domain that they should, by rights, own regardless of what dev/design work you do or don’t do.

      If you’re happy to continue to work with those small clients then that’s fine but if you want to grow your business, you need a better process to deal with bad debts and bad clients.

      Especially when you consider that as this industry matures, even tiny businesses will become aware of the importance of their domain and this approach will no longer be viable.

      • 118

        I always have contracts(14 page) and one clause say that Client transfers full writes to domain names if they do not pay up any undisputed invoice in 90 days time after sending the invoice.

        The worse case would be client like eurobookings. They are in business of ripping off dev shops. Didn’t pay $52,000 to a thailand based shop and then $104,000 to my firm despite having contracts. They operate out of Netherlands so hard to fight a suit. I have contracts, audio recordings, email records – everything

        The only thing you can do in such cases is blast them in social media. Maybe take something like and put up the matter there.

  49. 119

    Amen to that…

  50. 120

    Really great article. clearly defined all the facts.


↑ Back to top