Dealing With Clients Who Refuse To Pay

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Rob Bowen is a staff writer for Web Hosting Geeks, a longtime freelance designer, and burgeoning videographer and filmmaker whose creative voice and works can … More about Robert ↬

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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.

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.

Dealing With Clients Who Refuse To Pay

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.

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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.

First Things First

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

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.



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.


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.


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

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 Killswitch 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.



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.


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.


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

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.

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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.


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.


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

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.

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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.


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.


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

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.



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.


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.


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

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.



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.


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.


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.


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.

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