How to politely ask about payment schedules
Thread poster: llevicky

llevicky  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 02:10
French to English
+ ...
Jan 3, 2014

Hi everyone!

Happy New Year!

I have a question about business etiquette more than anything else. At the moment, I have one client. I have done several proofreading assignments for this client since October last year. I inquired in the beginning what their payment policy was - how long after the job was sent in would I be paid? It's a big academic organization (based in France) and I liaise directly with the head of research, who sends on my invoices to the finance department. My question about payment time was not answered, but as a trusted friend recommended me to the organization I wasn't too worried.

It's now been almost three months since my first big job for them and I am still awaiting payment. (I'm not even sure whether this is a long wait!) Their feedback has been overwhelmingly positive so I don't think it's a quality issue.

How do I go about politely asking about payment times? I have a good relationship with the person who sends me these jobs and I don't want to come across as aggressive. But obviously I need to be paid at some point...

I would be grateful for any tips! Thank you!

Cheers
Louise


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Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 03:10
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
What? Jan 3, 2014

llevicky wrote:
It's now been almost three months since my first big job for them and I am still awaiting payment. (I'm not even sure whether this is a long wait!) Their feedback has been overwhelmingly positive so I don't think it's a quality issue.

Personally I think you should have asked long ago. If their payment terms are 90 days or more from your invoice, you should definitely know so that you can control your finances, but this looks to me like your invoice was misplaced somehow. You should definitely ask now.

As to how to ask politely, at first blame fate for any issues:
- "Is it possible that my invoice sent to you on XXXXXX did not reach you or your accountancy?"
- "I was wondering about the payment of my invoice from about three months ago. Is there any additional detail your accounting people might need in order to process my invoice?"
- "I do not seem to have your payment terms in my records. Would you mind letting me know what is the usual payment time? My invoice issued three months ago seems to be pending."
.

It is always best not to blame your contact or other people, so avoid expressions like:
- You seem to have forgotten about my payment"
- "Clearly nobody took care of paying my invoices"
- "I am astonished that my invoice has not been paid after three months", etc.


Good luck!


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jmadsen  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:10
The other way around... Jan 3, 2014

You are the supplier, so you set the payment terms... not the other way around!
Why is it so in this business that freelancers let the customers decide when they want to pay? I don't get it. They also largely decide how much they want to pay. Stand your ground once in a while, people!
Be polite, but demand payment according to your own payment terms.
Make demands and negotiate as an equal partner. Don't be modest.

Good luck


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Lincoln Hui  Identity Verified
Hong Kong
Local time: 10:10
Member
Chinese to English
+ ...
What are you trying to say? Jan 3, 2014

Jørgen Madsen wrote:

You are the supplier, so you set the payment terms... not the other way around!
Why is it so in this business that freelancers let the customers decide when they want to pay? I don't get it. They also largely decide how much they want to pay. Stand your ground once in a while, people!
Be polite, but demand payment according to your own payment terms.
Make demands and negotiate as an equal partner. Don't be modest.

Good luck

I review my clients' payment terms and accept them when I deem them reasonable. Am I not allowed to do that? Is that "unprofessional" nowadays?

To the opening post, a direct question should be perfectly fine:
Could you let me know what the status of my invoice submitted on Oct XX is?

My experience is that universities tend to move slowly - the budgets go through more red tape, and the same pipeline might be used by guests lecturers, temporary student assistants and other kinds of temporary contract work. It's the nature of the beast and you just have to be aware of it.

But you should always check the payment schedule before starting a job; there's probably no hard number because the people seeking services don't work in the finance department, but they can probably give you an approximate number.


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Joakim Braun  Identity Verified
Sweden
Local time: 03:10
German to Swedish
+ ...
Simple Jan 3, 2014

You don't have to be that polite. Be brief and straightforward.

"When do you expect to pay my unpaid invoice XXX?"


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nordiste  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 03:10
English to French
+ ...
Big academic organisations ... Jan 3, 2014

Big academic organisations in France are slow payers, as almost all government agencies. They also have strict rules and procedures regarding paiement.

The first step would be following Tomas good advice by asking: "Is it possible that my invoice sent to you on XXXXXX did not reach you or your accountancy?"

Insist to get the name/email/phone number of somebody in the accountancy department to deal directly with them: maybe they need some more details from you,or you will have to complete some forms. Researchers are very busy and not always well organised regarding paperwork.

I fully agree with Jorgen regarding rates, terms and conditions for direct clients and agencies. But Universities and government agencies are in a world of their own with their specific rules.


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Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 02:10
Member (2007)
English
+ ...
"I don't want to come across as aggressive", you say Jan 3, 2014

I think you're a long way from coming across as aggressive, Louise. Meek and submissive, more likely. But I'm sure it's just because you don't know where you stand at the moment so you can't project self-confidence. There's a learning curve to everything in life and starting up as a freelancer is a difficult stage. I would really urge all young freelancers to invest in some basic training in how to be an entrepreneur, how to run a business. Many of us have extremely small businesses so don't have to worry about a lot of the things that big businesses have to worry about (hiring and firing with all the associated HR headaches; looking after shareholders' interests; highly complicated (creative?) accounting; some of us don't even have to deal with VAT-type taxes), but we are nevertheless running a business.

So, you need to think what would happen if you ask a specialist to fix your computer, to design your website, to translate your degree certificate into Mandarin... Would you tell them how much you'd pay, and when you'd pay, or would you expect them to say "That'll be $nn; we can deliver on dd/mm/yy and we'll expect payment within nn days"? You're that specialist here, of course.

Payment terms do vary widely, and sometimes a freelancer will have different payment terms for different clients. We may ask for advance payment (in part or in full) from new clients, especially from a private individual; or we may well accept payment after delivery, anything from a couple of days after (leaving just time to initiate the payment) to quite a while later. This is particularly true with agency clients who are going to sell the translation to their own client: we're unlikely to get much business from agencies if we specify 7 days. The most common payment term, acceptable to the majority of freelancers, I believe, is 30 days. Many of us consider the payment terms required by some agencies (e.g. up to 90 days) to be abusive. Do they give their own clients 90 days to pay? I don't think so!

I would use one of the expressions Tomás suggests, although I personally would avoid saying "Would you mind letting me know what is the usual payment time?". It's time to take control back. Too late to state your own terms for this particular job but it would be best to avoid asking about theirs. In future, your payment terms should be part of every quote.

Best wishes for a happy and prosperous 2014 as a freelance translator.

@ Nordiste: Are you still finding that? I know that 10 years ago they were terrible, with 3 months plus being normal but from about 2010 I found they improved enormously. I was being paid at exactly 30 days by GRETA, Pôle Emploi, a university... They were teaching jobs so I don't do them any more, being thousands of kilometres away. I believe Sarkozy's government demanded the prompt payments; have they gone back to their old ways under Hollande?


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EvaVer  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:10
Member (2012)
Czech to English
+ ...
All French clients pay late Jan 3, 2014

In my experience. Usual terms in France are 60 days from the end of month, but are seldom respected. Just ask for payment!

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Hannah Keet  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 02:10
German to English
+ ...
It's definitely a long wait, but... Jan 3, 2014

In France 60 days is standard for payment terms. Send them a polite email enquiring about payment, but with future clients hash out these details before beginning work. This sort of information should be included in any contracts signed, if you signed one.

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Spencer Allman
United Kingdom
Local time: 02:10
Finnish to English
No need to be polite Jan 3, 2014

when people owe you money

It is just this sort of unnecessary courtesy that has made translators an easy target for late payment generally.

Be firm - and don't be afraid to lose a customer. Though in my experience they appreciate this sort of upfrontness - asking to be paid is the essence of any business transaction.

After all, shop assistants don't ask when you intend to pay for an item - it is paid for there and then.

Good luck!

Spencer


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LegalTransform  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 21:10
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Payment schedules Jan 3, 2014

You put the payment due date you want on your invoice.



[Edited at 2014-01-03 13:42 GMT]


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Tina Vonhof  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 19:10
Member (2006)
Dutch to English
+ ...
60 days maximum Jan 3, 2014

Many agencies have 60, or even 90, day payment schedules. Making up our own due dates is not going to change that. But after 60 days you certainly should start sending regular reminders. I usually say something like: "According to my records, my invoice dated xxx has not been paid yet. Could you please check and make the payment as soon as possible (or you could say by date zzz)." Mention the PO number if there was one. If a second reminder is necessary, explain that you cannot accept any more work from them until your previous invoice is paid (and stick to it).

In early December I always send a reminder to any outstanding invoices asking them to pay before the end of the year (my year end for taxes.)


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 10:10
Chinese to English
Ask for a contact in finance Jan 4, 2014

One of the problems that we often face is just talking to the right person. As one-person businesses, we act as CEO, finance department, marketing, customer care and everything else, and we become quite adept at "changing hats" as we need. In big organisations, they have separate people for all this stuff. Chasing a "head of research" for payment is embarrassing, and often unhelpful, as a department head may well not even know the details of the payment processes. With a bit of luck, your contact will realise this, so ask her/him for a contact who you can ask specifically about the admin stuff. It might be her assistant, or someone in finance, or someone in admin... You need someone with whom you can talk directly about payments without worrying about offending them.

If you can't get another contact, then as others have suggested, a polite but direct question is fine. I would put "Payment query - invoice no. xxx" in the subject line of the email to make it look very admin: give your contact every opportunity to forward it to the appropriate person, rather than deal with the tiresome stuff herself.


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llevicky  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 02:10
French to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Many thanks Jan 5, 2014

Thanks everyone for your suggestions.

I do think the fact that the client in question is a university is the main problem and, as some of you have wisely pointed out, dealing with someone who has nothing do with finance or admin can further muddy the waters.

An admin-sounding email sounds like the best solution for this one - but I'll also be adding 'assert yourself to the people you do good-quality work for' to my list of resolutions!

Thanks again!


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Tiffany Hardy  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 03:10
Spanish to English
make a habit of asking for billing contact Jan 7, 2014

To echo what Phil Hand said, I also find it very common that my main contact in a company is clueless about billing issues. I make a habit of asking for a specific billing contact when I ask for invoicing details for the initial invoice (before there is ever even an issue). I ask for a person's name, phone number, and email in the accounting department. That way, if an invoice has not been paid, I don't need to pester my main contact about money-related issues, but can contact the person who is in a better position to tell me what is going on with the invoice. If I'm unsuccessful, I can always go back to my main contact, but if it can all be solved in the accounting department, all the better.

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