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American Translators Association (ATA): Resolving Payment Issues

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American Translators Association (ATA): Resolving Payment Issues

Resolving Payment Issues


Independent contractors have to be creative and persistent in order to resolve payment problems with clients. In this column, a reader shares how she found the “Achilles heel” of a reluctant payer.

Dear Business Smarts:

In early January, I received an inquiry from a U.S. law firm asking me if I was willing to work on a very large rush translation from German (an estate matter). At the request of the firm, I sent a contract in which I stipulated that payment was due within four weeks. This contract was approved by the client.

Six weeks after completing the translation, I e-mailed the law firm and asked about payment. No reply. I called and left messages—no reply. Then, in mid-March, I received a call from the attorney’s secretary. She told me that they were waiting for funds to be released. She assured me that I would get paid half of the money the following week and the rest the week after. She also asked if I would be kind enough to do another very small translation. I agreed.

No check arrived the following week or the week after. I e-mailed and called again and either got no answer or a very brief “We are still waiting for our client to pay us.”

In early May, I sent another e-mail to the delinquent attorney in which I simply stated that I would bring the matter to the attention of my state’s Bar Association by Monday. On Monday, I received a lengthy reply with a long-winded explanation (allegedly, he had been unable to sell the estate’s stocks to free up some funds, etc.) and, indeed, that Wednesday a FedEx envelope arrived with a check for the amount that was owed! —GR

Dear GR,

Congratulations on resolving this matter so successfully. Following up on overdue payments can be very frustrating and time-consuming. The best way to ensure success in collecting overdue accounts receivable is to be prepared, which means keeping complete and accurate records. The key to this is to track your invoices in a software or paper system. Make a note of when an invoice is due, and decide in advance when you will carry out the following two collection steps:

  1. Payment is Overdue by X Days

    Determine what the value of X will be for you and stick to it. While a certain amount of tolerance is customary, granting your clients generous extensions for their payment deadlines will not work in favor of your cash flow.

    On day X, write a polite letter—or better yet, use a template saved on your computer for this purpose. Restate the facts of the invoice and include all identifying information about the job, including purchase order number, dates, amount due, agreed payment terms, etc. Specify your expectations and courteously ask for a response by a specific date. Unfortunately, if your original invoice did not include explicit language requiring payment of late fees or interest, you have no claim to such penalties now.

    It is best to send a physical letter by registered mail to underscore the importance of the matter.

  2. Payment Has Significantly Exceeded X Days and You Have Not Received the Response You Requested

    At this point, it is time to escalate the matter to the next level. Turn to the executive manager, senior partner, top accountant, or any other supervisor of the employee who originally ordered the work from you. Politely explain your expectation to be paid immediately, and describe the steps you will take if the matter is not resolved to your satisfaction. These should not be idle threats.

    Be prepared to follow through on the measures you announced to the delinquent client in the letter, and make it clear you will post to online boards or contact a professional association, as in the case above. The mention of the state’s Bar Association obviously was the client’s “Achilles heel,” and convinced him to pay up finally. As difficult as it may be, do not let anger and frustration get the better of you. Take the high road and keep your communications as professional and courteous as you can.

Reprinted from The ATA Chronicle: August 2009, p 32