Work on the web serving clients for awhile and you'll meet them all: the absolute delight, the steady worker, the brilliant entrepreneur, the total flake, the miser, the nut and, yes, the crook. With good people skills, you can work successfully with many personality types, except for that last one - the guy or gal who is getting through life by ripping people off and who will one day phone or email you, benefit from your services and then refuse to pay you for them.
I feel lucky that in nearly a decade of working in web marketing, we've attracted just a handful of crazy clients and only one genuine rip off artist. There was the client who was perfectly lovely by day, and then at night would send me totally bizarre and angry emails. I had to eventually suspect alcoholism with this unfortunate soul.
There was another very strange client who sent us a photo of a construction worker to put in her logo and then flipped out when we delivered the finished logo because it had a construction worker in it. Wow, that was a weird one! We quickly refunded her money and ran away.
Neither client, needless to say, appears in our portfolio; nor will the website of the worst-case-scenario bad guy who booked my time and then failed to pay. Chances are, sooner or later, this will happen to you and I want to recognize and dignify your experience by sharing my own, plus three options for handling this lousy experience.
The Emotional And Financial Strain Caused By Being Ripped Off
Yes, it hurts your wallet, you feelings and your pride when someone steals from you. Unless you are making so much money right now that you honestly wouldn't feel the loss of a client defaulting, chances are, you can ill afford to lose the money owed you.
In my own Case Of The Crooked Client, I had his $750 payment earmarked to have a crown put on one of my molars to prevent it from cracking further and having to be extracted. My small firm (just my husband and myself) really had to scramble to find the money elsewhere for this emergency dental procedure. This meant taking money away from other needy areas of our budget to cover the loss.
Additionally, when a client fails to pay, there is the inherent loss of time that could have been spent on other paid work.
Finally there is the loss of dignity in having to interact with someone who is behaving unethically. There is something so disheartening about witnessing the shenanigans of a grownup pretending they have paid you, then when payment doesn't arrive and you follow up about it, turning the scenario around into an opportunity to share with you the various curse words that they know and generally insulting you.
In this case, the client didn't (and couldn't) deny that we had delivered everything outlined in our contract. Without a legal leg to stand on, he made a grandiose speech to my husband about the differences between people from his state (where people presumably rip one another off with great ceremony) and we liberal Californians. He also claimed he didn't know how to use PayPal (very peculiar, as that is how he'd made his downpayment). He insulted my husband and when I tried a follow up call a week or two later, he insulted me. Suffice it to say, it was all very bizarre and I felt deeply embarrassed for him because of his absurd behavior. And I knew that at the bottom of it all, he was putting on this unseemly show simply in order to avoid paying us. Money used to make people dance the charleston for days on end in order to win contests, and it is still making people do the strangest things.
I'm relating all of this because if, like me, you feel good about the ethical way in which you run your own business, having to talk with someone who lacks ethics and breaks laws can be genuinely disturbing. Spending your time dealing with criminals is probably not part of your vision of yourself or your work as an honest business person. None of your standards of politeness, morality or legality apply when you are face to face with a crook.
So what can you do? You've been robbed and are going to have to respond in some way to the situation. Even if you decide to do nothing, you can make that a conscious decision so that you aren't left feeling like nothing more than a victim. I see three options. Sometimes, just knowing that you've got a choice gives you back your agency after being taken advantage of.
Option #1: RetaliatePlease note, that I am not advising this, but I think most SEOs will remember what happened when presidential candidate John McCain's staff used a MySpace template without crediting its creator, leading to an announcement of unqualified support for same sex marriage.
More recently, the case of the web designer who publicized his client's non-payment right on the homepage of their chiropractic site has made headlines, and just today, I suspect that some similar instance of disgruntlement may be at play in the embedding of some rather stinky photos on an insurance agent's Google Place Page.
Frankly, I couldn't believe the lack of wisdom of my own bad client in failing to pay me after handing me the keys to his Google Places account. I wouldn't ever do anything like this...but someone else just might.
Remember, retaliating for non payment with an attack on whichever of the client's properties you have access to might very well make you feel better at first, but in the long run, it's not likely to reflect well on the professionalism of your own business. When we start acting as badly as our foes, evil triumphs.
A healthy way to deal with the urge to retaliate might be to write down a list of the things you'd like to do and joke about this privately with your business partners who have been negatively affected by non-payment. You might draft an imaginary email telling the jerk what you really think of him. Don't send it, though. I think you'll come to regret it if you do, but the act of getting your anger off your chest could work wonders in restoring everybody's good humor.
Option #2: Go To Small Claims Court
I see this advice given frequently in forums and the like. Every state has its own set of regulations regarding this. Here is a list of the allowed monetary limits for small claims suits, state by state, and each state has its own filing fees, as well.
If you're in the same state as the client who has failed to pay, this might be a good option. Unfortunately, so many Internet Marketers, Website Designers and SEOs work remotely with clients all over the map, and from what I've read on various legal advice sites, out-of-state small claims suits can be a real hassle and mess.
You will need to determine whether it is worth it to miss work, pay out for travel and lodging, pay filing fees and any other attendant costs in order to recoup the money owed you by the client. If you have the contract and proof that you've been wronged, you do have a chance of winning, but not without having to devote your time to dealing with the one bad client at the cost of being able to focus forward on your other projects.
Some business owners will decide it is important to go through the motions of taking legal action, as a matter of principal. Alternatively, they might try to stay out of court but pay an attorney a small fee to draft and send a letter requesting payment. I've read of instances where this has worked. Or, you might investigate the possibility of booking the services of a collection agency who will begin phoning the client on a regular basis, requesting payment. You do have options and are not without power and you may pursue one of these paths as a means for standing up for what's right.
Option #3: Intentionally Do Nothing
It's the 'intentionally' part that counts. For the health of your own self esteem, don't let someone abuse you and let it slide or drift in and out of consciousness as an unresolved issue which haunts you. Instead, sit yourself down, or sit down with your business partners, and come to a decision about how you will handle a case of non-payment.
I'll be completely honest here and note that the timeline of coming to a resolution about our own crooked client was a little rough and bumpy. When the client was rude to my husband, I was angry. When the client was then rude to me, my husband was furious, knowing how much time I had put into consulting with this business owner. This resulted in us having an argument at first about how to handle the situation, because both of us had been offended after witnessing the other being ill-treated. And, if you'll recall, we really were counting on that money for a medical matter. The loss of it made our feelings a bit raw and in retrospect, I'm not surprised that our private initial reactions were a bit heated.
After we cooled off, though, we were able to come back to the issue and effectively discuss the relative merits. We both concluded that we have a lot of good things going on in our work life right now and that the prospect of trying to take an out-of-state client to court was about the least appealing thing we could think of. We decided to write the client off as a crook, consoling ourselves with the theory that his bad behavior would surely one day catch up with him. A karma sort of thing.
Money is funny. When we allow it to represent our self-worth, being unlawfully deprived of what we've earned can cause us real feelings of depression, anger or bitterness. I think the worst possible outcome of serving a client well and then being cheated by him would be for you to end up feeling poorly about yourself or lugging around even one iota or self-destructive anger. A crook may take your money - whether he has rooked you in business or mugged you on the street - but don't let him steal any more of your time by dwelling on his misdeeds once you've decided to walk away. You and your life are about so much more than dollars and cents.
If you've reached this article because you've been ripped off, I want you to know I'm sorry that it's happened. From what I hear from my colleagues, this happens to everyone eventually. It's been awhile since I was ripped off by the client in question - I wanted to reflect for a good period before I tried to write about it, and I hope what I've written has felt meaningful and true to you. My best advice is to empower yourself by finding a way to cope with this unwanted situation in a manner that's in tune with your ethics, sense of justice and priorities. The last thing I said to my own bad client, in an admirably measured tone, was that I supposed this matter would be on his conscience, then. Time to walk away and get back to business.
Miriam Ellis is the co-owner of Solas Web Design and CopyLocal, providing SEO-based website design, Local SEO and professional copywriting for small-to-medium North American businesses. She is the Local SEO Associate in the Q&A Forum at SEOmoz, a moderator at Cre8asite Forums and an annual participant in David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors report. When she and her husband are not working on the web, they're farming organically and working on increased sustainability or roaming about in nature having the time of their lives.
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