By Mark Loundy
It was warm, even for an August evening; still the big man wore an overcoat. A camera rode over his right shoulder and there was a slight bulge under his left arm. The few passersby on the sidewalk instinctively shied away as the big man brushed by, his face hidden in the shadow of a sweat-stained fedora.
So, you've shot the job. You've got the images registered with the Copyright Office. The client is happy. All is well with the world, right? Nope. The job is not finished until the check clears the bank.
Collecting on accounts receivable is often the toughest part of the job. But it doesn't have to be. Olympia, Washington photographer Doug Walker typically requires half payment from corporate clients upon acceptance and the balance within 30 days. Walker's secret is preparing the client. "I also talk about it before any job is accepted," said Walker. "This is when the issues are best handled, when the sides are balanced. All power in negotiations are up-front when each want something, not after the fact."
The editor looked up as the big man pushed into the office. "Uh, hi Luca," he said, swallowing the fear rising in his throat. "Look, I know I'm late on the invoice, but I promise we'll get the check out to you this week." The big man squinted through dead eyes at the editor. "You know how Mr. Loundy gets if I come back empty handed." The trigger finger of his right hand brushed lightly against the middle button of his coat. The editor was shocked as the hair on the back of his neck actually stood on-end.
Clear policies in your paperwork are vital for timely payment. Liberal use of both the carrot and the stick works for Pennsylvania freelancer Leif Skoogfors. "I do offer a 2% discount for payments made within 10 days of an invoice," said Skoogfors. "Curiously, only about one client in 50 takes it. I always list a penalty for late payment, but once a client starts being over 30 days I just call. I find it hard to collect the 1.5% rebilling fee and usually don't make a point of it, especially since many of my clients are repeats."
Philadelphia photographer George Widman puts a 2% fee in his invoices for payments made after 30 days. "Most accounts payable managers try to stretch out all payments - to anyone, not singling-out photographers - for as long as is reasonably possible for them to do so," said Widman. "But when advised of a 24 percent annual penalty for holding up payment on particular bills, those bills move to the top of the heap - and don't get 'lost,' either."
Be sure to include everything that the client needs along with the invoice. "One thing that's important," said Richmond freelancer Chip Mitchell, "especially when working with agencies, is to have all your paperwork in order. With agencies that require receipts, a missing receipt can hold up payment for a long time."
"Youse is infringin' on Mr. Loundy's copyright if youse don't pony-up," said the big man. The editor concentrated on breathing as the massive forearm easily pinned him to the wall by his neck, his toes kicking air. "Your usage license ain't no good wit' out da scratch."
The personal touch can work wonders, but some companies shield the accounts payable department from vendors. Doug Walker has a special way to get the direct contact info. "I personally tell them that I need this to get the W-9/FEIN info to them." The people who handle taxpayer ID numbers are usually the same people who cut the checks.
Chip Mitchell is also a big believer in those critical billing contacts. "I try and find out who in accounts payable handles my invoices and give them a call two weeks after sending the invoice and inquire politely if the invoice is in the works," said Mitchell. "If it isn't, the call usually will get it in. I try not to bother the AD or art buyer or photo editor with payment calls since it's not their problem and they have plenty of other things to take care of."
Mitchell knows that remembering that accountants are also people can pay-off in the long run. "One trick I learned from another photographer," said Mitchell, "is if you have a client you do a lot of work for, occasionally send some flowers to the accounts payable person who handles your invoice, with a thank you note for such efficient payment. They'll remember it in the future."
The big man counted the bills. The editor shivered behind his desk. "It's all there," he said, his voice an octave too high. "It better be," said the big man. "Or duh next time we send flowers, dey'll be lilies."