Patty McDaniel
Patty McDaniel

It is your job to talk about the money.

If you don’t talk about the money with your clients, and I mean explicitly and in detail, then your clients will believe that money is not involved. (I get it: We are all artists, and it isn’t about the money, it’s about how good the work is. And I agree, the work must be good. And I agree that work this good deserves money. BUT even though you are an artist, you still have to be ready, willing and able to talk about money. Unless you really don’t need money.) 

So: here’s some pointers on how to talk about money in a way that gets you paid more, sooner: 

  1. First, believe you are worth it. If you can’t manage this, either get help so you can or find a payroll position.
  2. Get to know--and I mean really know--your numbers. In my experience, it is much easier to look someone in the eye and tell them you really are worth your markup when you know to a certainty what it will take to be profitable.
  3. Study your job cost numbers so that you have a sense of what your typical projects cost and how long they typically take. Be honest. Learn the real numbers, not what you wish the numbers were.
  4. Make a list of all the things you could do for your family if you were consistently profitable. (Because I know you are an artist, and weirdly we won’t charge more for ourselves, but we will charge more if it benefits our loved ones). Am I right?
  5. Time is money. That means you also have to talk about time. Honestly. And accurately. The last thing you want to do (if you want to get paid) is to complete a job in a time frame that is longer than what you promised.
  6. Get in the habit of talking about budget on the first appointment. (Note: This requires completing steps 1 - 4 above). Yes, this means sometimes people will shut you down. Rejection is hard, but I’d rather get rejected on the first appointment when I’ve invested an hour then further down the line when I have more time invested.
  7. When we present a proposal we ask for a scheduling deposit, usually 2% to 4%. This is before any paperwork is signed. Scary, right?
  8. The contract spells out all the draws. (And a bunch of other stuff. We use contracts from Gary Ransome’s book The Contractor’s Legal Kit. Deposit is usually 10% to 20%. Subsequent draws are all pinned to the start of a phase, never to completion of a phase. It is really easy to agree that something has started. Sometimes murkier whether a phase is completed. Final draw is “Substantial Completion.” (Hint: this is not the same as totally, completely, 100% finished).
  9. Our contract also spells out how quickly we expect clients to pay our invoices (usually five days). This is important not just because I want clients to pay me within five days, but also because I want to find out BEFORE I sign a contract if someone doesn’t want to pay me on my terms.
  10. Anytime there is a change in the scope of the work or the cost of the work, talk about it with the client and document the conversation in writing and get their signature. If you do something extra without stopping and saying “Sure, we can do that. The cost is $100 and it will add two days to the schedule” then the client will believe that you are doing the work for free, or at least for much less than you think you are doing the work for. Yes, I know this is uncomfortable. See step 4 above.

If you follow these rules, odds are you'll not only be more successful but also will have fewer payment headaches.