The Do's and Don'ts of Invoicing a Client for the First Time
By Marc Carson · Friday May 8, 2015
Congratulations! You’ve done your job. Now it’s time to invoice your client.
I’ve sent out many hundreds of invoices since I started freelancing about 15 years ago. Here’s what I’ve learned.
- Be clear. Amounts, notes, as well as your address, phone, name, etc. should all be in the invoice.
- Be normal. Clients expect reading your invoice to be a simple process. Send the client a nicely-formatted PDF invoice. It should be smaller than a megabyte or so. Avoid heavy graphics or text that is too light to read.
- Save your invoices in a way that makes sense. I use a numbering scheme like this:
2015-05-12_Marc-Carson_Invoice.pdfThis way the computer will keep my invoices in date order, even if I sort my files by name. I like to put my name in the file name, rather than the client’s name, so that they can more easily find the file on their computer. On my computer, I place the invoices in the main folder for each client, and keep other client materials in their own sub-folders. (If you prefer to use an online invoicing service, that’s fine too.)
- Help the client know when it’s due. Specify whether the invoice is due after some time period, or if it’s due “on receipt.” I know some businesses that will intentionally delay the invoice if it has no terms on it. I don’t think that’s a great idea, but just know that there are businesses that do that.
- Address the client directly in the invoice. At the top of the invoice, list their name, proper title, and look up their street address and add that in, even if you only have an email address for them. You can use a service like Spokeo to look up clients’ addresses if you need that information. Some people think adding in the address has “I know where you live” power to it. I just think it looks more professional.
- Follow up on invoices that go longer than a certain time period. Be polite and assume they just forgot or got busy.
- Prepare to explain yourself. I once used the word “widget” in an invoice because that’s what I was building for the client, in web design terminology. Throughout the entire project, we called it a widget. But when accounting saw that on the invoice, they thought they were being ripped off! They called me and demanded that I explain what I meant by “widget.” Oops. We had a good laugh at the end of that call.
- Follow the client’s method for invoicing. Some clients have rules they need to follow to get you paid. That’s normal and A-OK. If they send you a P.O. (purchase order) number, then be sure to list the P.O. number on your invoice. This is common for government organizations and larger companies.
- Use a nice greeting when you email the invoice. This only makes you look more professional. “Hi Dawn, I’m attaching my latest invoice as a PDF. Best regards, so-and-so.”
- Use a proper email signature. Name, email address, phone number, etc. This helps the client get in touch if they need to ask a question. If you like getting paid on time, don’t leave out this step.
- Use a proper email address. firstname.lastname@example.org simply won’t be treated as professionally, on average, as email@example.com, for example. I’ve heard people ask questions like, “is this really a job for them or just a hobby?” when they see non-standard email addresses.
- If you enjoyed working with the client, tell them that. They like to hear it!
- If you have add-on services that are available, you can list them in the invoice. You might hate marketing, but this is pretty straightforward and smaller, more informal clients usually welcome it. If you are a professional, clients want to hear what you think might be a good fit for them. So if you just built the client a blog and realized that you can show their latest blog posts in the sidebar or footer of the other website pages, you can list that possibility in a separate section of the invoice and note how much it would cost. Don’t be surprised if the client replies and says, “Thanks, I’ve sent it to our accountant. Go ahead with the other items you mentioned and send me another invoice.”
- Don’t surprise the client. Nothing in your invoice should be a surprise. This goes for the cost, timing, notes on your work, any demands you’re making, or surprise fees. Even if you’re not invoicing them, when you’re working with a client, avoid surprises.
- Don’t wait too long to send the invoice. When you finish the work, send it over. If you’re asking for an initial payment up front, send it over as soon as possible. Also, if you do procrastinate…the client still owes you the money but may ask you to be flexible with them or negotiate a bit.
- Don’t be demanding and overly-worried about your money. Angry? Turn your anger into a reasoned-out polite request. Think about it: Are you worried because you need more money now and your spouse is freaking out? Then that’s not the client’s fault. So ask them politely and explain what you need and why you need it. If you get angry, you are not benefiting anyone.
- Don’t over-explain in your email greeting. For example, “Hi Scott, Here is my invoice. You might be wondering why X costs $$$. Let me explain.” This looks like you’re being evasive. Don’t forecast what the client may or may not think. Just make some reasonable notes that explain your work and let them get in touch if they have questions. And remember: Try not to surprise the client next time.
- Don’t wait too long to follow up. Have 30 days passed? 15 business days when your billing terms say 14 business days? Has it been three days when they said they mailed your check yesterday? Reply and say, “Hey, I just wanted to follow up on this invoice. Can you check on it for me? Thank you.” (Sometimes clients lie. That is just a fact. And those clients should usually be fired. That is also a fact.)
- Don’t complain to your client if you weren’t 100% clear about your terms up front. I’ve seen people do professional work and then complain when they weren’t paid via internet money transfer the instant it was complete. That would have been fine, except that it wasn’t normal for the type of work in question, and it was never communicated up front. This was really unprofessional behavior. It made the complainer look like a nervous wreck.
- Don’t feel pressured to negotiate your terms. If a client pushes back and says, for example, “but I never used the design! Why do I still have to pay for it?” they still owe you money for the work. Of course, some friendly, reasonable negotiation is fine. “This put me just over our budget. That’s not your fault; I was just caught off guard. So: Can we give you a free membership for two years for a 5% reduction in the invoice cost?” You might just ask them to throw in a T-shirt and seal the deal! But whiny, unreasonable, surprise negotiation is not fine and you should describe it to the client using one or more of those terms. For example, “I was surprised to get your request, Tyler. I wish you would have communicated your problems to me prior to my doing the work. I’m afraid the total amount is still due. If you’d like, we can discuss a more cost-effective way of approaching these projects in the future. Let me know if you have some time to meet next week.” That is still firm, but much better than slamming the door in their face with expletives.
I hope this helps! As my business coach once told me, “you don’t do anyone any good going out of business.” Charge for what you do, collect payment, and feel confident in your work practices.