Missing: One Word document, burning the mid-night oil to get the job completed and a truckload of expertise. If seen, please return to originator. I’ve been robbed and am not happy, Jan.

BLOG: When Customers Don’t Pay

Solo business is like dating. Hot prospects check you out from a distance. If they kinda like you they get in touch and hint about a sexy new project they’ve got coming up. If you’re up for a new client relationship then you flirt back.

You play a little phone tag, exchange a few emails, perhaps linger over coffee and then, when the atmosphere is just right, you hit them with a proposal and quote.

“Yes” they say.

In the heady glow of a new relationship you get started on the project. You decide against asking for a deposit. After all, pre-nups aren’t compatible with true love, right? You think about them non-stop for weeks. You chat on the phone. You share with them your secrets gained through years as a lonely consultant. And then, as the sun sets on your project you send them a big, beautiful invoice with a note, and wait for your true reward. For seven days you wait in happy anticipation. For 14 days you nervously check the letterbox. For 90 long days and nights you call, you email and you re-fax invoices, but your advances are unrequited.

That’s when you realise. You’ve been robbed by a dodgy customer.

They might not shoplift (anymore). They might not steal cars. They might not steal music (actually, forget that one). But when it comes to concepts, designs, words, documents and ideas, they shove them down their pants and run like the wind the minute you’re not looking.

I’ve fallen for five types of dodgy customers:

1. Bumbling ragamuffins
These ones genuinely mean to pay the bill. They still answer your calls, reply to your emails and can be great to work with. But when it comes to actually paying, they ‘lose’ the invoice or just ‘forget’ to pay. If you keep on to them you’ll get your cash. Often they can be trained. Signature phrase: “I haven’t forgotten. I’ve got your invoice somewhere. Can you resend it?”

2. Cash-strapped
Again, they always mean well at the beginning, but when the due date arrives they’re invariably ‘caught a little short’, ‘paying next week’ or ‘paying in instalments’. Very annoying and time-consuming to chase, a 50% upfront deposit is the way to go for these ones.

Signature phrase: “Maaaate! I’ve got a monster payment due in from [big company] any day now – I’ll fix you up next week at the latest.”

3. Strategic delayers
Often corporates, these people have a formal strategy to pay as slowly as possible regardless of your terms – generally an inflexible 60 to 90 days. Effectively this means global corporations are taking interest free loans from unsuspecting suppliers. At least you know they will pay on day 90.

Signature phrase: “You’ve just missed the pay run for this month.”

4. Never ending stories
These are those people who never seem to approve the final work. There are always additions or changes that can drag on for months. The project you started in January can end up being invoiced in June. Try setting up progress payments and defined costs for scope changes.

Signature phrase: “I’m just waiting to hear back from my boss, she’s [sick/in Adelaide/busy] “

5. Dirty thieves
These are the people who accept your products and/or service and never intend to pay. They don’t answer their phone, change their number regularly and tend to have several email addresses that don’t match their business name. Upfront payment recommended.

Signature phrase: “This is going to be huge! We’ll get this project out of the way and I’ve got loads more work for you coming up.” NOT

I’m sure you know plenty of other kinds of dodgy customers I should be avoiding. I’d love to hear your own definitions, gripes, vents and dodgy stories in the comments below.

Gillian Rossouw