How Do You, or Can You, Forgive a Deadbeat Client?

A few weeks ago, on LinkedIn, my screen populated with photos of “people you may have worked with.” Scanning these faces for people to connect with, I felt my jaw tighten. There he was, a client who had refused to pay me years ago, 18 years ago! The anger that surfaced surprised me—I thought I had let it go.

I emailed, faxed, and called “Joe” a handful of times for payment, but he ignored my efforts. When he finally answered the phone one day, I kindly asked when I could expect payment. He was defensive and said he couldn’t pay me, because his client hadn’t paid him. I responded “well, let’s resolve this in a professional way.” He shouted, “I am a professional!” I backed down, the conflict-avoider that I am.

A year or two after this episode, I read a post by Mary Ellen Bates on the AIIP list, which she later included in her book The Reluctant Entrepreneur:

If it is clear that you are not going to get paid, forgive the debt. My philosophy is that bad clients don’t deserve any of my energy or focus. I wait until the debt is nine to 12 months old and then write off the amount owed. I send the client a letter to that effect; it usually includes wording such as this: “I am sorry that you are unable to pay for the work that I did for you in April. It is clear to me that you do not intend to honor this invoice, so I am forgiving the debt.”

I didn’t write Joe a letter, but I did write off the debt in my mind. But when his pic showed up on Linkedin, I realized I hadn’t forgiven anyone or anything. I was tempted to send him a LinkedIn friend request and say “hey, remember me, the person you stiffed?” but I knew that would do nothing but backfire. In his article, “What To Do When A Client Refuses To Pay,” Stephen Mikhael writes, “Pride should never be a catalyst for decision making.”

There were other clients who had refused to pay me. Once, I had an attorney write him a letter. His attorney wrote back, and it was clear from what he wrote I should have written a better engagement letter. Another client’s excuse not to pay a small sum was so absurd I just had to laugh.

But what was it with Joe? Why the lingering resentment? I was angry with him, and with myself. I had worked for him a couple of times before, and I thought we had a good working relationship. But the last time, I admit I let myself be charmed by him and accepted his project when I should have been packing for my vacation. To make it worse, I didn’t ask for a retainer.

Joshua Downs, LCSW, says, “Forgiveness is easier when both parties are involved in the healing process.” This resonated with me. If Joe had said “I’m sorry” or “let’s work something out” it would have been much easier to forgive and forget. I also had to forgive myself, because I knew I had made mistakes, like not getting money up front, and letting his anger intimidate me.

In this case, it is easier to accept Joe rather than forgive him. In her book, How Can I Forgive You? Janis Abrahms Spring lists ten positive results from accepting someone:

1. You honor the full sweep of your emotions.

2. You give up your need for revenge but continue to seek a just resolution.

3. You stop obsessing about the injury and reengage with life.

4. You protect yourself from further abuse.

5. You frame the offender's behavior in terms of his own personal struggles.

6. You look honestly at your own contribution to the injury.

7. You challenge your false assumptions about what happened.

8. You look at the offender apart from his offense, weighing the good against the bad.

9. You carefully decide what kind of relationship you want with him.

10. You forgive yourself for your own failings.

I also asked a friend who is a retired attorney about deadbeat clients. He admitted he’d been stiffed often early in his career. But each time, he asked himself, “what can I learn from this?” We talked about my deadbeat instances from which I learned my need to:

1) Write a better engagement letter.

2) Get a retainer for the least amount of money you are willing to accept for the job. In that way, if I get stiffed, I wouldn’t have lost money.

3) Trust my instinct.

4) Take out the emotion and don’t run away from conflict.

5) Accept what happened and move on.

I also found Derek Halpren’s blog post, How To Deal With Clients Who Refuse To Pay, helpful. Halpern says, “the first step in dealing with a client who won’t pay up is to figure out WHY.” In many cases, understanding the WHY can help us get paid. He describes three reasons why a client won’t pay you and provides tips on how to on how to handle each scenario.

I’m glad I saw Joe’s photo on LinkedIn. My desire to send him a snarky email, and knowing it better not to, led me on a journey to learn more about how to deal with clients who don’t pay, and about myself. When clients owe us money, it is natural to get angry and critical with them, and ourselves. The decision whether to fight, forgive, forget, or accept is personal. I’ve found that by accepting the factors that went into the situation, I’m better able to change the energy around the debt and take the next steps to get paid or never work for that client again.


Jan Davis1 Comment