Most of the web designers I know (myself included) don't really like dealing with invoicing clients. Here are a few strategies I use that make the process run much more smoothly and with less stress.
There are a handful of problems that tend to come up regularly like…
The 90% Stall Out
This one was the most common for me. This is the situation where you do everything you can do, but you need the last few deliverables from the client, but they're not giving them to you. Like you need a couple of photos or copy for one last page. You're so close to finished, but you can't launch the site without those last couple of things. You need to launch the site to get paid, but now the project has stalled out.
Similar to the 90% stall out problem is the endless change request problem. It's common to start a project where you charge 50% now and plan to collect the last 50% when you launch the site. Sometimes, however, you get a client who never seems quite satisfied. You give them a great website but they nit-pick and constantly ask for updates preventing you from launching the site and getting paid for the second half of the project.
The Ghost Client
A client pays their first payment and then disappears for a long time. Despite you trying to reengage them, they ghost you. Then months – maybe even a year – later they finally get back with you. Now you're supposed to pick up the pieces and start their project. Of course, it's been so long you can't remember the project details. Plus, you've probably got other things to work and working this ghost client back into your schedule is a huge pain.
Three Invoicing Patterns
I've developed three invoicing patterns that make a huge difference in overcoming these and other stressful situations that arise when it comes to billing clients.
If the project is small – for us, that means any project under $5,000 – we collect full payment before starting. You can decide what your threshold is. The key to collecting 100% upfront without the client objecting is simply to tell them that this is a small project and that's how you handle billing for projects of this size.
I'd say something like this…
Since we want to get this project live for you as fast as possible, and since we will be putting the majority of our time in during the first week, we collect the full payment upfront on projects below $5,000.
If you give a rational reason like this, most clients are totally fine with paying upfront for small projects. It also underscores your authority to gracefully let the client know that this is something you do all the time. They are doing what everybody else does. It's totally normal and actually in their best interest.
If you're uncomfortable charging $5,000 upfront, just lower your threshold. Maybe start with $3,000 as your threshold number. At some point, you'll get to a number that feels comfortable. If the project was one dollar, would you make them give you a 50-cent downpayment or would you just ask for the dollar?
Hold My Spot Deposit
This is my solution to The Ghost Client problem. I'll ask the client if they are ready to begin work now or if they would like to schedule the work for a future date. This doesn't prevent all clients from ghosting you, but it will catch most of them.
There are three steps to maximize the results from this strategy.
Step One: Define Deliverables
I do everything I can to minimize the work the client has to do. For example, my team takes care of writing the copy for the site. I've got photographers on call if we need custom photos for the project. But there are usually a few things I will need from the client. So, I list exactly what I need from them, and we put deadlines on the calendar right from the start.
Here are the main things they need to commit to:
- The date for their photo shoot
- The date for their content interview
(I record an interview with the client to reference when writing their site copy.)
- Getting high-resolution copies of their logo and any other images they already have that they we'll need for their website.
- Technical information for managing the domain name (like the DNS). I insist on hosting their site, so I generally don't need any web hosting information from the client.
- Google Workspace info – I almost always set my clients up on Google Workspace so they have email addresses on their website's domain name as well as online calendars I can hook up to Calendly. This is important for hooking up the Call To Action on their website.
Step Two: Put Dates On The Calendar
To avoid the 90% stall out problem, I like to front-load the client deliverables by getting everything I need within the first two weeks. As we're going through the list above, we put dates on the calendar for when they can provide what's needed to complete the project. At this point, I can usually tell if they are excited to get things done or if they are going to be dragging their feet. If I get resistance to putting dates on the deliverables, I'll move to step three.
Step Three: Hold My Spot Deposit
If the client is having a hard time committing to dates, I'll interrupt the conversation by saying something like, “Do you feel like this timeline is too aggressive for you?”
Tone is everything. I'll say this with a smile. I want the client to get excited and commit so we can get things done. But it the client misinterprets my motivation, to avoid the conversation becoming awkward, I'll say, “Is there anything going on right now that you need to wrap up before we start this project?”
Sometimes, there will be a project that the client is working on that is consuming their attention. So, I'll offer the Hold My Spot Deposit option by saying something like, “Why don't we wait to begin working together until after you finish up this project you've got going on? What do you think about starting on June 1?”
We'll agree on a date that would be better for starting the project. Then I'll say, “You can hold your spot on the calendar and put a freeze on all the pricing so nothing changes with a $500 deposit. It's non-refundable, but we'll apply the deposit to the price of your project when we begin. Fair enough?”
Take the payment via credit card right there. You can do this using Stripe. I use Quickbooks Online, which allows you to take payments via credit card as well. The main point is to collect the deposit now.
I was really excited when date-based billing occurred to me because this aligns everyone's incentives by financially rewarding the client to get you things faster.
The 90% Stall Out problem is the most common and most frustrating problem with client invoicing, closely followed by the Endless Changes problem. Date-based billing is a great remedy for both of these issues.
With the pattern of collecting 50% to start and 50% when you launch, you're incentivizing the client to delay their second payment. If you're not careful with scope creep and managing change requests, you can find yourself working for free forever until they give you that second payment.
Another important point is that I always have a monthly plan for the client to subscribe to after their site goes live. The monthly plan includes both the technical care they need (hosting, maintenance, and up to an hour of support) for $100/month, plus at least an entry-level digital marketing plan which starts at $500/month.
An average client pays about $5,000 in set-up costs (building the website, writing the copy, designing the logo/branding, etc.) and $1,000/month for their hosting, support, and marketing.
We set up the billing based on dates, not milestones. It looks like this:
- Day 1: $2,500 – Collect 50% of the setup costs on day one.
- Day 30: $2,500 – Collect the second 50% setup cost payment
- Day 60: $1,000 – The monthly plan begins at the start of month three.
My goal is to get the client the best results I can as fast as possible. I also like to font load my projects as much as I can because I get “project momentum” going. I prefer to focus on a single project as much as I can rather than divide my attention across multiple projects simultaneously. The setup phase of the project goes faster if I can get in the zone and knock stuff out.
The client also benefits from a compressed timeline as well. If they can get me what I need, I can finish and launch their site ahead of time. For example, I can build and launch a $5,000 project in less than one month. If we can launch the site in the first month, that means I can start the monthly marketing plan a month early. So, the client is getting a “free” month of marketing if they hustle and don't drag out the project.
I get a fast, streamlined project life cycle and a consistent invoicing schedule. The client gets faster results and $1,000 of free hosting and marketing.
My Billing Setup
It's fun to tell clients how this works because they get excited about the faster results and the $1,000 of free marketing.
I'm sure other billing systems can do this too, but I use Quickbooks Online for all of my invoices and business accounting (primarily because my accountant insists that I use Quickbooks). Quickbooks Online has a feature to setup automatic payments either with a credit card or using ACH transfers (e-check) payments. Ideally, I'd get my clients using ACH transfers because there's only a 1% transaction fee ($10 per transaction max fee). Quickbooks saves the client's billing information and you set up automatic invoices to collect your two setup payments and then your monthly plan payments.
With ACH transfers you get a lower transaction fee, plus you don't have to worry about credit cards expiring and needing to be updated.
Whether it's ACH transfers or credit card payments, it doesn't really matter. The important (and awesome) thing is you've got a consistent payment plan in place without ever having to deal with the stress of asking clients to pay. You also aligned everyone's incentives to get the best results as fast as possible. Thus avoiding the 90% Stall Out, The Endless Changes, and The Ghost Client problems!
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