12 Ways To Help Photographers Collect Payments Sooner

This writing prompt came from photography educator Leo Santos: When working for big clients, is it normal to wait 3-6 months before they settle payment?

Dear Leo,

While it may happen, it is not normal for big clients to take three to six months before paying their photographers.

There could be different reasons for delays in payments. It’s not always due to clients’ lack of funds, especially if you are talking of really big clients. It could be insufficient paperwork (no purchase order, missing delivery receipts, no completion reports, erroneous amounts or inconsistent details, etc.), unauthorized additions to work orders and other such details. It could also be, that while they may have funds, payments to certain payees are not being prioritized. There is a saying – “The crying baby gets the milk,” so maybe photographers need to “cry” a bit. There are a few tips below on how to get attention from clients who should be paying us.

In the many years that we have been doing professional photography, I have noted that the most important factor that helps photographers to collect payments promptly, is the industry practice. If there are already industry norms that are favorable to photographers, let’s not ruin the industry by loosening up those standards just to get in. Follow those practices, and work to improve – not loosen – them.

When it comes to collecting payments from customers, we look with envy at wedding photographers – they collect downpayments when they get booked, which is about a year before the wedding to be photographed. A few days or weeks before, they get another partial payment, and they get their final payments when they deliver the last photo album. They almost do not have any accounts receivables to manage. John would even joke that they are lucky – because if the future bride and groom should break off their engagement, wedding photographers still get to keep the downpayments.

Second in rank – as far as advantage in collecting payments are concerned – would be portrait photographers, who are on cash basis.

Editorial photographers, unless they’re regular, salaried employees of the magazines they work for, get their checks after the newspapers and magazines are published.

It seems that at the bottom of the heap are advertising/commercial photographers. Direct clients usually pay within 30 days, but if billings have to be coursed through their ad agencies, then the minimum waiting time is 60 days.

The following tips on collection techniques are, therefore, probably most useful only to those who do commercial/advertising photography:

1. Be clear about when you expect payment, and don’t be shy about what you need/want/require to collect. Your cost estimate or quotation, as well as your billings (formerly referred to as “invoices”) should indicate if you require downpayments, and when these – as well as final payments – are due. In fact, on your billings, do not just write, “Balance due: 30 days.” Instead, write the specific date when balance would be due – for example: “Balance due: November 30, 2015.” Accounts Payable Officers are too busy to have to check today’s date, and compute when it would be 30 days hence. Write the exact date when you expect to be paid. It might even help to have a red rubber stamp that emphasizes that due date.

If the job is long-term (stretching over a few weeks or months), then, between downpayments and final payments, you should indicate that you would make progress billings. Information about progress billings should include when such progress billings would be made, how much and when payments would be due.

It’s also not enough to write them down. You may want to read these details to your client, as you hand them your billings.

Don’t be shy about asking for a downpayment. Don’t apologize. You don’t need to sound harsh or strict – just say it as matter-of-factly as possible.

2. Offer a prompt payment discount. A two-percent discount may be more than what you’d earn from the bank if you have collections to deposit early, but it’s a small concession to grant so that you won’t have to spend a lot of valuable time following up your receivables. It might be an attractive incentive for your clients’ accountants who are looking for ways to minimize expenses and earn a bit extra for their companies.

3. Do your paperwork properly. Attach properly signed Purchase Orders, Delivery Receipts and Job Completion Reports with your bills, so the Accounts Payable Officer does not need to chase a hundred people to know that your bill is good to go. While you’re at it, make sure that you submit your bills to the right people, and that the supporting documents are properly and legibly signed.

4. Here’s a little trick that I learned from a management newsletter that I used to subscribe to. Print your bills on colored paper. There is no law that says your bills have to be on white paper.

What good does this do? When you are following up collections and you’re facing a harassed, overworked and overloaded Accounts Payable clerk, who may try to dismiss you by pointing to the stacks of invoices and bills that he has to process, and may tell you that he still has to look for YOUR bill, then you can point to the green, blue, pink or yellow one somewhere in that column of papers. (Just hope that you are the only one who picked up this tip or you will see a multicolored heap of bills).

5. Track all the steps that your bill goes through – from the time that you hand it to your client or his agency print producer. You shouldn’t be calling the Check Disbursing Officer week after week after week just to hear that your check is not ready. Where is your check, or your bill, exactly? Is it for signature? Is the voucher to accompany your check still being prepared? Is your bill missing? You can’t be asking the Check Releasing Officer where your payment is – he wouldn’t know. In large corporations, his only job may be to release stacks of checks that are brought to him at the beginning of each day.

I once studied this series of steps with a BIG client, and counted about 56 change of hands. There was a time when I learned that our bill was stuck with one of the accounting clerks because he was waiting for the supplier (that’s what we are called) to pick up the sheaf of papers from him, and to take it to the next guy, several tables away from him. I learned to visit him and some of the other 50 plus hands whenever I was in the area – to see where my future check was and to help it move along.

You don’t have to do this study with every client, but it helps to know where the possible bottlenecks are, and how you can get your paperwork moving.

6. Go and meet all the people who do all the paperwork that results in your getting a payment. They would be more eager to help you if they have met you personally, and you are not just a voice on the telephone that’s pestering them.

7. Be polite and considerate. Say “please” and “thank you.” They’re people, too, and they probably work on papers all day. A bright smile and a cheerful tone may be all they need to become eager to process your check.

8. Don’t just call to try to collect. Visit. Send a note. Be a friend. They’re busy – and so are you – so you don’t need to spend a lot of time with them, but even a quick phone call to greet them when they’re celebrating an occasion – a birthday, an anniversary – is enough to thaw the ice between you.

9. Show appreciation for prompt payments. You might event want to give annual certificates, rebates or tokens of appreciation to clients with the best or highest payment histories.

10. Go higher. Don’t just meet the people who do the paperwork. Meet presidents and vice presidents – these are the people who make decisions and give out orders to attend to you or streamline their processes. It’s probably not going to be easy to just walk in to their offices, but maybe there are industry, trade, civic, sports or social occasions where you can meet and become casual friends with them.

11. Join a trade organization of fellow photographers, especially in your field, and be an active member or officer. There is strength in numbers – your organization can make representations for better and quicker payment schemes with your clients’ counterpart organization. In advertising, the officers of the Advertising Suppliers Association of the Philippines work on certain industry projects with the Association of Accredited Advertising Agencies of the Philippines and the Philippine Association of National Advertisers (these may have been superseded by newer industry organizations), and these shared activities provide opportunities for mutually-advantageous agreements that may include better payment procedures.

12. Be good, be very, very good at the photography that you do for your clients. One of the most sure-fire ways to collect is to make your clients want to work with you again. If they want you to do their photography, they will find ways to make sure that they don’t owe you – especially not long overdue accounts.

A word of warning. I sometimes see photographers rant on Facebook against their clients who owe them money. Avoid embarrassing your clients on social media, or even face-to-face. There must be a way that you can collect without losing the patronage of your clients.

I hope these tips help. Perhaps fellow photographers would like to share other tips to help all of us improve our cash flows.