I’ve seen more than my fair share of articles regarding the joys and pitfalls of being paid on time. A very vital part of making a living in any profession is, after all, actually getting paid. But rather than rehash the terrific advice I’ve seen from other shooters about the best way to invoice, I thought I would offer you another perspective. That of the accounting department.
Like many of you, I worked a number of day jobs prior to going full time as a commercial photographer. With a degree and background in business administration, a good number of those positions placed me directly in the realms of accounts payable. Armed with spreadsheets, accounting software, vendor contracts, and a multiline telephone, I was in charge of receiving, processing, tracking, and ultimately paying all incoming invoices for my department. I was also more than often on the other end of the line for vendors who had questions regarding their payments. Working for a major motion picture studio, I personally handled over a million payments a year from all types of vendors. Mostly creative vendors. Many photographers.
While doing this day in and out was hardly the height of personal fulfillment, it did offer me a steady income during the early years when I was still learning my photographic craft. And more importantly, it gave me a unique perspective when it comes to the best (and worst) ways to send invoices to clients, as well as the best way to resolve conflicts.
Fair warning, some of this guidance may sound stern or even harsh, but I’ll be speaking from the perspective of the accounting department. And this information should save you, and the client, multiple headaches in the future.
Tip 1: Remember That Accountants Are People Too
This should be a fairly obvious one, but it bears repeating. While they may spend most of their days locked away in a basement office with a green visor and old school adding machine, these are living breathing organisms. Treat them accordingly. Like you, they have lives other than their source of income. Like you, they have to answer to a client. In their case the client is likely an overbearing middle manager hovering just over their shoulder. Perhaps unlike you, the person you’re speaking to on the other end of the line is likely constricted in what they can or cannot do by corporate guidelines. And it’s highly likely that the person you’re talking to had nothing to do with establishing those guidelines. So, while it may feel good to unload your anger and frustration on the first live person to answer the phone, keep in mind that you’re more than likely barking up the wrong tree. Which brings me to…
Tip 2: One Size Doesn't Fit All
As I mentioned earlier, I worked for a major motion picture studio owned by one of the largest conglomerates in the world. There were upwards of 30,000 employees on the lot alone. Company wide, personnel rose well into six figures. Putting it into visual terms, if a small photo business were to be a speedboat, a large corporation like that would be a battleship. And while you may be able to take a speedboat out onto the lake and take sharp turns and jump over obstacles, a battleship turns at a considerably slower pace.
So many times I would get frantic calls from vendors who believed they were due payment, demanding we issue payment immediately. By that, they meant cut a check today or else. We’ll get to payment terms in just a moment, but it is important to realize that even if you are due the payment, battleships can’t turn around that quickly. Sure, if you’re shooting for a small mom-and-pop shop, they probably have a personal ledger in the back from which they can write you a check on the spot. But a major corporation is not a mom-and-pop shop.
I processed over a million payments a year. Every one of them had to go through an incredibly regimented approval process before it was cut. In fact, even the smallest of payments passed through multiple time zones and multiple hemispheres with different sections of the business designated for tasks like receiving invoices, processing, approving, entering the data, printing the check, sending the check, setting up direct deposit, handling wire transfers, handling currency exchanges, and the list goes on. And even as convoluted as it may sound, it’s fair to say the only way to keep an organization like that running even somewhat efficiently is to have very strict processes in place.
There’s even a process for rush payments. But quite often I would get angry call from vendors who seemed to be under the impression that there really was just one guy in the basement with a checkbook. They seemed to be under the impression that when calling at 3 p.m. on a Friday, it was perfectly reasonable to expect a check in hand by 5 p.m. that day. Well, as much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, I will share with you the same words I had to use to break the expectations of so many over the years: it’s not going to happen.
If all this begins to sound a bit adversarial, it isn’t meant to be. In fact, the accounts payable process itself generally goes off without a hitch. Like most business conflicts, the problems mostly arise when there is a misalignment of expectations. You’re expecting A. I’m expecting B. It’s like if a client hired you to shoot their wedding, and you only delivered 100 artistic still lifes of the cake. I’m guessing they wouldn’t be very happy, unless they were a chef.
So, one of the primary ways to get yourself paid smoothly is simply to understand the individual client's process. Just as the creative demands of one client won’t be the same as another, each client will likely also have specific invoicing requirements which require an equal amount of attention. To start with…
Tip 3: Know Your Payment Terms
I’ve read a number of articles suggesting a way to make sure to get paid on time is to state your payment terms on your invoice. Ten days. Thirty days. Sixty days. Whatever. That is good advice. However, you must also keep in mind that, from the client's perspective, those payment terms are determined by the contract, not what you write on the invoice. So, if the original agreement calls for you to be paid in 60 days, then your will be paid in 60 days. Large corporations don’t pay anything until they absolutely have to. And, unless previously agreed upon in writing, what you decide to write on the invoice for payment terms doesn’t dictate when you will actually be paid.
I can’t tell you how many calls I would receive from vendors claiming their payment was delinquent, weeks or even months before they were legally due payment. The conversation usually goes something like this:
Angry Caller: Hi, this is Joe from the accounting department at Joe’s Photography. I completed a job for you two weeks ago and have yet to receive payment! This needs to be processed immediately or I’ll have to take further action.
Accounting Clerk: I’m sorry to hear that, Joe. Can I have your invoice number?
After doing some research…
Accounting Clerk: Hi, Joe, I see here that your payment terms are 60 days. That means your payment will be issued on May the 12th.
Angry Caller (now livid): May! That’s ridiculous! I finished the job and I expect to be paid! My invoice clearly states payment due 14 days from receipt!
Accounting Clerk: I understand that, sir. Unfortunately, payment is based on the terms of the contract, which states 60 days.
Angry Caller: That’s not what Jane in Creative promised me!
Accounting Clerk: I can’t speak to that, sir. I can only go by what’s in the system.
You can imagine, it only gets worse from there.
But the entire situation could have been easily avoided by simply understanding the payment terms prior to accepting the job. And by “understanding the payment terms,” I mean the actual terms written in the contract.
Jane in Creative may very well have told Joe he’d be paid in 14 days. The clerk has no way of knowing that. But again, remember this is a multinational corporation with hundreds of distinct departments where one hand doesn’t always know what the other is doing. So regardless of what Jane promised, Bob in Legal wrote the contract for 60 days payment terms. The clerk is in no position to keep track of all side promises made and alternate arrangements that may or may not have been made. On top of that he/she probably doesn’t have the authority to alter the terms independently even if they wanted to. So, how do you fix that problem? With a contract.
If the contract states that you are to be paid in 14 days, and day 15 rolls around, you are well within your rights to complain (though seriously, don’t be that guy, give it a day or two — more on that later). If your contract states 60 days, and you come complaining after 14, you really won’t have very steady ground to stand on, regardless of what Jane may have said.
Oh, and a quick side note. You’ll notice how Joe started off the call in a very accusatory manner. What was it we established in Tip 1 about accountants being people too? Imagine if someone you’d never met called you on the phone and immediately began reading you the riot act prior to even introducing themselves or giving any background so you know what it’s all about. Just thinking of human nature, how likely do you think you would be to respond positively to that person? Like life, a little bit of kindness can go a long way. Taking the time to interact with the person on the other end of the line as a human being first, can put them in a far more receptive mood going forward. Just saying.
Tip 4: Date Your Invoices Correctly
This is another one that should fall into the category of obvious. But a significant number of payment issues arise simply due to typos on the invoices submitted. Payment terms are generally based on the payment date. If you expect to be paid 30 days from the shoot date of 1/1, but don’t submit the invoice until 1/27 (and date it 1/27), you will likely not get paid on time. More often than not, these invoices are being processed by a computer not a guy in the basement. The computer scans the invoice for the date, matches it to the pre-established payment terms associated with the vendor, and sets a payment date in the system.
Which brings me to my next point.
Tip 5: Follow Directions
Again, just because you have a standard way of producing invoices doesn’t mean that all of your clients will have identical systems for receiving them. Be sure to ask prior to submitting an invoice if there are any specific requirements. These may sound arbitrary from the outside, but they likely exist for good reason.
Let’s go back to my time working at the major movie studio again, a studio owned by a massive multinational conglomerate. As you may imagine, there are hundreds of completely unrelated departments spread across the globe that each have their own accounting departments, contracts, vendors, payment terms, and so forth. The team that initially receives the invoices you submit isn’t even within the United States.
So one requirement was that the "bill to" section of your invoice clearly states the specific department and contact person that pertains to you. So your invoice needs to be addressed to "Feature Marketing", or "West Coast Sales," or whatever specific business unit you are billing within the larger umbrella of Motion Picture Studio. We also required you put in a specific mailing address and email address associated with that department (your client contact should have this information).
This may sound like a hassle, especially if you work for multiple departments within a company, but that specific coding on your invoice is what tells the computer/AP team who to route your invoice to for approval. Were you to just address it generally to Motion Picture Studio, there would literally be hundreds of thousands of potential destinations and the AP team will have no way of knowing who within the global organization contracted you for service. They may be able to figure it out, but more than likely your invoice will just float around in the system being sent to and rejected by unrelated departments until way past the due date with no one at the company ever knowing it ever existed in the first place. Then, when you rightly call to say your invoice is past due, you will likely receive the equally honest response of “What invoice?”
Tip 6: A Little Planning Goes a Long Way
I remember my first day working at the studio. I visited my boss' office and she had a sign posted that said “YOUR failure to plan is not MY problem.” And while that may sound harsh, that doesn’t make it any less true. As photographers, we generally have an avalanche of various tasks going on at the same time. It can be incredibly difficult to keep track of it all. Sometimes things slip through the cracks. You forget to send out an invoice on time. You forget to check payment terms in a contract. I get it.
But when these issues arise, it’s best to be straightforward, be polite, and address the issue with the same courtesy as you extend to getting the client in the first place.
Case in point. A photographer got hired to do behind-the-scenes photos. Check. They established payment terms of 30 days. Check. The job was on March 1. They created an invoice with the appropriate coding and date. Check. So, all in all, payment was expected on March 31.
So why when the end of April rolled around had they not been paid? Slight detail. They didn’t send the invoice until April 20.
Worse yet, they sent it with an angry note attached asking why the invoice, which didn’t actually exist until the day before, hadn’t been paid weeks prior to its very existence and suggesting that we had dropped the ball. I had to inform the vendor that as highly as I think of myself, even I can’t pay an invoice that doesn’t exist. He was a vendor we’d worked with before who was well aware of payment procedures. As even angry emails come with dates attached, there is no disputing that he had only just now submitted the invoice well after the date he’s now claiming he should have been paid. And while I understand that he clearly just forgot to submit the invoice and was more than willing to do my best to correct his error and get the payment out ASAP, by failing to accept the facts of the situation, he made the situation far more contentious than it needed to be. Had he said, “Look, I made a mistake and forgot to send you this invoice. Is there anything we can do to get it processed right away?” we definitely would have been more than happy to help. In fact, as the payment was actually due pending the invoice submission, we would have rushed his payment regardless. He technically didn’t even have to ask.
But unfortunately, in this case, someone along the line had given him the rather bad advice that in order to get what you want that you need to be an a-hole. That people won’t respond to kindness, but rather only to brute force. So, instead of taking a pleasant approach, he went to try and bully the payment out of us. Ignoring his own delay in sending the invoice, he instead berated us for apparently not being psychic enough to know that he had an invoice sitting on his hard drive.
In the end, we did issue payment the next day. We would have done so even without the nasty note. But the photographer, who had previously billed us on a regular basis, was never hired again. All because he made an honest mistake into World War III simply by failing to live up to the final tip…
Tip 7: Be Polite
Believe me. I get it. I’ve been in an accounting department. But I’ve also been a photographer with overhead struggling to get an invoice paid. Oftentimes trying to get paid by accounting departments far less organized than the one I have described here.
I’ve made my own mistakes. I remember my first big money job, I was so excited to see the money hit my bank account that I must've called the photo editor at least once a week to follow up. I was too young then to understand the editorial payment cycle and expected everything to happen now. Being a somewhat quiet person by nature, I have to work really hard to put on the facade of a tough negotiator, and I overdid it a bit and wasn’t asked back.
When I was in accounting, I saw the other end of the spectrum: people, like me, who had the skills but lacked the patience. I remember one consultant who, after properly sending in her 30 day term invoice, then proceeded to clog up my inbox with reminder emails each week. Invoice due in 21 days. Invoice due in 14 days. Invoice due in 7 days. While, I’m certain she thought she was being professional, in actuality, she was just being extremely annoying. We’d never missed one of her payments before. In fact of those million payments I issued annually, you could count on one hand the number that slipped through the cracks. There was no reason for her to assume we needed weekly reminders to do our job.
The truth is that we all have experiences that shape us, that shape our expectations as well as our reactions. We all have to learn lessons the hard way. We all have to remind ourselves that just because one interaction went a certain way, that each new point of contact is a unique situation. We have to remember that the person on the other end of the line is a human being too. They are just as busy as you are. They too have to deal with external pressures. They too are just doing the best job they can. And with a little bit of planning, clearly set and adhered to expectations, and just a modicum of consideration, invoicing and getting paid can be just as smooth sailing as pressing down on the shutter and hearing that beautiful click.