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The PRO-Files: 7 Expert Tips To Improve Cash Flow

If you’re not getting paid for your work, it’s just a hobby. That old saying rings particularly true for professional photographers. Managing the business aspects of a photography business can be particularly challenging for us creative types; after all, we're typically trained in visual arts rather than business. But business school training is invaluable for every working photographer. To that end, we’re going to continue the topic introduced in our last installment of the PRO-files and help you further improve your cash flow by increasing the speed and reliability of customer payments. 

We heard from business coach Jennifer Martin of Zest Business Consulting who offered up some expert advice for photographers regarding invoicing and collection. “My opinion is that every small business owner should have a system for billing, late payments and collection,” she says. “This way they are clear about what the process is and they will be able to communicate this clearly with their clients from the outset. It’s also what professional companies do.” Here is more business advice from Martin—specifically, seven tips to improve your balance sheet with more efficient and effective accounts receivable practices. 

1. Start with a Signed Contract

When you go to work on a handshake agreement you lose any leverage you have to ensure your client will pay. Without a contract, you’re simply hoping that the customer is honest and ethical and will choose to pay for services rendered. When you say it that way, it doesn’t sound so appealing, does it?

Martin says the commercial photography transaction should always commence with a signed contract. “Start by including on your contract the terms for payment,” she says. “This way, your clients will be signing their name that they understand and agree to the terms surrounding payment.” It also proves invaluable in court, should you eventually end up there fighting the occasional deadbeat client. 

2. Ask for Funds Up Front

It’s not uncommon for photographers to request a deposit to initiate production. But sometimes we enforce the policy only on the big jobs, or the assignments which will require a large cash outlay (equipment rentals, lots of subcontractors, etc, etc…). Smart clients won’t balk at a partial payment up front, and yet many photographers can’t seem to make this standard operating procedure. If they could, Martin says, they'd have more money in the bank. “Preferably,” she says, “get some kind of retainer, like attorneys do, to start the business relationship, and clearly define how the remainder of payments will be due.” 

3. Incentivize Prompt Payment

In the last PRO-files we addressed several specific ways to convince a client to pay you sooner rather than later. Suffice it to say, clients prioritize payment based largely on which invoices offer a discount for paying early or charge a penalty for being late. Even if it’s a pittance, and even if you don’t ever actually enforce it (don’t tell them that, though), you should include a late payment fee listed on your invoices (and based on the laws in your state) to convince customers it’s a better deal to pay on time.

4. Get a Credit Card on File

For some clients, issuing a check may take weeks, so making a down-payment prior to some jobs is impossible. Instead, a credit card on file may make more sense. Inform the customer that you will process the payment as soon as the project is completed, or with incremental payments spread out over the course of the job, or perhaps just in case their check hasn’t arrived according to the terms outlined in the contract. Martin suggests setting up auto billing through a service called Stripe. "For businesses looking for an easy-to-use credit and debit card solution,” Martin says, "and those who would prefer not having a long contract with a traditional merchant account services company, Stripe is a great option. In many cases, you can get approved and up and running in less than 10 minutes and you only pay when someone processes a charge through you or your website. There's also a phone app so you can process charges on the go and several options that not all month-to-month carriers offer—like recurring payments and processing charges from clients all over the world."

5. Make it Easy for Clients to Pay

If a customer wants to give you money, let them pay however they wish. “Offer to accept cash, check, debit, credit, Paypal,” Martin says, “and if you like, also include services such as Venmo, Google Wallet or any other well used option for receiving money.” Consider changing accounting software to a service that allows for the emailing of smart invoices that let customers to simply click a link and pay immediately via credit card or bank transfer. You’d be surprised how many people want to pay immediately, just to get it out of the way and cross one more thing off their “to-do” list.

True, accepting credit card payments with services such as Paypal, Square or QuickBooks Payments does come at a cost (typically 2% to 3%), but in many cases it’s a fair tradeoff in order to have immediate access to cash. Plus, on large invoices where the service fee would amount to hundreds of dollars, simply turn off the credit card option and ask your customer to issue a check instead. And while there are plenty of all-digital ways to accept payment, there’s a lot to be said for the old-fashioned approach of offering to pick up a check when you’re nearby to make it easier for the client to process the payment on time. Isn’t that generous: you’ll drive over and pick up the check to save them a 50-cent stamp. Added value and great customer service!

6. Hold off on Final Deliverables until Payment is Complete

Consider requiring payment in full prior to, or at the time of, your client receiving the final deliverable—whether that’s prints or digital image files. This can certainly be easier for wedding and family photographers, where standard operating procedure is to collect payment prior to delivery. But for many commercial photographers who serve customers on tight deadlines, this approach would represent quite a change. "As much as it might not be the norm for photographers to ask for payment upon receipt of product,” Martin says, "this is a standard in many other businesses. Think about it this way: We wouldn't ask a plumber who fixed our sink to accept a payment 60 days later and they most likely wouldn't agree to that. If a buyer wants to finance the purchase they can put the charge on their credit cards. Asking clients to pay upon receipt can just be how you work. The only challenge is if all your competitors offer the ability to pay later, then if you don't, it might affect your ability to book a job. Whatever a photographer decides to do, they should create a system around that concept so that they are offering things consistently. If your policy is pay upon receipt, then honor that."

7. Time your Invoices

Send invoices at least two weeks before they’re due whenever possible. Also, ensure the due date is listed on the invoice. If you can provide a two-week grace period for payments, your cash flow is likely to benefit. When clients are paying in 45 days even though your invoices specify Net 30, shorten the grace period to Net 15 and watch most folks pay within 30 days. If you want to get paid in 60 days, specify Net 45. Not only should you offer at least two weeks to pay a bill, you should expect them to arrive within two weeks after the due date. Human nature at work. 

Jennifer Martin is a business owner, author and business coach, as well as the founder of Zest Business Consulting in California.

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