A lot of small businesses and freelancers struggle with billing for services. You know it’s necessary, but actually sending out that invoice can be a bit awkward. As both the sender and recipient of invoices, I’ve figured out a few things to make the process less painful for everyone concerned.
But First, a Personal Anecdote
A couple of years ago I was seeing a doctor on a regular basis. This was an expensive proposal, so I was worried about ensuring that my insurance would be covering everything but co-pays. I checked with my insurance company and was told they were in-network, and the doctor assured me that we were good to go. So imagine my surprise when, several months into treatment, I received a bill for just shy of $800.00.
There were a couple of problems here, one patently obvious, and the other a little more subtle. First, I was told that this treatment and provider was covered by my insurance. It turns out that, while that was technically true, the doctor could still bill me for the difference between her normal rate and what the insurance company paid her. She wasn’t up front about it, possibly because she assumed I knew how this work. Giving her the benefit of the doubt here, let’s say it’s an honest mistake that negatively affected me.
The other issue comes from that fact that she didn’t bill regularly. I built up months and months of bills before I finally received one, which ended up being a horrible shock. Had she told me about her billing process, or simply invoiced after every session or on a monthly basis, there would have been no problem (and I would have figured out the insurance thing far sooner).
How to Be a Conscientious Biller
This little personal experience taught be a lot about invoicing from both sides of the fence. The most important lesson was to keep your client in mind when you’re coming up with your billing practices. How would you feel if you were receiving that bill, and what can you do to make it as painless as possible?
Keep in mind, we’re not talking about the money itself. You have your rates, and if you were up front with your client, that shouldn’t be the issue.
From my perspective, communication is very important here. You need to ensure that your client knows what your billing policies are so that there are no nasty surprises for them down the road. Do you bill monthly, quarterly, on project completion? Make sure the client knows that, and then stick to it. Make sure your invoices are sent on a timely basis; this will also help you to get paid, because the service will be fresher in your client’s mind.
What are your due dates? Is there a charge for late payment? What payment terms do you accept? Who does your client contact if they have questions or concerns about an invoice? Make sure these things are all outlined up front, and then reiterated on the billing statement.
Not only is this good customer service, I consider it an ethical imperative.
Have a Billing System
So how do you manage to do all this? Have a billing system. You can using something like Harvest, or you can roll your own system with spreadsheets. It doesn’t matter what you use, so long as it’s consistent. Get used to doing invoices on a regular schedule, such as the first working day of the month or week. Keep track of what invoices have been paid and which are pending, that way you know with whom you need to follow up without bugging the people who have already paid promptly.
You’ll get used to the schedule, and so will your clients. While it won’t help curtail the chronically late payers, it will help you keep better track of things and ensure that your clients don’t get any nasty surprises in the mail.