Unfortunately, this question is right up there with ‘how long is a piece of string?’. The short answer is that it all really depends on a whole host of variables, such as:
- The reason the work wasn’t completed
- The kind of relationship you have with the client
- External influential factors which neither party can do much about
In most cases a commonsense approach is probably what’s needed, but freelancing isn’t always so straightforward.
So, let’s take a look at some examples of what happens when a project doesn’t work out, and what this means for billing. In some cases, charging the client might be appropriate, but there might be times when invoicing is off the cards.
When is it ok to charge for unfinished work?
In the following instances you’re most probably well within your rights to still charge a client, even if the project doesn’t quite go to plan.
If the reason it didn’t work out wasn’t your fault
We’ve all had that client where, no matter what we do, things just don’t work. If a freelance project doesn’t work out and it’s the clients’ fault, then you can definitely still charge them for your work!
A (surprisingly common) example of this is a personal trainer who has been working with a client to help them lose weight in the run-up to their wedding or a holiday. The personal trainer can only do so much to support the client, and ultimately, if they don’t follow the plan their PT provides, they won’t hit their goal weight. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have to pay the bill.
When the client swoops in with a change of plan
This one’s a bit trickier. If you and your client agree the brief, and then they change their mind, it depends on the timing.
- If you haven’t started the work then unfortunately, you can’t really charge anything for your services (unless you have terms and conditions which say otherwise)
- However if you’re part-way through something then it’s perfectly reasonable to request payment for the work you’ve done so far, or to compensate you for any materials bought specifically for that job.
If the client changes their mind about work you’ve completed
Our clients hire us for the expertise we bring, so there are very likely to be times that you find yourself on a job where the client isn’t entirely sure what they want the finished project to look like. It’s why it’s so crucial to get the brief right!
If you’ve already completed the work and it nails every point on the brief, but then the client changes what they need, then yes – they should absolutely pay you for the work carried out so far.
It’s up to them if they want to issue you with a brand-new brief for a refreshed direction and pay you for that too.
Examples of situations where you probably can’t charge
On the flip side, there are likely to be times where you either straight-up can’t charge the client, or you probably shouldn’t.
This is an important distinction to make because there could be times when billing the client simply isn’t an option at all, but at other times going ahead might be ethically or professionally questionable (and therefore best avoided).
Illness or other personal circumstances
If you’ve agreed to a project but then fall ill or become unable to fulfill the work as a result of other personal circumstances, such as the death of someone close, the client shouldn’t be expected to pay.
However, there are grey areas around this topic too. If your illness or personal circumstances means you have to pause or delay a project, but the client is happy for you to resume or start the work at a later date, then you can probably still charge as normal.
If the project doesn’t go ahead
In the world of business and project planning, not everything runs according to plan. Unfortunately, even after agreeing a brief, a project can still draw to a sudden halt.
As frustrating as this is, you can’t charge a client if you haven’t actually executed any work unless you have an agreement in place that says otherwise.
If you’ve spent time attending meetings or briefings, there might still be room to discuss invoicing to compensate for this. That will be between you and your client.
If you miss crucial deadlines
If the client is forced to deviate from their project strategy as a result of you missing deadlines or not producing work to the standard they expect, your right to bill them is on shaky ground, particularly if you’re looking at charging full price.
If the client must get somebody else to step in as a result of any of your own shortcomings, you will need to come to an agreement as they might want you to reimburse them for this inconvenience.
Of course, there’s a very easy way to ensure this scenario doesn’t arise and that’s to meet deadlines, produce great work, and manage client expectations. Did we mention how important it is to get the brief right?!
The benefits of client contracts and agreements
All of the scenarios above are general examples but ones you might come across when working as a freelancer. There’s rarely a definitive answer as to whether or not you can still charge for a project that doesn’t work out, so it pays to protect yourself as much as possible. One of the best ways to do this is by putting a contract or agreement in place with your client before you start any work for them.
This will also help you in situations that neither you nor your client could foresee or prevent. The Covid pandemic is a classic example of this, causing many clients and their contractors to abandon work.
In a contract or agreement, both parties can detail any insurance cover they have which might impact payment for projects or work that doesn’t take place.
An official document like this is also the perfect place to implement a milestone payment plan that you and your client can agree on. This means that rather than getting paid once all the work has been completed, you can decide on several milestone payment dates along the way.
Not only will this give you peace of mind when it comes to your cash flow, the client might also appreciate the breakdown of costs. Win, win!
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