I’m wrapping a big project and a big part of that is collecting and reviewing invoices from the crew and other vendors. In this case, there are probably 50 or more invoices, so I see a lot of different things. This goes back to my job job days when I used to oversee the accounting department and knew what drove them crazy. I did my best to be a buffer and that’s something I’ve continued as I work directly with creatives. But it still surprises me how some invoices come in, not just from newer freelancers but from people who are decades into their career. So here are some invoicing tips that will make it easier for people to pay you. And that’s what you want, right?
You’ve probably heard me say before that you always want to keep the people paying you happy. Whether it’s a small business or a big corporation, each accounting department is going to have its own system and set of rules. This is the one time when I don’t think you should assert your boundaries. Whatever they need from you, give it to them. If it means you have to add a couple extra bits of information to your invoice, who cares? If they want to do direct deposit, let them. Any push back on your part flags you as difficult and could cause delayed payments for a number of reasons.
That being said, the most important things to keep in mind is being timely, being detailed, and being considerate.
Timeliness is important for obvious reasons. The sooner you invoice, the sooner you should get paid. I say should, because we all know that not all companies pay on time, but you never want the cause of the delay. Standard payment terms are typically net 30, meaning you get paid within 30 days from receipt of the invoice. That doesn’t mean 30 days from the date of the job or completed work. That’s 30 days from the time they receive your invoice. If you take 2 weeks to get around to sending it, don’t expect that they’re going to turn around payment in 2 weeks. No. That 30-day clock starts the day they have everything they need from you. So get your invoice in quickly.
Also, you might not be in a rush for payment for whatever reason, but if the company is trying to close out the job, waiting for your invoice can be a huge hassle for them. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to chase down an invoice, sometimes for weeks. It baffles me every time. I’m trying to give you money, dude. Let me pay you! I get that you’re busy and invoicing isn’t your favorite thing to do, but there are other people who can’t do their jobs until you do it, so stay on their good side and be prompt. Not so prompt that you’re invoicing before a job is done, because that can rub people the wrong way, too, but within a day or two is usually greatly appreciated.
Details are crucial when it comes to invoicing. Make sure all the information they need is there. A good way to know what they need is to ask them. After you’ve done all the negotiation and committed to a project, but before it actually starts, ask what information they need on the invoice and to whom it should be sent. They might need a specific job name, job number or PO referenced, so get that information early. If you send it to the wrong person, it could cause delays. If you reach out after the job and have to wait for them to get back to you, it could cause delays. We don’t want delays.
Double check your information, too. Make sure the line items are correct and the math adds up. If you’re using accounting software like Quickbooks, it’ll do the math for you, but you still want to be sure everything is accurate. If you’re using a Word template or something like that, there is so much room for user error. I am constantly finding invoices that don’t add up, have information from a completely different job, and other nonsense that wastes everyone’s time. And it doesn’t make you look good if they have to reach out and ask you to correct something.
A good way to keep an accounting department happy is to send all of your docs in one email with a clear subject title. Send your invoice and any receipts for reimbursement. If you haven’t worked with them before, or in the current year, send them a W9. Include your payment options. Or, if they already stipulated how they pay, send the information they requested. Give them everything they need at once and it’ll make their lives easier. And the money people do remember who makes their lives easier, and who doesn’t. Maybe you don’t care about them, but giving them what they need up front means fewer emails for you and often sooner payment, so that makes your life easier too.
Speaking of details and making lives easier, make sure to fully read what they send you. Don’t ask a question that’s already been answered because you didn’t bother reading what someone took the time to send you. Be more respectful than that. I say this as someone who sent all of the payment information in a deal memo, plus a separate email specifically about invoicing, and I’d say at least half emailed to the wrong address, didn’t include everything, or both. It creates extra work for me, which costs the client more money, and it’s extra work for them because now they have to deal with the back and forth that could’ve easily been prevented. I don’t take it personally, and I do what I can to help them, but I tend to be nicer than most and go out of my way more than I would expect someone else to.
My last point about details should be obvious, but with what I’ve seen lately it might not be. Make sure to separate your line items in a way that makes sense. If you worked 10 days at the same rate, you don’t need 10 line items, but you should call out the dates in the line item so it’s clear. Also, keep separate lines for separate services. Your labor and per diem rate shouldn’t be on one line item. Your labor is taxed, but per diem is not. If you put them together, you’re putting it on the accounting person to do the work for you and separate everything out. I will do that. Many will not. They’ll just put it in as you sent it and then you get taxed on something you shouldn’t.
Be mindful of accounting categories, which you should have a basic understanding of, especially if you do your own bookkeeping or use accounting software to categorize your expenses. If you’re asking for reimbursements for gas and office supplies, you know those are different, so don’t lump them together on your invoice and make the accounting person add up the receipts. You won’t always know the extent to how they categorize things, but you can use common sense. Also, don’t submit for a reimbursement without including the receipt. Some people may be more lax with this, but just like you should have receipts for all of your expenses, your client needs those from you as well. They don’t want issues with the IRS any more than you do.
And this is a bonus tip just because I think it’s important. If you have given a discount on the project, make sure to invoice for your full rate and then add the discount as a separate line item. This is a record of what happened, so if they hire you again and look to see what you billed before, it’s clear that you gave them a deal. If you don’t call it out separately, they might just think it’s your normal rate. It might be someone else you’re dealing with who doesn’t know the conversations you had with the other person. It’s a nice way to protect yourself and remind them that you did them a favor last time but that’s not to be expected every time.
Most of what I just said also applies to being considerate, which is how you should always be. I should be able to leave it at that, but I’ll explain further. Taking the time to do everything right the first time helps the person on the other side do their job better. They don’t want to have to chase you down for everything they need any more than you want to spend more time on that project when you’ve already moved on. Make it easy for everyone.
When you’re talking to the accounting people, even if your payment is past due, be polite. You’re not going to get anywhere by being aggressive or throwing a tantrum. That doesn’t make them want to help you. You have every right to want your money and be frustrated that it’s not getting to you on time, but the person on the phone probably can’t do anything about that. But if you’re nice, they’ll be more willing to talk to the person who can and try to help you.
If your address or other company information has changed, notify them by sending a new W9. Don’t just change the address on your invoice and expect them to notice. Once you’re in the system, they probably aren’t reviewing your contact info to see if anything is new. It’s your responsibility to tell them. I see this happen a lot so I thought it was worth mentioning.
Lastly, consider your payment options, especially when it comes to credit cards. Many don’t like accepting credit cards because of the fees. You typically lose about 3% of the total. I don’t like fees either. They are tax deductible, but I like to have all of what I earned. That being said, I do know that accepting credit cards tends to get you paid faster. I have seen this personally and have talked about it with other friends and clients and it seems to consistently be the case.
The old school method of writing checks takes time and extra effort. This was the case before, but has become especially true since COVID allowed more people to work from home. Companies don’t always have an accounting person physically in the office to print a check and then get someone, who also might not be in the office, to sign it. Then get an envelope and a stamp and put it in the mail. It’s a bit archaic. But if you give them a digital option, either ACH or credit card, they just have to enter some details in your system and be on their way. It’s much simpler. Also, in bigger companies, the person you’re working with directly may have an allowance of sorts and can approve up to a certain amount if paying on a company card. But writing a check takes many layers of approval, which causes those delays we’re trying to avoid. Something to think about – are the fees worth getting paid faster? Your call.
If you’re still with me, thanks for listening. I know invoicing isn’t a fun topic, but it’s a regular part of running a business and can’t really be avoided. But having been on the receiving end for so long, I see all these simple errors that get in the way and I don’t like it. So do yourself a favor and stay on top of your invoicing. Be prompt, be detailed, be considerate, make it easy to get paid and enjoy the money you worked so hard to earn.