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When Are You Getting Paid?

May 30th, 2012

Last week I was talking to a busy, successful real estate photographer that was asking if I new any invoicing systems that he could use to hook up to his photo delivery mechanism. He was frustrated that he was having to put in so much time and energy getting paid for his shoots. Apparently he has lost some money by not keeping good track of who’s paid and who hasn’t.

My reaction was why not insist on getting paid at the shoot or before the photos are delivered? I made the following argument for getting paid at the shoot, via your website or via an email:

  1. There are at least two apps (that work with credit card readers) that allow you to take credit cards via your smart phone (Just in the US for now). Squareup and PayPal. I have and use both of these and they work great. Note that PayPal charges $30/month to take credit cards where as Squareup doesn’t have a monthly fee.
  2. If you go the PayPal route you can also have a button(s) on your site (like this) or e-mail the same button(s) to a client along with the invoice (you just paste a URL into your email). You can easily create a button for all your products and collect on your site or send the client an email with a pay-now button.
  3. Home inspectors have all figured out the issue of getting people to pay a several hundred dollar fee on time and they all collect their money up front before the home buyer get their hands on the inspection report so agents don’t have a good reason to tell you paying up front is strange and unusual.
  4. In this day and age when every business person carries a credit card and it’s now easy to take credit card payment, that it’s just setting yourself up for a lot of unnecessary work and grief  if you don’t collect up front!

So, even though there many be many instances where the agent is not at the shoot, collecting your money up front before photos are delivered can eliminate a lot of headaches. Sure you may have some clients that you do regular work for that have established their credibility so it’s reasonable to bill them monthly or even quarterly but for the majority of your business why set yourself up for a struggle?

What are others experiences with up front payment?

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24 Responses to “When Are You Getting Paid?”

  • Right on the money – get the payment up front. I developed my website with this in mind. My clients access their account and they can see watermarked images after a shoot. However they don’t see the download links, or the virtual tour links, until payment is complete. This allows me the opportunity to convince new clients that they are safe to try me, because even though I know they’ll like my work, they don’t feel pressured when they haven’t used me before.

    They can either meet me at the shoot and pay via Square, or they can pay via PayPal directly on my website. It’s 100% integrated. They see a pay button, they pay, and poof all of their links are accessible. I even automatically send them a summary email with the links, so they don’t have to go back to my website if they don’t want to. (talk about spoiled) But the Square route allows realtors to pay that either have trouble with PayPal (why I don’t know, it’s so easy, even to pay as a Guest!) or they just want to get it out of the way.

    I quickly learned to not trust anybody, no matter how good you think they are going to treat you. My regular clients don’t have a problem with my process. And the process tests out new clients. Why on earth does a realtor schedule a shoot they can’t pay for? A “top producer” can’t pay for a measly photo shoot?! I was nice and gave the photo link away outside of the normal process, only to find myself asking the realtor a week later for the payment. Then the 2nd week. Then the 3rd week. After the 3rd week (and I only asked one time per week, in a nice email), I received a hate call from the realtor claiming it was ridiculous she was being “harassed” for the payment and she would never do these “virtual tour things” again. Talk about my jaw hitting the floor. She paid me 80% of the payment via Money Order, then 3 months later (not joking), randomly sent me the other 20%.

    It’s that type of client that I don’t want to waste my time with because it’s not only wasting hours communicating with her, but it’s also creating an unhealthy relationship and setting myself up to be treated in an unprofessional manner. I get the payment up front, and if they don’t like it, they can go waste someone else’s time.

  • Intuit GoPayment has been out about as long as square and I use it. I think the rates are better and you can get ahold of customer service over the phone (where you can’t with square).

  • Lance, that sounds exactly like the type of system I would be interested in setting up on my site. Can you give a bit of info on who designed your site and how the back end is set up? I’d be interested to talk with you about it.

  • Funny, I was just talking with Suzanne Feinberg (http://www.powervision360.com/) today about this. I don’t ask for payment up front – instead, I send an invoice at the end of each month (unless the agent asks me to collect from the owner, in which case I email them the invoice when I deliver the photos). I’ve yet to encounter a non-payer (although in some cases I’ve had to phone them – I subtlety ask if they’ve received my invoice and that’s usually enough). I figure if someone betrays my trust, I just don’t deal with them again; I’ll just write it off as a bad debt and move on.

    Suzanne reckons it’s probably something to do with our convict beginnings (I’m from Perth, Western Australia) – perhaps we’re all trying real hard to be seen to be doing the right thing!

  • I have used Square on site since they started, and that’s super convenient. I also use Freshbooks.com. It sends out customized invoices with my logo, allows payment online via PayPal (and automatically credits their account), etc. It also automatically sends out notices at 30 days, 60 days, etc. Clients can log in and check their account, see their statement, etc. I also have it set up for an employee to securely access it as well to create, send and credit invoices from those mailing in checks. It’s around $400 a year I think.

    I tend to trust my customers if they don’t pay on site. My rate of repeat business is nearly 100% – I’ve NEVER been stiffed before. But I also know that in real estate, commission checks are large and infrequent, so I also work with clients if they’re in a bind in between closings – I know they’re good for it and it creates goodwill. Success in this business is mostly about creating good relationships – so I go out of my way to work with my clients in every way I can, and that includes being somewhat flexible on payment if necessary.

  • 90% of my agents pay me on site or leave a check at the office the day of the shoot if they can’t be there. However, I do have a few top producers who I have to send and invoice to the book keeper or they use their banks bill pay even then I normally have the check with in a few days.

    I set a side one day a week normally Thurs or Fri morning to go through the weeks shoots and make sure everyone has an invoice.

  • Payment is required when the order is placed, just to reserve time on the calendar, and we only accept credit cards. Our system is entirely credit card based. We can’t even schedule the appointment until the credit card charge is complete. There’s no downside to getting paid at the time of scheduling, but so much can go wrong if you don’t.

    Charging upfront has resulted in great customer relationships because it avoids many potential problems. And it means agents who might otherwise go delinquent, use some other photographer.

    Here are a few benefits to getting paid with a credit card upfront
    1. Customer shows up for their appointments, because they’ve already paid for it .
    2. Don’t have to go to bank and make deposits.
    3. Don’t have to be a bill collector when checks bounce.
    4. No invoicing = no grievous phone calls begging your customers to pay you three months later, and then hoping they don’t bad mouth you because you’re no longer their awesome photographer, but a nasty bill collector instead.

    Charging upfront makes for a better relationship with the customer, and keeps me focused on photography instead of accounting.

  • Use my iPad2 a lot and there’s an App called Invoice2Go that offers a great lower cost way to organize invoices, purchase orders, estimates,etc. Added codes for my different products like Photography, Brochures, etc and it’s easy to brand. Small fee, less than $10. as I recall.

  • The root cause of the problem mentioned in Larry’s post that’s not been addressed so far in the responses is that the photographer “lost some money by not keeping good track of who’s paid and who hasn’t”. If a service business doesn’t implement an efficient system that tracks work scheduling, invoicing and payments, it’s going to lose money. Furthermore, unscrupulous clients who become aware of the problem may take advantage of the situation by deliberately not paying, thus exacerbating the businesses’ cash flow situation.

    This is what I do (hope it helps). The agent contacts me and I fill out a paper form AND a calendar entry on my iMac (this is duplicated immediately on my iPhone and iPad – alarms are set to go off when I need to leave to get there on time). The paper form contains all the details I need, including address, date, time, who I’m meeting, phone numbers, package type and cost, alarm codes, lock box number, sunrise/sunset time (yeah, I do twilights at dawn), delivery and invoice email addresses and special instructions/notes. The forms are A5 sized and are carried in a ring binder wherever I go. I have dividers for work, blank forms, info (such as my price list and sunrise/sunset times) and postponed work where I’ve filled out the form but am waiting for the agent to set another date/time. Along the bottom of the form I have 5 columns x 1 row for date/time the request was received, date/time to photos were delivered, another for when they were received (I use YouSendIt), invoice date and number and the date payment was received (mostly through direct deposit into my bank account). I only move the job sheet from the A5 binder into a first lever arch binder when the photos are edited and sent. Then at the end of the month, I collate all those A5 job sheets according to agency and sent that agency a single invoice for the total; at the same time I printout the month’s work from iCal and match each job sheet to each calendar entry to make sure I don’t miss any either way. I email my invoices out with my bank account details and the invoices request payment within 7 days (none of this Nett 30 days otherwise they’ll pay in 30 days!). The invoices and job sheets are then filed together in a second lever arch file – I write the date the invoice was sent on the invoice and column 4 of each job sheet. As payments are received, I stamp the invoice “Paid” and note the details in column 5 of the job sheet and the invoice goes into a third lever arch binder and the completed job sheets into a fourth one.

    A lot of work sure but it really doesn’t take much time and I think it’s bulletproof. Beats not being paid.

  • Payment due at time of shoot. With almost all of the clients wanting their photos yesterday, it is not hard to demand payment at the time of shoot. Most of the clients leave a cc on file with us and we just run it through QBooks, merchant services when we invoice. From there, we can simply email them their receipts. If they want to pay by check, they need to have that on hand at the shoot. Card payment is easier, but more expensive than other forms, because of the fees, but I just factor that in to the cost of doing business and bump my prices accordingly. If I get paid by check or cash, all the better.

    Toyed with the smart phone apps and came to the conclusion that it slows me down on the job and 50% of the time the client is not there with their card anyway. Although, if I were selling at a swap meet or something, I think that would be a game winner. I just know my clientele and find it does not warrant another step in my accounting

    One thing I insist on though, is that no payment is processed until the photos are ready for delivery.

  • I agree with Fred Light in that return business is directly proportional to having a great relationship with your client. Agents phone to cancel appointments at the last minute, usually for reasons outside of their control (eg. house was sold, owner changed their mind, property not ready to be photographed). I tell them “not a problem, see you on the next one” and they always come back. A lot of agents I deal with can’t extract VPA from vendors, and they’re doing it tough until the property is settled so I’m happy to be flexible when it comes to payment (which luckily isn’t often). I’ve picked up several agents through word-of-mouth referrals from my existing clients because I’ve treated them like gold. Treated well, they do the same thing – I treat clients with the utmost respect and show them trust by not charging up front and I believe they pay me back by paying me on time.

  • I bill real estate at the end of each calendar month. I’ve never had a serious problem (actually, never even had a non-serious problem!) getting paid. I’ve got several reasons for doing this. Numbers 3 and 4 are the important ones:

    1) I’m pretty anal about bookkeeping, so each transaction is several steps for me. I like to keep the number of transactions down, to save myself hassle.

    2) Most of my clients will do multiple listings every month. They don’t want to be writing multiple checks, for the same reason I don’t want multiple invoices.

    3) I don’t want to be perceived, or treated, like a retail photographer. If my clients believe I’m only focused on today, only thinking short-term, they’ll respond in kind. In reality, I’m only interested in the long game. B2B bills on a monthly basis. My clients appreciate that, and they also know that I’m more interested in the long-term relationship than I am about the profit & loss statement on today’s shoot.

    4) What exactly is there to worry about? We’re talking about a pretty paltry sum of money, here. The first time someone screws me, they’re fired. Simple as that. It’s never happened, but if it did, so what? I’d be out a few hundred at most, but the years of freedom are worth it. Hassling everyone (including myself) in an effort to catch one jerk doesn’t seem like a good bargain, to me. People (in general) won’t screw you over if they perceive you as the sort who shouldn’t be screwed over. If you come across as defensive and petty, and with the expectation that you’re going to be ripped off….you’re likely to have your expectations met. But if you present yourself as confident, assertive, and focused on your client’s interests…you’ll be treated properly.

  • Agree with each of your points Scott.

  • About half the time I get paid on the day of the shoot… the other half I provide payment terms – 5 business days. In all cases I send an invoice along with the hard copy of the images (DVD and Contact Sheets). I have never been stiffed… however every once in a while I need to send an e-mail to the Realtor saying “it’s been 7 Business days do you plan on sending payment anytime soon” and “I know Realtors get busy and forget so if it is easier, in the future, we can do payment on the day of the shoot.” That usually fixes the payment issue with that Realtor. I only have two Realtors where I will not do business with because EVERY TIME I need to send an e-mail to collect money…. and it is a hassle to chase after money. With individuals, property owners that want to list their property on VRBO, etc., or Realtors out of my area, I require payment in advance.

    I prefer to be more relaxed about the payment issue… again, I’ve never been stiffed and I get so many new customers/Realtors by referrals… so I don’t want to be too hard-nosed about getting paid. It’s easy to keep track of what’s paid and what’s not been paid… if everything on the shoot is complete (including being PAID), it goes into a binder… if it’s not complete, it stays in the file tray above my computer…. and I look through them once a week.

  • OK – here I am – defending my position – the Convict comment was only a joke and I hope I did not offend any Aussies out there reading the blog! Dave W. and I are good friends and last night in our conversation over FaceTime, we discovered that he bills only once per month to all his clients. For the first time in my life, I was speechless. In this industry I find that if I don’t collect in advance for my work – we have a 50-50 chance or worse for not being paid – even by clients who we have done business with for years!
    We bill 50% by paypal invoice up front (including our rights, terms and conditions statement) and 50% right before I send out by You send it the final pics and tour links. This works really well. I don’t collect the first 50% on the job because its makes for a higher cancellation or change rate if we haven’t collected money up front. However, we are looking into square and will be taking credit cards or checks on the spot when the photography is finished as of July 1st. This will save us from doing the work and dogging the agent to pay so we can send out the final work – yet another problem that seems to arise often.
    Most photographers I know in any photographer genre collect 50% deposit to SAVE THE DATE and 50% before, during or at the end of the engagement (i.e. weddings, soccer games, portrait shoots, etc.)

    Also, just a note – Dave W. is the most industrious collector of data for analysis that I have ever met. At any given moment, he can give me an exact snapshot of his business – and the backup to show it. Dave has gone from being one of a stable of shooters for another company to building a very successful independent real estate business in less than a year in a very competitive market. I attribute this to four factors: a) his photography is excellent, b) his prices are competitive, c) he is extremely likable and d) he keeps expenses to a minimum but is not “cheap” when it come to equipment and software.

  • @Scott – you make some really good points – especially about the ones with multiple listings per month.
    We also fire agents – for non-payment one reason, but for the hassle factor more often.
    We work very hard not to be perceived as a retail photographer or a national chain photographer. Because we are so customized to our clients, our billings are actually much higher than our pricing on the website actually portrays.
    Most of our agents know that we are professional, want to have the long term relationship with us and don’t view our payment terms as short term or focused on today – they realize, especially in todays market and economy how important it is to pay at the time of service.
    We are strong believers in commitment to a process and paying the 50% deposit creates this commitment even on multiple listings per month.
    By paying us at the end of a job before delivery, our agents know that we have a value and are paid first ahead of other bills that come in. Agents have notoriously bad cash flow especially outgoing cash-flow.
    Actually, none of our agents ask us to be billed at the end of the month. Most of them who repeat with us during the month, keep their transactions separate and like having very separate payments to track with the property.
    Additionally, the final invoicing before delivery gives me one last chance to state the copyright/licensing issues.

  • @J miller
    We process the payment – but we guarantee satisfaction. I would rather have the money in the bank and redo a couple of photos. Reshoots are not that common for us, but we get called back in to the same property for additional shots quite often. Sometimes we charge, sometimes we do it as a thank you for providing multiple listings each month. All of our agents know we stand behind our work – even six months later if the property is still for sale.

  • This was a great post, and excellent input by everyone. My notebook is quickly filling up with all the useful info as I’m preparing to launch my own business. 🙂

  • The few times I’ve offered to do a monthly billing for clients they’ve declined and said they’d rather pay at the shoot. I’m lucky in that I started working in an established market where paying at the shoot was the norm.

  • I’m so jealous! Here in Australia it’s normal for agents to pay 30 days after the end of the month account statement is issued. Sheesh!

  • I’ve been using square for awhile and really like it. Most of my clients still pay by check but I think it’s important to have a credit card option.

    I invoice through Paypal with payment due in 10 days. Most clients will mail a check still, but Paypal provides a nice invoicing system and the option to pay online.

    I’ve only had one problem client that took 3 weeks to pay. She volunteered to pay upfront in the future though.

    I use a simple excel spreadsheet to track my activities. A column for client, date, address, amount charges, amount paid, and date paid. It also auto sums and shows account receivables and revenue.

  • anyone know of a system/program where the client can view the watermarked images online – then has to pay to download them with an invoice sent out with the images – if there isn’t such a program then someone should make it and tell me so I can buy it

  • I usually send out an invoices at once after delivering final files or cd. An invoice deadline is usually 7, 10 or 14 days. It is in Estonia, Europe. I mean a business clients. I have no private customers. And private clients paying in cash usually or doing money transfer via bank. It costs about 0,13 US cents.
    It is very easy. Estonians using mostly debit cards and taking money from credit card is not needful. Credit card is a bit uncomfortable because we can not do money transfers via credit card. It is only for some kind of internet business ( e-bay, Amazon) or for traveling and so on. Debit card is for everyday business.

  • Just offer somekind of discount if paid upfront. it will solve all these issues.

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