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Getting Paid – Creative Invoicing Techniques That Work

After 37 years of marketing experience, I can tell you one thing, there are certain words that clients do not like to hear. I call them the dirty words of marketing because when they appear on an invoice, clients don’t like it one bit.

One of these words is “design” or, heaven forbid, “graphic design.” Clients don’t think it’s important, necessary and, most of all, it’s not something they want to pay for. In most clients’ minds, design is something they feel they can do themselves for free. As a designer for my entire career, I have resorted to camouflaging the service, relegating it to the most mundane, generic and unglamorous of tasks. I call it “setup,” “composition,” “artwork,” or “production” in various contexts. It hasn’t been very long since I finally got up the nerve to actually list “graphic design” as a service on my website, influenced by Google’s need for appropriate SEO keywords. Ironically, it is one of the jobs I devote the most time to, perfectionist that I am.

Since I don’t bill by the hour, clients never know how much behind-the-scenes’ time I spend refining their presentations. As my own harshest critic, I realize I ultimately strive to please myself. In my experience, most clients wouldn’t recognize good design if they fell over it. If I were to mention such subtleties as kerning, leading, tracking, typeface balance, color balance, or resolution issues, they probably would think I was speaking Greek.

With marketing success as my overall objective, I often incorporate text to enhance my design. Without these nuances, my work would not look the same. My clients may not understand what it takes to get the presentation to be crisp, professional, impressive and, most importantly, effective, but they do know what they like. They just don’t want to be charged extra for it on the invoice.

The Difficulties of Making a Profit

Another word I never utter anywhere, let alone on an invoice, is “commission.” No one wants to pay an agency commission for anything, especially if it is a surcharge not paid by a vendor or the media.

With the word completely removed from my business vocabulary, I am forced to invent creative ways to make some profit on services I provide. Instead of charging commission, I must mark up pricing when I quote costs so my take is included. And believe me, there isn’t much room to make a little extra with everything so competitive these days. This is one of the most distasteful of all my functions.

Having to operate in this way always strikes me as dishonest, deceitful and culpable, regardless of the fact that markup has been an accepted business practice for centuries. In fact, there are formulas for it that accountants recommend.

And here’s a honey: “royalties.” Among the clients I deal with, dentists, doctors, lawyers, business owners, administrators and directors, there is rarely one who would accept (or in many cases, comprehend) the need for such a charge. Usually associated with the purchase or rental of rights-managed stock photos, for example, royalties are charged because they are protected by copyright.

Charges are determined by how the photo will be used including its prominence in size, its exposure to numbers of viewers, its application, etc. That leaves me with the only other worthwhile option: royalty-free choices, which tend to be not as aesthetically select while still requiring an investment. I often solve the problem by using my own images (from my years of photography) – at no charge, of course. Otherwise, the project could remain stagnant or worse, be canceled altogether.

How Clients Circumvent Extra Charges

When images are essential, some clients have decided to become their own photographers, which I can live with, as long as they use a camera with adequate megapixels for the final size of use. What I most typically receive, however, are poorly composed, terribly lit, tiny, bitmapped photos (sometimes out-of-focus), that I somehow perform miracles on in Photoshop to convert to something usable.

Again, on the bill, this is a no-charge. Keeping the customer happy is my modus operandi.

Other clients with a little more advanced knowledge of the Internet have actually found good, low-cost, stock photos on their own. Then they ask me to make the purchase since they wouldn’t know what to do with them once downloaded, stymied by file sizes too bulky to e- mail. For me, these are all acceptable ways of doing business, as long as they’re happy.

When Technology Rules

Over the years, some of my clients have asked me to add flash animation to their websites. With current technological developments banishing flash from some Apple products, mobile units, etc., “flash” has become a dirty word, and another problematic element in my business. If I were to educate one of my large law firm clients that the flash on their website should be replaced with an alternate mode of animation all their viewers can see, they would hit the roof. With so many tech-savvy members on their staff, it is hard for me to believe that they don’t already know this. But keeping mum on their part is a money-saving tactic, as is turning a blind eye. So, coward that I am, it is my decision to ride this out for as long as possible with the hopes that flash may be resurrected somehow and no change will be needed. Whenever any situation arises which involves an unplanned expenditure, the most common response is to shoot the messenger. Ouch.

Finally, the words “consultation” or “research” on an invoice followed by a charge would be sure to infuriate most clients. Without a doubt, I spend many hours offering free advice as part of the value of my service. It is so natural to my business life that I don’t even keep track of the time I devote to gathering information, composing lengthy e-mails, or discussing my recommendations. I consider our relationship golden and try to help them all I can.

Trust is a Big Part of Every Business Relationship

My solutions to making sure I get paid vary. In the case of new clients, I always require a deposit on work to start and final payment upon completion, usually handled via a PayPal invoice that spells out every detail of our agreement. While these clients usually process their credit card payments promptly so there is no delay, I recently had a case where a relatively new client could not get his credit card to work on PayPal, despite his having done so on a previous job. Years ago, I would take in new work without so much as a handshake and render a mailed invoice when the job was done. In practically every case, I always got paid. So I decided that since this client was within driving distance of my office, I would trust him to mail me a deposit this time. It arrived the next day totally confirming my positive expectations of him. It is people like this that make my job a pleasure.

The Prettiest Word on Your Invoice

For clients I have been working with for years, the question is not so much whether they will pay an invoice, but whether they will be happy doing it. The last thing I want to do is to create a dispute over something I put on an invoice. For this reason, my invoices sometimes include up to 10 pages of items, described in great detail with dates performed and authorizing agents, many times with “n/c” (no charge) indicated as the amount due. With enough of these pages, when a charge finally does appear, the client feels humbled by how much he got for free. I often get e-mails thanking me for my invoices, which is an ironic turn of events considering the economic climate in which we find ourselves.


Marilyn Bontempo, president of Mid-Hudson Marketing, based in Holmes, New York, has been developing strategies for business success for more than 36 years. A professional writer and graduate of Bard College, she has won numerous awards for excellence in marketing, photography, graphics, writing and web design. As a specialist in branding, she assists many of her clients with management of their social media and public relations initiatives. In addition, she handles e-commerce for a number of online merchants not only on their own websites but also through eBay, Amazon and others. View her work at http://www.midhudsonmarketing.com.

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Marilyn Bontempo

Marilyn Bontempo, president of Mid-Hudson Marketing, based in Holmes, New York, has been developing strategies for business success for more than 45 years. A professional writer and graduate of Bard College, she has won numerous awards for excellence in marketing, photography, graphics, writing and web design. As a specialist in branding, she assists many of her clients with management of their social media and public relations initiatives. In addition, she handles e-commerce for a number of online merchants not only on their own websites but through eBay, Amazon and others. View her work at https://www.midhudsonmarketing.com

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