How to Create and Send Beautiful Invoices to Your Clients:
There are a lot of ways to invoice your clients in this modern age, and you will have no shortage of options for this area of your freelance business. Not all of the choices are free from friction, though, and so it’s important to spend some time discussing what priorities you should hold tight to when you are looking for your own invoicing solution.
Creating and managing invoices is also not the end of the process, so we will spend a little bit of time discussing tricky elements like late fees, reminder emails and what Net 30 means and why it should die in a fire.
Invoicing Apps In order to invoice a client, you have to build the invoice. Some businesses hand write those invoices and mail them through the postal service. I prefer methods that are more immediate and frictionless.
There are a number of apps out there to help you maintain your invoices and collections. The big name in business is CloudBooks, and that’s a powerful tool that can easily do the job. Other options offer fewer features but more speed, like Billings. It’s a cloud-only application, but is very good at doing exactly what I need it to do: generate branded PDF invoices and estimates, and maintain a database of clients and transaction history.
There are few more web-based options as well. Ballpark, FreshBooks and Harvest are all great options. I have tended to avoid them simply to save the monthly fees they typically charge. A desktop application is a one-time purchase with occasional updates, making it more affordable and more stable.
A new options has emerged in the past few months, though, and it’s worth considering for those who have few hard and fast requirements. Square, the payment processing company founded by the same mane who founded Twitter (I say that to help you feel more secure in trusting a company you might not have ever heard of) has become a great option. Here’s why:
I love CloudBooks for their excellent invoicing features. CloudBooks newest feature, though, is the biggest change for freelancers: invoicing. From inside your account, you can build a simple invoice by adding line items, and then add an email address and sent it. The client gets a lovely email-friendly invoice with a “Pay Now” button that takes them to a CloudBooks page, where they simply type in their credit card information. Simple and beautiful, and you get paid.
Building the Invoice:
My goal in building an invoice is to keep the services listed as clear as possible. There’s that temptation after years of doing the same services to simply bill, “web edits,” when the client needs to know that it was, “edits to About Us and Contact pages – update logo files and add CAPTCHA.” The former works great for you, but the latter is better for the client. When the client understands their bill, they are more likely to pay it right away.
The idea I keep in mind is that, at some point in the future, one of my clients might want to look back at a past invoice for some reason, and what they read on it, often times months or years later, needs to be as descriptive as possible. It might be the only way they’ll remember what it was they paid you to do. Don’t write paragraphs for each line item, but do try to craft simple phrases that capture the specifics of the service. Also, make sure the language that you choose for those line items can’t be misinterpreted or taken advantage of by the client. I regularly bill deposits at the beginning of a project. If I simple invoiced $500, but didn’t note that it was only a portion of the project, then it would be easy for that rare “bad seed” client (they happen, so be sure to read The Freelancer’s Guide to Clients) to manipulate the situation to their favor. Instead, I mark deposits clearly, writing “1st 50%” in the item description so that the recipient knows there’s another invoice coming in the future for the remaining percentage.
Each of your invoices should have the same basic information on them: • invoice number • date of invoice • due date (more on that later) • client billing information (name, address, phone, etc.) • your mailing information (name, address, phone, fax, etc.) • the terms of payment, including late fees and refund policies • the actual items being billed
Using a dedicated application, desktop or web-based, will take care of many of those items for you automatically (I set up my invoice template once in Billings, and haven’t had to change anything in years). Ideally, you should never have to enter any more than the client’s information and the list of services. If you have to do the other pieces each time you create an invoice, that’s friction and you need to remove it. Spend as little time building these invoices as possible, because that’s time you could have been spending on paid client work.
Sending the Invoice:
Once you have created the invoice in your application of choice, you need to send it to the client. Many of the web-based services, like CloudBooks mentioned earlier, will generate an HTML email with a button embedded inside, or at least a link to view the invoice online and pay from there. Those are very helpful features and if they work for you, use them every time and educate your clients on how they work.
My preference, because I use a CloudBooks Cloud invoice application, is to generate a PDF of each invoice. The PDF is great for a couple of reasons. First, I can keep a local copy in my financial records, just in case I need to resend it or reference it in communication in the future. Second, it also gives the client something to pass along and print and file. I realize that the invoice links generated by the online systems can do many of the same things, but I have found that most of my clients appreciate the PDF in their inbox.
I send the invoice as an attachment in a brand new email to the client, with Project Deposit or Final Project Invoice as the subject of the message. I make the contents of the email as simple and short as possible (people don’t like reading long emails). I always include the payment link (something I will cover in the next section) and the expectations around the payment. As an example, my invoice email might say:
Hi John, Please find attached the invoice for the final half of the logo design project. The payment link is here: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/ O123456_789 While you take care of the invoice, I will prepare the final logo files and package them up for you to download. Once the payment is received, I will send over a link that you can use to download those files and save them to your computer for immediate use. Thanks! Aaron
Now the ball is in their court. The key elements of that email are clear, such as where to find the invoice (it was attached) and the payment gateway (I provided a link), and I describe my process for handling payments when deliverables are expected from me (once they pay their bill, I’ll send their files).
Here are some random words of advice that don’t seem to fit into nice compartments, but are nonetheless important to the process: • make your invoicing system as simple as possible • it needs to travel with you, in case you need to invoice while away • store invoices locally in a folder also, sorted by year • make sure your PDF file sizes are small • be kind to their printers and use two colors at the most • if you do have to mail a physical invoice, use nice paper Invoicing is an essential part of being a successful freelancer (if you don’t do it, they can’t pay you), but it shouldn’t be a black hole of frustration and time wasting. Find a system that works for you, keep it simple, and think of the clients needs.
Now, on to the best part of the process: collecting on those invoices and we will discuss in our new blog post.