Work Zone: Getting Paid

A 2.572Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

I could probably write a book on collecting money for land surveyors. Accounts receivables was really one of my first true surveying work experiences. My father, Lane S. Bishop, LS, would send me down to Mr. Developer’s giant multiplex office to "collect the check." I was told not to leave before getting "the check," so I would quietly wait in Mr. Developer’s reception area with Mr. Project Manager coming out with hands thrown up in the air pleading, "Please go away, don’t worry, we’ll get a check over to you later." To which I would reply, "No sir, I cannot leave because then I have to face my father with no check. Unacceptable." I absolutely hated doing this because it was really outside of my comfort zone, but as the years have passed, I see that it’s an acquired skill that all of us can master. It was great experience and it has served me well in my own surveying practice.

One reason it’s so hard for folks to collect money is because they get too emotional about it. Savvy clients, or clients on the edge of losing everything, know this and will use it against you. Collecting money is just another way to interact with your clients, so be smart about it; after all, business is business. Leave all anger, frustration, depression or tears for the personal side of life. In reality, many of your clients may be poor money managers. If they’re like 70 percent of Americans, (according to The Wall Street Journal) they live from paycheck to paycheck and they’re using their company’s money to pay you, not their personal money. In other words, while you have invested blood, sweat and tears in your projects, they have no real emotional attachment to it because they get paid every week regardless if you get paid. Consider a company goal of 0-2 percent annual bad debts from clients. It’s realistic with some good solid policies and strong resilience from you.

The World of Black & White
My best advice it to be proactive. Get a retainer, or better yet, get all your money up front from new clients. We require that certain types of jobs, like alcoholic beverage surveys, must always be paid in advance. An administrative person can do this, which also removes you from the political haggling of money collection and increases your leverage, if needed. If you’re solo, then the buck really stops at you and you have to be firm and consistent with getting paid. Give existing clients a definite deadline for payment or the work simply stops. Be very strict with new clients ­ require retainers and prompt payment or the work stops. While this may be difficult to do (but only for you) for your long standing clients, as long as you provide good service, it does work like a charm. In today’s world of "instant" everything, there is no reason to not get paid instantly as well.

Payment Options
Credit Cards
Set up a merchant account with your bank or a credit card company. It may cost you another 2-3 percent, but you can add the difference into your estimates and fees. Let your clients know which credit cards you accept. Include credit card payment information on all your invoices. Our company receives about 20 percent of our gross receipts (including many retainers from credit card payments) over the phone.

E-checks For a one-time customer-tovendor payment, use an e-check instead of a credit card. To pay by e-check, the client types in his account number and bank routing number on your website or faxes back a form to your office. You authorize payment through the client’s bank, which then either initiates an electronic funds transfer (EFT) or prints a check and mails it to you. This might be more trouble than it’s worth, especially if your bank is not keen on one-time type payments ­ ours wasn’t ­ but still worth looking into as another payment option.

Online Payments Set up an account to receive payments from online service sites like or Again, it will cost you 2-3 percent, but it’s another option and you don’t need to setup a merchant account. You then send your client an email with a link to pay his invoice before you email him any documents or plats. You’re automatically notified by email once the bill is paid. Think about it ­ if you can pay your federal, state and property taxes online, why not collect your invoices online?

Checks & Cash My personal favorite, unless, of course, the check bounces. You can always call the bank to verify that the funds are in the account before accepting checks if you think you have a bad one. Have a policy in place to access a service charge of $25 or more to cover your time. See note above about not getting emotional!

Credit Checks
Do not accept a P.O. Box or a cell phone as the only address and phone number to get in touch with your client. Unfortunately some builders and developers out there are like high rollers in Las Vegas and they will gamble with your time and resources if you let them. Get a copy of their driver’s license, get online and look up their corporation in your state, or have them fill out a credit application. If they don’t want to give you verifiable information, then walk away. If you’re going to be performing extensive subdivision staking and you only have a P.O. Box and cell number, you’re putting your company at risk of not getting paid. Again, your admin people are responsible for getting this information.

If you’re the second surveyor on a project, always ask your client who the first one was and why they’re not involved anymore. Then call the first surveying company to get their side of the story and see if they got all their money. This is where we can really help each other to avoid deadbeat clients and ne’er-do-wells.

Past Dues and Interest
As surveyors, we are not in business of loaning money nor are we financial institutions. That’s what banks are for. Do not let clients use your business as a lending institution. If you do, they’ll expect it each and every time you do business with them. Granted, even under great client conditions there are still going to be times where interest will accrue. To charge or not to charge? I say charge it. If a long-standing client pays only the principle and not the interest we always send another invoice for the interest not paid. This puts clients on notice that we expect to get paid on our schedule, not theirs.

Many states have a "Prompt Pay Act." Check with your state’s Official Code to see if there is some legal language to include on your invoices. In Georgia, it’s "All fees are due within 15 days of completion of work and receipt of invoice. Pursuant to O.C.G.A. Section 13-11-7(Georgia Prompt Pay Act), all unpaid balances shall accrue interest at the rate of 1.5 percent per month beginning on the day following the due date."

Interest The maximum you can charge is 18 percent per year in most states. If you do not have a similar statement requiring interest, collection expenses, or court costs for past due invoices you will not be able to sue for these items if you have to take the client to court.

Call every client with larger projects 15 days after the invoice is issued and ask if there are any issues and when is the check going to be cut. Have the "15 Day Payment Due" rule in your contracts for all large projects. You’ll only have to do this a time or two before the client understands that if you will be calling every time, they’ll more likely to make sure that you’re paid promptly.

Going to Court
Taking clients to court
does not happen very often at my company, perhaps once or twice a year. We’ve created an in-house flow chart so our key employees can understand the sequence of events in taking clients to court if they are involved in the case. This can take up your entire day, but in the end, if you can prove you did the work and did not get paid you’ll at least get a judgment.

Need help getting started? Go to the Community section of to download forms to help with collections, sample invoices and more.

Cathy Costarides is president and owner of both CC Land Surveyors, Inc. and Licensed in Georgia since 1992, she has been surveying for 25 years as well as designing residential and commercial projects.

A 2.572Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE