How to avoid payment disputes

I recently had my first PayPal dispute from a client. I compiled documents showing the work completed and sent, as well as the relevant emails of requested service. The first communication from PayPal was that the client was awarded the full refund. I phoned and the representative could see that the case had been misfiled. It was labeled as payment for a physical product, not a service, and so the policy would be to refund if there was no proof of receipt. These all had to be put in PDF format. After talking with the representative, that misfiling was corrected, and she suggested showing that the e-mail address by which the client requested this service was the same as the e-mail address to which I delivered the completed documents. I did so. I soon got a notice that an echeck was being sent to my bank account from PayPal, due to a now insufficient amount in my PayPal account. I moved all funds out of that account as a precaution to give me time to resolve the issue, and phoned back to reach customer service. The next representative carefully reviewed the documents, but reported that still their policy would not allow full reversal of the decision. She said it appeared that I had delivered the work as requested, but the best she could do was refund me half. The only real proof is if the e-mail to which you deliver the non-physical product is the same as the e-mail account that matches the clients PayPal account. The rep warned me that some people know the policy and game the system. One way to avoid this situation in the future is to utilize PayPal paid services, described in the next segment.

Payment Protection Systems

The payer’s address is available by looking into the details of that transaction in your PayPal account. It may be a helpful practice to make sure this matches, but a counter argument would be that taking time to check this for each client could be tedious and usually unnecessary. An alternative (as suggested by the rep) is to set up a PayPal button (base rate $5 per month) at your website through which clients can pay. The rep also suggested I could use PayPal invoicing services. Another precaution is a paid Dropbox account by which clients must use a password to enter to look at their documents, which offers proof that the documents were accessed.

Some Precautions Are Not Worth It

I’m not sure it’s worth the extra hassle to you and your clients to set up such safeguards. Similarly, legislative processes such as small claims court are likely not a help. First, the general rule is that a claim should be heard at the court nearest to where the defendant lives. If they refuse to pay, you may have to travel to the client’s location to file a case. Second, you may be unable to prove service of summons. In general, even if you win the case, it is likely to be more trouble and time than it’s worth.

Some Precautions are Necessary

I believe the best precautions are as follows:
  • Give and receive instructions in writing so there is a record. While this didn’t help me in this case, it is sometimes a necessary reminder to clients and yourself about what was agreed on. I keep my policies on my website, so I don’t have to repeatedly spend time on this detailed communication.
  • Receive payments incrementally and do the work incrementally, with agreed-on estimates. Then there’s no sticker shock and you both have a chance to back out with smaller loss, if the other doesn’t meet the agreement.
  • Keep track of hours and the tasks completed for each session of work, even if you have a flat fee. The few times I’ve been challenged about the payment amount, I send a breakdown of cost per task, compared with my table of average cost per task. When the cost for a task is over the estimate, I make note of reasons, such as an extra long dissertation. Since my website explains my estimates are based on a specific average length, this helps the client to feel they are getting a fair deal. The costs seem more reasonable when they see the number of tasks they would have had to do themselves.
  • Learn to make accurate work estimates. It took me many hours to take averages from 2 years of work to create real work time estimates. Based on this, I offer a set rate as an average, with a range that will work in the client’s favor if they’ve done an extraordinary job. The range helps me because I should be able to go up to the high end of the estimate without too much challenge, though I rarely need to. I can typically let them know in advance whether their work will cost more than the average, based on viewing their document. If they have an extra long document and complicated tables, I tell them in advance it will likely be at the high end. This gives them a chance to see if someone else is available for less. Then, if they choose my services, they know what to expect.
  • The PayPal reviewer said that with the amount of business shown on my account, it’s surprising that I don’t have other disputes. I attribute this to the fact that the majority of my clients are word of mouth, so there is an established level of trust from the beginning, as well as some degree of accountability. I want to maintain a good relation with the universities, and the client knows that their chairperson trusts me, since they are usually the one who referred me. This is usually enuf to keep me and the client both on our best behavior.’

Red Flags

In this case, the referring advisor said this student has been extremely difficult for her. You probably won’t want to ask an advisor for only problem-free clients, and it’s possible the advisor is looking for help to deal with the difficult student. However, you can mention the difficulty so that they understand if the student complains about you. You and the advisor can back each other up in insisting that the document isn’t ready to be reviewed.
Sloppy work is a red flag. Sometimes I’ve gone ahead, giving the benefit of the doubt because I realize students can get overwhelmed. It’s better to simply return the document and insist on a more complete version. When I do more work than normal, then it’s on me to justify the added hours that went over the estimate. In that case, I sometimes receive gratitude and full payment. Other times I realize I’ve encountered a person who has made a habit of doing as little as possible and tries to get others to make up the difference without reciprocity.

On the Bright Side

As a positive ending to the story, the PayPal rep is in a graduate program that utilizes APA, which is my specialty. She apparently plans to use my services! She got a clear view of how I operate, and decided I give a fair deal. Even if not, the situation prompted me to write this up. Hopefully, it will help others.