13 simple ingredients to make invoicing easier to swallow

5 min read
Lisa Stambaugh

Dollars to donuts, you’re like most small business owners — invoicing is not a task you eagerly anticipate. Effective invoicing is crucial for business success. And it’s unavoidable. After all, no invoice, no payment.

Chew on this baker’s dozen of tidbits to make your invoicing process more palatable for you and your clients:

1. Document in frequent small bites.

Clients want to know exactly what you’re billing for. You want to remember exactly what you’ve accomplished. I keep daily notes in a file organized by client, including line items with date, task details, and time spent. This is stream-of-consciousness writing. I don’t worry about perfect formatting, knowing I will edit and refine later.

2. Create a billing recipe that works for you — and stick to it!

Clients know that I email invoices on the first of the month, for work completed during the previous month. Always. Some larger website projects can extend for months, and I savor those progress payments that arrive on a regular basis. So make it easy for both you and your client by establishing a regular schedule and sticking to it.

3. Bake in a single batch to improve productivity.

Generating and sending invoices in one session on a regular schedule improves consistency and efficiency. It’s a marathon, but I’m not ashamed to admit that a reward upon completion motivates me. Chocolate. Margaritas. Fancy yarn. Sometimes all three.

4. Standard text morsels minimize writing effort.

Many of my website projects involve the same tasks in the same sequence, so why not re-use the text that’s already been baked to perfection?

For example, every new WordPress project begins with my “new site” checklist that I run through in order. The invoice line item is “Set up staging environment with login, install WordPress, install Genesis, run through new site configuration checklist, install and configure plug-ins, set up automatic backups, create first-pass page architecture per proposal.” I’d rather copy/paste than memorize that tongue-twister!

5. Decorate to look like the design expert you are.

Your invoices don’t have to be boring. Include your logo and branding. Be specific. Avoid acronyms or abbreviations, unless you’re sure clients know them. Organize with bullet lists and subheadings. Wordsmith for non-techie comprehension. Proofread carefully.

6. Garnish liberally with contact details.

Of course you’ll include client name, address, and “Attention To” name. Always include your own name, company name, email, phone, website, mailing address — even if you think they have it. Don’t provide clients with an excuse to delay payment while they find that information.

7. Stir in a unique identifier in conjunction with an invoice date.

What are your terms? Do you charge late fees or interest on overdue payments? A distinctive invoice number — including the date — facilitates tracking down an overdue payment, and avoids debate on arrival-versus-payment expectations.

8. Season with subtle hints.

A 15-minute conversation may not be billed, but I want clients to realize that my time was spent helping them, and I’ll list it with the notation “NC” (“no charge”). I only charge for actual working time and my hourly rate covers the overhead of these tasks. However, I want a documented record of when the conversation occurred, which defuses accusations of nickel-and-diming for every task.

9. Mention the quick bites: availability deserves visibility.

The one-minute password change may not be billed, yet it deserves acknowledgement that I was on call and available to read their email, make the change, and respond. Some clients routinely request 5-10 “quickies” per month. A single item may not be worth charging for, but if it happens often your time adds up — so add them to your bill.

10. Put your rules on the menu and invite questions.

Document your policies and make them easily available to clients. Clarify acceptable payment types as well as whether you charge extra for credit card or PayPal payments. Even with explicit documentation, I leave the conversation door open by ending every invoice email with “Let me know if you have any questions or need more information.”

11. Cut ‘em some slack on the crumbs.

If the accrued time in a month is less than one hour, I carry it forward to the next Invoice Day. Fractions are invoiced quarterly to avoid carrying time long enough that they forget about the work I delivered. I'm willing to extend the float to save the time to create and send a small invoice and then process it when the small check arrives. Clients appreciate this. I know it because they tell me so.

12. Go gentle on the spicy remind-o-grams.

My invoices are due and payable upon receipt. After one month, I forward the original email with “Just checking in to see if this invoice has been processed yet. If you think it has, let me know and I’ll re-check my records.” I’m willing to give the client the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to respond. Remind-o-gram #2 (two weeks later) has a stronger flavor — it’s less forgiving and re-states my non-payment consequences policy.

13. Sweeten otherwise unappetizing messages.

I like to start off with something entertaining and non-financial: a video link, an article about an upcoming food holiday, a reference to local sports team antics. With most clients here in drought-stricken Northern California, I recently mentioned the previous day’s rain as cause for celebration. Personal details show that you’re not just about the money: Congrats on your award! How is the new grandbaby? Loved your Facebook vacation snaps ;-) A little sugar can go a long way.

And there you have it — 13 delicious suggestions to help you optimize your invoicing process. What has worked for you? Share your tips with the rest of us.