When should I pay my client?

Let’s say your client’s item sells right now, should you immediately send them the payment for it? Not so fast! A transaction isn’t finished when a buyer pays for the item. In some ways, it’s only just beginning.

Once an item sells, you’ll often get the payment at the same time, but not always. Depending on your payment terms, the buyer may have anywhere from days to a couple of weeks to pay for the item after committing to buy. If you don’t get payment, you’ll need to go through the non-paying bidder process before you can relist it, and that takes time. Even if the buyer does pay right away, they may pay via a method like eCheck, which takes a week to clear.

Either way, you’ll wait to ship the item until you get a cleared payment. Then shipping takes time—anywhere from a day to two months for some international shipments. But if the package is delayed or, worse yet, lost in transit, you’re looking at more delays even if it does eventually arrive.

Once the item arrives at the buyer’s door, that may be the end of the transaction, or it may arrive damaged, and you’ll need to go through the insurance claims process. It’s possible the buyer will want to return it, which can cause yet more delays as you wait for them to ship it back, and then you’ll have to start the timer all over again when you relist it.

The takeaway here is that until you’ve been paid for the item, the buyer has it in their hands and is satisfied with it, the transaction isn’t truly over. If you’d paid your client the moment the listing ended, there are hundreds of things that could have gone wrong with the transaction in the ensuing weeks. You have to build time into the payment window you promise your clients to protect yourself from things that can and will go wrong.

But how much time? It depends on a variety of factors including how long your window for returns is and whether you sell internationally. If you accept returns for up to 30 days after item receipt, you shouldn’t promise your clients a payment sooner than 60 or more days from the date of sale to build in time for shipping, slow payments, or other issues. Of course, this time frame is the worst-case scenario, and you’ll often be able to pay your clients much sooner. But it’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver, and you’ll need to leave yourself that extra time just in case.

In my SA business, I’ve invented some verbiage to explain this payment delay to clients that you may be able to adapt to your business. After explaining that marketplaces like eBay and Amazon require returns and that we’ve got to build in time for both those and shipping times, I explain that PayPal can reverse a payment for up to 60 days after receipt. Therefore, I don’t consider a payment to have “cleared” until that period has elapsed and the transaction becomes permanent and can no longer be reversed. However, if a buyer leaves positive feedback about the item they bought or emails me to say how pleased they are with their purchase, then it’s safe to assume that they won’t be returning it. In that case, I’ll consider that transaction complete and that payment cleared early even though the normal time period isn’t up.

Keep in mind that the 60 days I just mentioned only applies from the moment you receive payment. You’ll also need to build in time to clean, photograph and list the items for sale as well as for the sale period itself. Auctions may only take a week, but a fixed-price item could sit for months before it sells. It takes some finesse to manage client expectations because people tend to think of selling online as very fast when, in reality, it’s surprisingly slow.

If your client only has a few items, you’ll probably want to pay them for all of them in a single payment. If there are a large number of items or if some of their items are taking a long time to sell or otherwise clear, you may want to send them a partial payment at different points in the contract. I’ve had clients that keep giving me new items, so their relationship with me ends up lasting years. Their reconciliation report ends up being several pages long, and I just send them a payment every few months or so until everything is gone.

The danger to partial payments is that you’ve got to protect yourself and make sure to never overpay your clients. Unless it’s impossible, my personal safeguard is to always make sure I’ve at least listed all the client’s items before I send them a single payment. This way I’ve already taken into account all listing and upgrade fees so that, even if nothing else ever sells from this client after I send that payment, I won’t be out those fees.

When I do partial payments, I include all fees on the sheet but only add the sale prices in for items I consider to have cleared, either by passing my 60-day window or because the buyer left feedback or contacted me about the item in a favorable manner. This is great from a client’s standpoint because payments usually get larger as we go since the bulk of the fees came off that first payment. Then, as additional sales come in or the client gives me additional items to sell, I just add them to the same sheet, making sure to take past payments into account before making any new ones. Sometimes this means a client gives me their items and gets their final payment within days, and sometimes they have to wait months or even years before we’re finally completely done. But I’ve found that as long as you have good communication, are upfront with exactly what is going on and transparent about everything, and make partial payments whenever possible, clients are understanding about the delay.

But not everyone will be. Some people are looking for fast cash, and they’ll balk when they see your payment window. You’ll need to decide whether it’s better to risk making that time cushion smaller or try to convince those reluctant clients to either trust that it hopefully won’t take as long as you advertise or to just sell you their items outright.