The party went off without a hitch.
Two hundred people sipped wine, nibbled on artichoke tarts, risotto balls and veggie spring rolls and raised thousands of dollars for the American Cancer Society at an April 2009 fundraiser held at an upscale retail store in a central New Jersey town.
It was only 30 days later, when the evening's host still hadn't sent The Devon Group the final third of the marketing agency's fee for orchestrating the event that owner Jeanne Achille realized there was a problem.
According to the host, a local commercial photographer, the agency hadn't made good on its promise to collect sales leads at the party along with donations, so he didn't feel obliged to make a final payment.
But Achille knew the contract she signed didn't stipulate anything about sales leads. After a month of phone calls and emails failed to resolve the issue, Achille did what she's done before in similar situations - she headed to small claims court.
There are gentler ways to go after clients who don't pay their bills, including sending demand letters and negotiating payment plans. Sometimes they work. But sometimes you can just tell when a customer isn't going to respond to anything but the harshest measures - and this was one of those times, says Achille, who's taken a handful of clients to small claims court in 15 years running the business. "I've found it's a huge waste of time to be nice or sit back and wait," she says.
The Devon Group has locations in New Jersey, Massachusetts and London, routinely works with multi-million dollar clients and bills more than $1 million a year for marketing, public relations and direct mail campaigns. But the company is still only a 15-person operation and Achille says she can't afford to pay an attorney to go after every deadbeat.
She can, however, afford an hour of her lawyer's time for coaching on how to take collections matters into her own hands.
On the advice of her lawyer, small claims court has become Achille's recourse of choice for collecting from particularly recalcitrant customers. In some instances, the mere threat of a lawsuit has been enough to get paid. Only once did Achille go all the way to mediation and walk away with nothing.
In this instance, Achille says keeping meticulous records of the agency's communications with the party host regarding the contract worked in their favor, as they had plenty of evidence showing there was never a mention of generating sales leads. "He was trying to use that as justification for not paying," she says.
In New Jersey, filing a suit in small claims court is a relatively easy process. Along with filing, Achille used her secret weapon: paying $50 each to send subpoenas to witnesses, in this case, party guests who subsequently agreed to testify on her behalf. Subpoenas are great, if only for the intimidation factor, she says. "Some of those people were local politicians, the head of the chamber of commerce, the head of the American Cancer Society of the state - you wouldn't want to be airing your dirty laundry in front of them," she says.
Initially, the fundraiser host refused to negotiate. But the night before the case was to go before a small claims court judge, his attorney called and asked what it would take to make the lawsuit go away. Achille asked for - and got - 100 percent of the $5,000 she was owed.
Even though she got the money, Achille still rankles at the attitude some clients have toward service providers like hers. She says: "It drives me wild people expect you to deliver work product, you jump through hoops to do it, and yet when it comes to getting paid they think it's a negotiable aspect of the relationship."