Getting Paid Twice

Today we'd like to discuss an issue that has to do with ethics. This might have happened to you before as well: a client sends the payment, you thank him or her for it, and then, for some reason, your receive the payment a second time. This can happen because of some error in bank transfer or because of a duplicate check, which is the 20th-century relic that American companies still prefer for payment. Either way, we are usually quite happy to receive the payment, but want to be paid only once. Now, if the customer pays twice, what should you do? The short answer: you should let the client know and give the money back.

This initially happened to us very early in our career, and getting twice the amount would have meant a worry-free month. This is a very big company with thousands of employees and complex accounting structures. It's quite likely that they would never have noticed this small error (a negligible amount by their standards). We hesitated for a fracture of a fracture of a second, but then immediately told the client they had paid us twice. The client was very impressed and told us that he would reward us for our honesty -- and he has, as he's been a client for almost 10 years. He did mention that there's no way he would have ever noticed the mistake, and the accounting department was unaware as well. We wired the second payment back to him and everyone was happy. 

The second time it happened was a few weeks ago. A small, rural court paid Judy for her court interpreting services, and as Judy was logging the payment in our accounting software, she noticed that the amount was twice as high as it should have been. She promptly e-mailed the accounting folks, and they were quite happy to hear from her. She sent the check back (very low tech, we know) and they issued a new check within a few days.

Our advice: as tempting as it might be to keep the incorrect amount, it's essential to do the right thing and let the client know about the error. It might just result in a more loyal client, and you will definitely get karma points. It's also, without doubt, the ethically and morally correct thing to do. If this has ever happened to you, dear colleagues: how did you handle it? Please share your experiences!


Zoya Nayshtut on July 1, 2013 at 1:21 AM said...

It also happened to me twice. The first time was with a regular client who sends me work every month. When I let them know that they had paid me twice, they thanked me a million times and asked me to keep the money and subtract the overpaid amount from the next invoice. The second time it happened with another client who sends me work every 3-4 months. They pay me via PayPal so we agreed that I would issue a refund.

I believe it is absolutely necessary to let your client know when they overpay. After all, we want to build a relationship with our clients based on trust, right?

Sarah Pybus said...

A relatively new client (who sends me quite a lot of work) overpaid by 10 euros (on a job that only paid around 70 euros). I pointed it out as soon as I realised and offered to knock the extra off my next invoice. Since it was such a small amount, they told me to keep it as an 'honesty payment' and said that they really appreciated me telling them.

No matter how small the amount or how big the company, honesty is always the best policy.

bonnjill on July 1, 2013 at 8:28 AM said...

I never mess around with payments. I always contact the client if there is an under or overpayment. It just isn't worth ruining a relationship over a few extra bucks, and I wouldn't be able to look in the mirror. Keeping an overpayment would essentially be stealing.

Cynthia Johnson on July 1, 2013 at 10:02 AM said...

What funny timing--this just happened to me for the first time 2 weeks ago--they sent a check and wired the money as well. I called right away and sent the check back, they were happy I noticed this. Your post is spot-on, about honesty and good karma as well--after all, we all put in a great deal of effort on our image (and the reality) of being professionals, and this is part of professional integrity, just like doing an accurate translation. Nice blog post, as all the others, thanks and keep up the good work!

Kis on July 1, 2013 at 11:16 AM said...

I had a very nerving client, who always paid me late (over 100 days after invoice, which they only wanted to have at the end of the month of the completed job(s). Their policy would be paying 60 days after invoice).
Once they paid me instead of another translator. It was like 300 euros.
When I saw the money in my bank account, it was a bit difficult to "force" myself to send it back, but I did.
I felt much better after I send their money back.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on July 1, 2013 at 5:04 PM said...

@Zoya: Thanks for reading and for the lovely comment and the great examples. You are absolutely right: it is indeed all about trust, and have to prove to our clients that we've earned it.

@Sarah: How fantastic -- an "honesty payment"! Well deserved! Thanks for sharing this unusual and very lovely outcome.

@Cynthia: How funny that the same just happened to you, and kudos to you for dealing with the issue right away. We like your point about how being highly ethical is just as important as an accurate translation. We could not agree more.

@Jill: Ah, good point. Yes, underpayments must also be dealt with quiet swiftly, you are right! Excellent point about stealing. I wonder if clients who underpay also realize the flip side of this.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on July 1, 2013 at 9:13 PM said...

@Hajnalka: Thanks for reading and for commenting. Good for you for doing the right thing, even though it was a bit of a tough decision, difficult client and all. You are right, though: it feels great to do the right thing, doesn't it?

Emma Goldsmith on July 2, 2013 at 2:46 PM said...

Definitely agree with you on this one.
I was in a similar situation recently when I was sent a file to translate and realised that I'd translated exactly the same file for the same client 3 months earlier. Of course I could have sent it in again and charge for it, but I decided just to tell them that they already had the translation.
Result: a pleased client and an improved business relationship.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on July 2, 2013 at 7:01 PM said...

@Emma: Thanks for sharing such a great example of professional ethics. You surely deserve the client's gratitude and how fantastic that your business relationship is now stronger than ever. We also appreciate this about our accountants and tax advisors: they always tell us if we've already had a discussion about XYZ (we tend to forget this stuff) and never charge us twice for the same advice, which is the right thing to do. And that's why we are loyal clients of these fantastic tax professionals.

Let's keep this conversation going -- great insight here from everyon!

Arline Lyons on July 3, 2013 at 3:22 AM said...

I had a similar experience to Sarah's just today - a good but occasional client had issued a provisional PO for a job that came in late and I had to scramble to get it done before going on holiday, including working on Saturday. After I came home, I realised the provisional PO was a bit too high and emailed them to let them know - they said they'd leave it high as a thank-you for helping them out despite the delay! So honestly and flexibility do pay, sometimes literally!

Liz Cencetti said...

It happened to me once, when a relatively new client sent a cheque then later sent another one. I informed them, and told them I would destroy the second cheque, which I did. It's just not worth messing around, and yes, honesty is the best policy.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on July 3, 2013 at 10:27 AM said...

@Arline: How interesting that this situation actually happens quite frequently! How wonderful that your effort and your honesty paid off. Excellent outcome indeed.

@Liz: Very well done. I could not agree more that honesty is indeed the best policy for sure. We are pretty certain that you've made yourself very popular with your client.

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