Like in any business, you are going to encounter clients who don’t want to pay adequately for services rendered. Many music teachers have an informal relationship with their students and are technically independent contractors to boot. So, it’s easy for students (or schools) to take advantage. Here is how to safeguard against this:
Prevention is easier than Arbitration
I’ve had a variety of delinquents: there was a school that would routinely pay me for fewer lessons than I taught in a pay period, a student who wouldn’t want to pay for a last-minute cancellation (as detailed in our agreement), and a school that just up and gave my paycheck to a different teacher of the same instrument. All processes are solved in a similar way, but it it’s always easier to do everything in your power to prevent clients from pilfering your time and work than it is getting what you’re owed after the fact.
To prevent a student of your own from reneging on payment from lessons successfully taught, the first (preventative) step is to demand payment upfront. The second preventative step is to draft up a contract with the details of your arrangement: the cost per and length of lessons taught and your cancellation policy. This policy needs to cover two things: 1) whether you will or will not offer refunds or an opportunity to reschedule cancelled lessons, and 2) how much notice you need from your students to give them a refund or rescheduled appointment.
Students are far less likely to refuse to pay for lessons taught than they are to expect leeway to abuse your cancellation policy
Whether you’re trying to prevent delinquency or prove it to get your money back, you need to keep track of your students’ schedules: when they were supposed to come, when they did (or didn’t) come, what their excuse was when they didn’t come, and most importantly, if and when they called or emailed to cancel their missed lesson. Then run all this data against either the cancellation policy you have directly with the students or that the business owner and/or school department head has with the students.
Whatever the dynamic at play, you need to keep track of this information to use as circumstantial evidence. Most of the time, this will result in ironclad proof – as mentioned above, it’s more often that students simply abuse a cancellation policy than it is for them to simply refuse to pay for lessons they’ve received. In that situation, you just need to prove if and when they contacted you to cancel. Emails and phone calls are always timestamped in today’s modern world, so proving a late or complete lack of notice is not an issue. If you take notes on your students’ progress, make sure to include evidence of these instances (especially for repeat offenders).
Even in a “you said/they said” situation with zero concrete evidence, specific dates and times of correspondence work far, far better than nothing when you have a client who doesn’t want to pay up. Unsubstantiated circumstantial evidence with specifics is always better than a flimsy lie on the other end. Plus, if you’re in the right, any rebuttal they could have will not be able to hold up in an argument, much less court. Your meticulous bookkeeping is your greatest asset.
Small claims court is kind of a nuclear option. You need to do it if you’re owed a significant amount of money, but you might not want to do it unless you’re ready to burn that professional bridge. But, that said, do you want to maintain a relationship with someone who wants to chronically under-pay you? Whether you’re able to retrieve the money you’re owed or not, it’s better in the long-term to cut ties with with someone who wants to take advantage of you, even if it’s a short-term financial loss. If you can’t afford to lose that revenue stream, then you need to look into replacing it as soon as humanly possible and prepare for that leap of faith.
Hopefully you never encounter this behavior, but the odds are that you will. On the bright side, these tips should help in a pinch. Good luck!