If we don’t get paid, we go out of business. So with more debtors delaying payment in these tough times, taking action to collect money should be a top priority for small companies.
Few small businesses can afford to turn customers away, but being timid about stretched credit terms puts your own company in danger. If you’re not being paid on time it’s harder to find money to settle your own outstanding debts.
You didn’t start your business to provide a free credit service to suppliers. But how can you collect money owed, and at the same time, avoid bad feelings developing from previously reliable customers who are falling behind? Try these simple in-house strategies:
1. Review payment terms
Re-assess your payment terms for the current market conditions. It could be time to offer additional payment options, such as PayPal, debit card, or to accept additional credit cards (with an appropriate added fee). Consider putting new clients on tighter payment terms on a trial basis with a review to follow, include a small discount for on-time payment if you can afford it.
2. Avoid firm tactics with regular customers
Your regular, normally reliable, clients deserve different treatment in debt recovery. Perhaps they came on board years ago with a handshake and now seem like ‘family’? Try co-operation and communication, rather than a heavy hand. A phone call from the director will strengthen relationships between valued but dawdling customers and is a chance to personally explain the impact of late payments on your own cycle and survival. Be ready with options for part-payment or a suitable suspension of supply. Be concerned, but stay firm enough to get the account settled.
3. Credit-check all new clients
It’s worth the fee to do a background check on new clients, despite the temptation to automatically take on anyone new when business is slow. The cost of your staff’s time chasing money and the potential price of debt collection later is not worth the risk. Besides, a reference check should be accepted as ‘company policy’ by new customers.
4. Focus recovery ‘power’ in the right hands
Avoid the trap of turning your sales people or service staff into debt collectors. Mixing messages about employee roles will do more harm than good in the long term. Give the job of bad debt follow-up to one person, along with a set of clear guidelines for action and your full support.
5. Set terms at the sale
The best time to get the message through about payment terms is when you close the sale. Outlining credit expectations early sets the right tone and foundations for later accounts follow-up if necessary. Make it a prominent part of the contract when customers place orders.
6. Empower your invoice
Instead of a monthly run, consider sending invoices as soon as a service has been carried out or when a product is supplied. Print the actual due date on the invoice, rather than a “within 30 days” instruction. These simple changes will speed payment, improve cash flow and identify problem accounts sooner.
7. Calculate average debt age
You run regular reports to check debt ‘age’, but how do you use the results? To measure average payments against your target terms, divide your debtors by annual sales on credit (not cash sales) and multiply by 365. This shows how efficiently you are managing debts overall, compared with your goal, of say a 30- day payment cycle. A result of ‘55’ for example, will show you are averaging 25 days over your target.
8. Set a collection policy
The chance of recovering payment reduces the older a debt becomes. Establish firm rules for follow-up, such as: a phone call at 7 days overdue; a letter at 14; another call at 21 days; stop supply at 30; write a letter to your collection agency at 60 days. In line with this schedule, set suitable options at certain stages, depending on your relationship with the customer, like part-payment, an instalment plan and whether further purchases are allowed (and their value) if accounts remain overdue.
9. Collect information
Securing thorough information about a new account avoids obstacles to debt recovery. Collect as many telephone numbers and alternative contact names as you can and ensure all forms are signed. If possible, visit the customer’s premises. A personal visit gives a valuable impression of their circumstances that a phone call can’t reveal.
10. Be fearless and survive
Remember, uncollected income is just the most obvious impact on your cash flow. Prevention measures will save you the hidden wasted costs of time spent chasing payment. Don’t hesitate to ask firmly for due payment because you fear losing customers. Non-paying clients are not worth having.