As a part time CFO (Chief Financial Officer) for small/ medium businesses, I meet people who struggle with dealing with slow paying debtors. The extra time needed to chase up people who should have already paid, although both frustrating and inefficient, is a critical process for the overall success of a business, solopreneur or contractor.
Left alone, there is a high risk you will never be paid. Or, if you are, payment is spread over an extended time period, making it harder to pay your own debts, thrive financially and maintain low stress levels. Worse, it can leave you questioning the value of your offerings in the minds of others.
Lurking under this are issues around human behaviour and self-esteem. Not wanting to raise the issue with slow paying debtors can in itself create significant resistance in the mindset and behaviour of the person who is owed the money.
So, how do we 1) deal with our own internal feelings around debtor collection and 2) make our debtor management processes more robust?
FIRST MANAGE YOUR MINDSET – BEFORE YOU APPLY DEBTOR MANAGEMENT ACTIONS
We know that our unconscious minds are incredibly powerful and we also know it is easy to come off as glib, or uncompassionate, when making a simple list of aspects of the preferred mindset needed.
That said, the following statements need to be viewed as real truths by you about yourself, so you can navigate necessary conversations whilst holding appropriate boundaries.
Statements to acknowledge to yourself before dealing with your debtors:
- You are both competent and honourable in your role. You therefore deserve to be paid for agreed work/products. NB: Many people sell themselves short on this point, you are not alone!
- If the debtor cannot afford to pay you, that is not your fault. And although you may apply some compassion, any leniency should not be at the expense of your own ability to pay your bills. NB: Know your own financial situation and acceptable boundaries.
- You are owed money that you are already entitled to receive. You are simply asking for payment to occur, on terms that have been previously agreed by both parties. NB: see below re written terms and scope prior to work commencing.
- None of the conversations are a reflection of you as an individual, nor a reflection on the work or products you have supplied. It is far more likely to be a reflection on the debtor’s ability to manage their own situation. NB: Their issues do not need to become your issues.
- You have a sound level of self-esteem and believe that what you do is worthwhile. NB: Remind yourself of your training, experience, competence, and what sets you apart.
- If there is an issue with quality of your own delivery, you are capable of navigating that pathway in a manner which is both fair, sensible and transparent. NB: Apply your business values and negotiate from a place of high self-esteem; if you have done what was promised, there is no need for you to concede – unless conceding is in your own best interests.
If you feel doubts about any of the above statements, then those are likely to be key ones for you to focus on.
These points are relevant because time and time again I come across highly competent, really together professionals and business owners who come unstuck, because they ‘get in their own way’. From the outside looking in, their lack of self-confidence and genuine belief in the above statements appear to be the main factor. From my anecdotal observations over the past 28 years of helping all types of businesses, it seems to occur more often in women. Once alignment with the above statements is improved, the actions below are approached from a greater sense of self-empowerment.
If you apply high self-confidence and self-esteem then, while still being compassionate as you search for a win/win agreement for repayment timing (if it’s genuinely needed), you are able to operate mainly from a business focus. Staying flexible, whilst maintaining necessary boundaries, is important.
SOUND DEBTOR MANAGEMENT PROCESSES FOR SMALL BUSINESSES
My mum used to say that ‘prevention is better than cure’. That is, it is easier to have sound processes in place, up front, instead of having to fix a mess later. Simply put, good customer management prevents people becoming slow-paying debtors, or even worse, bad debtors. Which one of these factors might you apply with a higher level of focus than before?
Prevent slow-paying debtors with the following:
- Have sensible credit terms and other terms of trade, in writing, consistently applied, including your quotes, terms of trade, and any other important aspects of the situation. It is easier to refer to written evidence later, than have to rely on what you thought was agreed verbally. People’s genuine perceptions vary so widely otherwise.
Be precise about both the amounts/ timing to be invoiced and also the scope of services/ products. Avoid ‘scope creep’ by having conversations for amendments prior to work commencing or products being provided. This allows the customer to be fully informed and gives you the right to not do the extra work, unless it includes fair and reasonable terms.
- When do your debtors need to pay you? If your terms are clear, you can receive up front deposits, as well as progress payments. These are so you can self manage the amount of work you do, or delay, based on how much is owing.
- Do you have alternatives for how your debtors pay you- Is it appropriate for you to offer instalment payments to spread their commitment, either with or without interest and admin charges added? Should you offer credit card payments, or if you are a reasonably sized business, have direct debits? Offering alternatives can foster an easier sales process, because your customer’s decision to buy can be a separate step in their decision process to when they need to pay.
- Consider fee funder services or invoice financing, in conjunction with your accountant’s advice. The applicability of these as a sensible option is fact specific and can depend on your business size or industry type. Feesmart or feefunder are providers who service many, but not all industries. Invoice financing or factoring examples include FIFO capital, Interface Financial Group, Scottish Pacific.
Manage slow paying debtors with the following:
- Have a documented process for debtor management. Include the steps in your calendar each month for visual reminders. Remember you are totally entitled to ask for money owed to you.
- Have automated systems for debtor emails. Examples include XO cash flow, Debtor Daddy, and also Xero debtor management. These systems automate customised emails at predetermined times (before and after due date) which saves your time and focus.
- Work to your strengths. If you dislike debtor phone calls, get somebody else to do them. Allow yourself to focus on your core skills. Consider using organisations such as SmartAR, who do debtor management on behalf of businesses. Other businesses have an office person make calls / follow up. Either way, (even if it is yourself,) we suggest having a script for the calls. It should include instructions/authority as to what leeway (if any) is possible for delayed payments. Your standard terms should be applied as often as possible.
- Know your financial situation, before offering any leeway on timing, or amounts. For example, you may not be able to afford to offer credit, but unless it is paid on due date, every time. There is no point being a martyr, your business can die for lesser crimes.
- Having a simple, but effective current cash flow projection, which includes expected debtor receipts and also upcoming expenses, is critical awareness for the person driving the debtor collection as well as for yourself. This enables your debtor collection person to agree varying payment terms in exceptional circumstances.
- Part of your processes should include steps for passing your debtor over to formal debt collection proceedings.
If you feel any resistance to any of the above steps, take note of your self-esteem and confidence levels. As often as needed, re-read the mindset list above. Pay close attention if should you find yourself trying to avoid having a conversation around scope, timing and fee levels. Avoidance is the root of most debtor management issues. Focus on building your confidence so you remove any hesitation.
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