The check is not in the mail. And even though it should have been direct deposited weeks ago, it also isn't in your bank account. Now your cash flow is running amok.
It happens sometimes. In fact, it happens too often. Not every customer or client pays on time, or at least in a timely manner.
You've probably been given the advice to stop working with the aforementioned customer or client. Sometimes, that is a perfectly reasonable suggestion. But as you know, there are a lot of reasons why you might want to cut some customers some slack.
If you have certain customers or clients who contribute a lot to the ultimate health of your business's cash flow, ending your relationship may seem insane—even if they are dragging when it comes to paying you.
Or if you've had trouble paying your bills and have been given a lifeline in the past, you may be loathe to tell a client to never darken your doorstep again.
So, sure, maybe you should keep customers who struggle to pay you in a timely manner. But by all means, do what you can so that you can be paid faster. If you're looking for ideas, consider trying this four-step strategy.
1. Be upfront about the payment before you start working.
Or if that ship has sailed, have a talk with your customer or client about their problems paying you as soon as possible. Nail down a schedule so you can get paid, if not fast, then at least in a dependable and consistent manner.
This is a pretty basic move. But the idea of having a frank conversation with customers about payment might make some business owners a little squeamish.
Eddy Hood sympathizes with you, but encourages you to get over it.
We've moved to requesting payment by credit card or [through an online payment system]. This enables clients to pay immediately with no delays of waiting for checks to be cut and mailed out.
—Maggie Patterson, owner, Scoop Studios
"Stop being shy on the first date," Hood, the CEO of Ignite Spot, an outsourced accounting firm in Kaysville, Utah, says. “When a business acquires a new customer, they're often too shy to state payment terms up front. They don't want to scare the elusive customer away. Instead, they begin work and hope that all goes well."
But, again, you may not be able to afford to do that.
“Customers have cash flow issues, too," Hood says. “You need to be clear about when payments are due as well as delivery of the product or service. Without this agreement in place before the work starts, the customer has too many loopholes for avoiding timely payments."
Being upfront and discussing the payment before you do the work won't guarantee you'll get paid promptly. But it can help improve your odds. At least the expectation of when you'll be paid will be fully understood by both parties.
2. Examine how payments are collected and how that could affect your cash flow.
“We're not in 2010 anymore. It's time to stop sending paper invoices by mail," Hood says. “Many of today's accounting platforms allow you to invoice your customer with payment links right in the email. You'll speed up the payment cycle by several days since the customer won't have to wait for the mail, process the transaction, print and stuff a check into an envelope, and then mail it back."
Even if that isn't the issue, maybe there's some other reason you're getting paid late, beyond cash-flow problems. Maybe you never complain when you're paid late. A customer might assume that your feathers aren't getting ruffled, and that it won't be a big deal if they keep paying a little later... and later.... and later.
The point is you can't know something is amiss in how you collect payments if you don't examine what you're doing.
3. Get to know your client's accountant.
“There's a person at the other end of the transaction, and it's usually not your customer," Hood points out. "It's his or her accountant."
Consider doing what you can to get to know your customer's accountant, he suggests. That may not always be feasible, but if you can talk to him or her over the phone or trade a few emails, you may end up learning how the accountant likes things done. And that could have a positive effect on your cash flow.
“Get on their good side," Hood suggests. “They will be more attentive to your requests and process your payments much faster. Accountants are fickle creatures. If you get on their bad side, they have absolutely no incentive to speed things up for you."
4. Communicate with your clients and customers.
If some clients are consistently late in paying you for services your company has provided, ask if they have any suggestions on ways to speed up your payment.
You won't know what the reasons for slow payments are if you don't have this discussion. By talking about it, you may discover that your client is perfectly willing to pay you by direct deposit or by credit card. Maybe you'll discuss a retainer or being paid upfront.
Whatever the holdup, if you can offer multiple ways for customers or clients to efficiently pay you, everyone will be better off.
For instance, Maggie Patterson owns Scoop Studios, a content marketing agency in Ottawa, Ontario.
"After years of the check is in the mail drama with clients, we've moved to requesting payment by credit card or [through an online payment system]," she says. "This enables clients to pay immediately with no delays of waiting for checks to be cut and mailed out. While there are fees involved, those processing fees are worth every penny to us to ensure we can be paid sooner."
It's sad that the work world can be this way, of course. Nobody should have to wait to be paid for services already rendered and see their cash flow suffer for it. But because that is the case, you can try and make it so easy for customers and clients to pay you that they almost have no excuse but to pay you quickly.
Read more articles on accounts receivable and payable.
Photo: Getty Images