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King Cash: SME Approaches for Supplier Cash Flow Management

By Frances Coppola

Never has cash flow management been so important as in today’s complex international business world. Extended supply chains and just-in-time delivery schedules depend on a smooth flow of payments from end-to-end. But for a small or midsize enterprise (SME), navigating the conflicting needs of different stakeholders can feel like sailing a stormy sea. Fortunately, there are many tools and products available that can help SMEs manage their cash flow effectively and inexpensively.

Meeting the Challenges of Cash Flow Management


The need for cash flow management stems from an inherent tension in most businesses—a tension that SMEs often feel more than larger enterprises:


  • Customers like to time payment for goods and services to suit their own cash flow schedule, and may be unwilling to make payment in advance. But giving generous credit terms to customers may be difficult when there are up-front supplier costs.
  • Suppliers, meanwhile, like to be paid on time, and may even offer discounts for early payment. But cash flow shortfalls can prevent businesses taking advantage of discounts, or even at times force a business to make payment late and risk damaging an important business relationship.

Also, of course, businesses have fixed costs such as staff payments, rent on premises, lease payments on fixed assets, and the inevitable taxes.


Smoothing out the cash flow peaks and troughs from that inherent tension can help businesses stay on an even keel, so many SMEs find it helpful to devise a cash flow management strategy. Online tools can help businesses track incoming and outgoing payments on a daily basis and keep control of business expenses. Cash flow management tools can even be integrated with accounting software and payroll, giving business managers a complete picture of the financial health of their business. For international businesses, FX trading software can help them limit business risks from exchange rate movements.


Even with today’s online tools, however, many SMEs suffer cash flow volatility, or experience persistent timing differences between receipts and expenses. For these businesses, working capital finance can be an essential ingredient in their cash flow management strategy.


Overdraft Facilities Can Help Cash Flow Management


One widely available form of “working capital” finance is a bank overdraft facility—a line of credit that is drawn upon automatically when the balance on the business’ transaction (“checking”) account dips below zero. The drawn balance on an overdraft facility fluctuates with the company’s cash flow. The bank charges interest on the drawn balance, and there may be an additional “arrangement fee.” Depending on the size of the overdraft facility, the bank may require security such as a floating charge over the company’s assets.1


Running a permanent drawn balance on an overdraft facility can prove expensive, especially when interest rates rise. For one-off large payments, a bank loan may be a less expensive cash flow management alternative. Sometimes, too, business downturns result in a permanently drawn overdraft balance. Many banks prefer companies to convert permanent overdraft balances to medium-term loans. These days, there are numerous alternatives to traditional bank loans and overdrafts, such as U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) loans,2 micro loans,4 and alternative finance such as peer-to-peer loans.4


Business Credit Cards Can Provide an Interest-Free Cash Flow Boost


For SMEs looking for a simple way to smooth out cash flow volatility, one of the most flexible forms of finance can be a business credit or charge card. A business credit card typically has an interest-free period, during which a company can pay a supplier without incurring interest charges, as would be the case with a bank overdraft. Some types of card allow the company to pay off the balance over a longer period, though this would incur an interest charge. Many business credit cards offer reward points or cash back schemes which can also help with cash flow management. Cards can also often be used to make payments in a different currency, though the exchange rate may be less favorable than if the business bought the currency itself, and some card providers charge commission. Cards typically have transaction fees and may have arrangement fees.


Invoice Factoring is Another Cash Flow Alternative


For SMEs that experience persistent cash flow strain, invoice discounting or factoring can be a good solution. Invoice factoring involves the business selling customer invoices to a third party. The SME receives funds earlier than it otherwise would, minus the third party’s fees, and customers pay the third party. In invoice discounting, the business borrows against the security of the invoices, rather than selling the invoices. Merchant finance is a form of invoice discounting that enables a business that accepts card payments to borrow against its expected future card receipts. These solutions can help SMEs to reduce or eliminate timing differences between customer receipts and expense payments. However, costs can be high, and factoring sometimes can disrupt customer relationships.



In today’s fast-moving, complex business world, an effective cash flow management strategy can be essential for a business’ bottom line. Using online tools to monitor cash movements on a daily basis, and incorporating a range of working capital finance alternatives to help manage cash flow variation, can help keep business costs low and relationships with customers and suppliers sweet.

Frances Coppola

The Author

Frances Coppola

With 17 years’ experience in the financial industry, Frances is a highly regarded writer and speaker on banking, finance and economics. She writes regularly for the Financial Times, Forbes and a range of financial industry publications. Her writing has featured in The Economist, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. She is a frequent commentator on TV, radio and online news media including the BBC and RT TV.


1. “Floating charge,” Investopedia;
2. “SBA Loans,” U.S. Small Business Association;
3. “13 top U.S. microlenders for your small business,” Marketwatch;
4. “The history of U.S. peer to peer lending,”