The other day I received a call from a small business client regarding a two year old debt for $ 2,000 from one of their best customers. They had worked with this client, another small business, for nearly 20 years and had enjoyed a tremendous mutually beneficial relationship until the customer started paying their invoices later and later, and then stopped paying altogether.
Due to their longstanding relationship, our client agreed to give their customer some time. They sent the customer their standard invoice for two years, with no response. They did not want to call, because they did not want to “upset” them. After two years, an invoice came back from the post office and when the owner finally placed a call the number was out of service. The business was gone, and since there was no personal guarantee in place, chances of getting paid on the bill were gone too.
How do you tell the difference between a customer in a temporary cash crunch from one who is about to “go bad”, i.e, go out of business or bankrupt and leave you unpaid and unable to collect anything?
The most important factor is communication. The client in the example above told us that his customer had always been a slow-paying but had never gone more than 60 days past due, and had always placed new orders. However, the delinquencies went to 90, then 120, and more, and there were no new orders.
Sadly his longtime customer did not communicate the true extent of his financial difficulties, but also our client missed some red flags that should have triggered action on his part. Simply sending invoices is not enough. After a few months with no response, a collection letter or phone call might have made a difference. When the new orders stopped, it should have been cause for concern.
If a client stays in touch with you and keeps you posted on their progress, then it is a different story, and perhaps you can float them a while longer. However, consider the following:
• Get payment of a reduced amount. Keep customers in the good habit of paying you something.
• Offer a discount for payment of reduced amount. Make it a limited time offer and be sure to document.
• Watch and listen for signs that the company is in trouble. (No new orders, rumors of layoffs or other creditors they are not paying)
• Offer payment plans. Again, document.
• Consider hiring a collection agency. Find an agency that will work with you and have a softer debt collection approach for customers you would continue to do business with once their bills.
• Set a limit as to how much new credit, if any, that you will extend to a customer with an outstanding balance.
Know when it is time to terminate a relationship, as painful as that might be. Be compassionate and understanding with delinquent customers to a point, but remember to look out for your own interests first. Remember the line from one of my favorite movies, Cinderella Man. I’ll paraphrase, as the original is a little indelicate: Business man Jimmy Johnston, played by the wonderful Paul Giamatti is asked to “have a heart” and give a down-and-out a fighter a chance. Johnston replies, “My heart is for my family, my brain…is for my business”
So keep in touch with all customers, and keep them doing good things, and know when enough is enough.