Collections 101: Getting paid

Yesterday was billing day at my company and it brought to mind the topic of collections, i.e., making sure you get paid.

I have been extremely fortunate during my 20 years in business regarding getting paid. I have failed to collect less than $2,000 of what was owed to me over that period, which is pretty darn good. Only three people have failed to pay their bills. One of those was involved in a terrible auto accident a few weeks after I completed my work for her. I never bothered to dun her for the few hundred dollars she owed me. I wrote it off as an act of charity since she was going to be out of work for months.

So how have I managed to do so well with my collections? Here are four things I do that I think have helped:

•  Always follow up immediately if a bill goes overdue. If a client doesn’t pay within 30 days, on day 31, I send an e-mail gently reminding them that the bill is past due and asking when I can expect payment. I know from talking with colleagues that many people do not do this. They wait and wait, hoping they won’t have to actually confront the client about the overdue bill. Or they fear they will offend a client by reminding them that they need to pay.

Do not be afraid to ask for your money and do it promptly. I have never had a client take offense, and I certainly have never lost a client because I gently but firmly asked to be paid. Doing so immediately when a bill becomes past due shows the client you mean business. In the vast majority of cases, you bill just got misplaced or overlooked and payment will quickly be  forthcoming. If you wait and wait and wait to send a reminder, you’re being your own worst enemy.

•  Be persistent. Okay, so the first dunning message doesn’t always work. And sometimes the second one, which I usually send a week later, doesn’t work either. If you’re  getting no response to your e-mails, it’s time to pick up the phone and call your client. Of course, you’ll be very nice, but you will also be firm. If they are having cash flow problems, perhaps you can work out at least a partial payment with the rest to come later.

I know that many people loathe to do this, but you work hard for your money and you deserve to be paid. Don’t be a shrinking violet; if you don’t master collections, you won’t stay in business. It’s that simple. Practice your message a few times before you call so you won’t be tongue-tied.

•  Befriend the accounts payable person. In companies that are large enough to have an accounting department, I like to get to know the person who processes my invoices. If payment is slow, reaching out to this person on a personal basis is often quite helpful. I remind them that I’m not the phone company; I’m just a one-person firm and I’ll have to close up shop if people don’t pay me. This strategy has worked wonders as more than one accounts payable person has empathized with me.

•  Look before you leap. Approximately 90% of my business comes through referrals from clients and colleagues. So usually I have a reason to believe that a new client is a legitimate business person who will pay his/her bills. But in cases where someone has found me through my Web site, the phone book, the Chamber of Commerce directory or a similar means and I don’t know them from Adam, I ask for a 20 or 25% deposit on the work. Their willingness and ability to write this check helps verify their legitimacy and means that even if they do turn out to be a deadbeat, I won’t be out the whole sum for the project I do for them. If it’s a big enough project, I also build in interim payments so I am not in danger of getting too far in the hole with this new client.

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