Cash was flowing comfortably at Blackfin Technology, a software development and consulting firm in Boise, Idaho, until right around the start of the second quarter of 2007, when management began noticing a lag in accounts receivable. "It was really strange," says Jefferson Jewell, Blackfin's 37-year-old co-founder and president. "All of a sudden a bunch of customers started saying things like, ‘I'm sorry, I didn't get that invoice. Could you resend it?'"
Turns out, it's not that strange. A "Discover Small Business Watch" survey, which in September found that economic confidence among small-business owners was at its lowest point in a year, also found that in businesses that extend credit, more than two-thirds had had customers delay payment in the previous three months. Late payments are a headache for any company, but for growing businesses, they can have a devastating domino effect: Unable to pay their own vendors, entrepreneurs wind up dipping into expensive credit cards to finance the lull. Cash flow grinds to a halt, and suddenly, just making payroll is a hurdle.
Luckily, Blackfin's management was more prepared to handle the crisis this time around, having learned a valuable lesson several years back when a major client stopped paying, forcing the partners to forgo three months' pay. "We learned from that point on to maintain a stronger cash position in the company," says Jewell. As soon as the company was flush again, the owners secured an operating line of credit—something they couldn't do while the payee was squeezing them and they really needed it. Perhaps most helpful, Jewell notes, were several administrative changes the company made, including sending payment reminders five days before bills were due and copying every invoice to a separate e-mail account to prove it arrived. Here are five more expert tips to help keep you paid in full:
- Get thee a process. If strapped customers think you're not paying attention to payment terms and dates, they'll delay because they know they can get away with it, says Michael Daszkal, managing partner of accounting services firm Daszkal Bolton. Having a formal, clear accounting process will show them you mean business. "Once you have that process, you have to have this culture of being tough with your customers in terms of collecting. And you have to enforce and stick to that."
- Make some noise. Too often, entrepreneurs shy away from making follow-up calls for fear of pestering their clients and turning them off. "But the people who do the least yelling get paid last," says Mark Brandt, a CPA and partner with Pinnacle Consulting Group, an accounting and consulting firm for small and midsize businesses.
- Get paid up front. Particularly if it's a new client, ask for a percentage in advance of product delivery; in a service business, work on retainer. "It's all intangible, so we're essentially like lawyers," says Jewell. "And lawyers know the system—you work on retainer." When extending credit to a new client, always do a credit check first.
- Find an advocate. Develop a friendly relationship with the person in charge of getting you the check, says Mary Cantando, author of The Woman's Advantage. "Stop by the accounts payable department and bring them a little gift so they get to know you. That could move your invoice to the top of the pile."
- Know when to walk away. In an annual review of your clients, look at margins for each customer and the time they take to pay, and include the cost to finance inventory while you wait for the check. Then decide which ones are truly worth keeping. "Sometimes you want the business so badly, you're willing to compromise your process to get it," says Daszkal. "But you have to have the discipline to walk away."
—By C.J. Prince, a writer specializing in business and finance
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