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How to Get Customers to Pay Up

It's a tough discipline, especially in a recession,
but bill collection can make or break a business — and in some cases,
it can bring others down with it. After defaulting on $275 million in loans,
Idaho's Tamarack Resort filed for bankruptcy protection in February
and shut its doors March 4, href="http://www.idahostatesman.com/273/story/512376.html">leaving behind $22
million in unpaid bills from
suppliers and contractors, many of whom had to lay off employees. href="http://www.freep.com/article/20090210/BUSINESS01/902100395/1014/rss13">And a French auto-parts maker recently sued Auburn Hills,
Mich.-based Chrysler, claiming the car manufacturer owes $110 million for
engineering and research costs.

To successfully collect payments on time,
companies need a plan in place that includes more than just the threat of a
bill collector calling six times per day. Here are three key steps to get
clients to pay up in a down economy.

Use a Carrot and Stick


Goal: Encourage customers to pay on time by creating a
reward-and-punishment billing system.


First, the carrot. Offer a discount if a client pays the
debt early. The most common early payment discount is called the ‘2/10 net 30 rule’: Customers receive a 2 percent discount
on a bill that is due in 30 days if they pay by the 10th day.

By offering a discount, “businesses
can make huge returns in this economy,” that they otherwise wouldn’t
get, says Jim Ullery, president of
the Center for Organizational Energy and a management consultant who specializes in bill collection. Those returns
come from clients who are eager for any opportunity to save
money. J.P. Morgan, which operates an
electronic payment service for firms and their suppliers, recently
reported that the href="http://www.jpmorgan.com/cm/ContentServer?c=TS_Content&pagename=jpmorgan%2Fts%2FTS_Content%2FGeneral&cid=1159364213695">economic crisis has spurred more companies to take advantage
of early payment discounts. In 2008, one of J.P. Morgan’s
Fortune 500 clients in the telecommunications industry netted savings of $30
million in early payment discounts. A pharmaceutical customer captured more
than $4 million in discount savings.

Now the stick. If customers face a mountain of unpaid
bills and invoices, they need a good reason to pay your company first.
Customers are more likely to cough up the cash if they know they will legally
owe more money down the line. Here are a few ways to encourage payment:

  • Start charging accrued interest on the day the bill is late.

  • Include a clause in the service agreement or contract that says
    the client is responsible for all fees associated with bill collection.
  • Require the business owner or principal to sign a personal
    guarantee.

Banks have a long-established practice of asking for collateral,
such as equipment or property, when extending business loans. Companies should
be no different, Ullery says. The reality is that “people pay banks
and lenders who are going to repossess something first,” Ullery says.
In this economic climate, a handshake won’t cut it; the only personal
guarantee is one signed on the dotted line — with collateral
attached.


What Not to Do

Surprise Customers

No one wants angry phone calls from customers slapped with
unexpected late penalties. Clearly spell out every detail of the billing change
in a letter, and include it with invoices: Does the 10-day period for the early
discount start on the date of the invoice, or the day the customer receives it?
What is the interest rate charged on late payments? Make new customers aware of
the policy in a signed service agreement. Be transparent and explain why you
are making the changes. Chances are, your customers are feeling the same pinch,
and they’ll understand.



Strike the Right Tone


Goal: Express the gravity of the situation —
without alienating the customer.


If the past-due date for a bill has come and gone, immediately
send the first collection letter. “The day the payment isn’t
there on time, establish an iron fist and a velvet glove,” Ullery
says. He suggests a letter that is conversational, courteous, and specific —
not full of legal jargon or generic statements. The tone of the letter is
critical. Let the client know that it’s about more than just money —
the business relationship is also at stake, Ullery says. And don’t be
subtle, either. The letter must not leave any room for interpretation. Strike
the line that says: “If your check has already been sent, ignore this
letter.” That’s a wishy-washy sentence, and it’s
also an out for the customer who may say that the check is in the mail, even if
it’s not. One final tip: Toss the standard white envelopes that will
get lost in a stack of mail. Instead, send collection letters in an oversized
priority envelope that screams, “Important!”

For Example

Watch Your Words

Here’s an adapted excerpt from one of Ullery’s
collection letters that is polite and conversational, yet firm in its tone:

“In a few days, decisions must be made on accounts
that are seriously past due. Your goodwill has always been important to
us; that is why we are reluctant now to take any action that might jeopardize
your credit standing and cause you added expense. Our contract stipulates that
you will be responsible for collection and legal fees.

We have contacted you numerous times without response, and
now we must consider the possibility of placing your account with our
collection agents or a law firm. Still, I am hopeful that you will act promptly
and forward us your payment in full, immediately. That is why I am going to
suspend further action until (date)

It is important, however, that I hear from you by then.
Otherwise, a decision must be made that I am sure neither of us wants.”

Negotiate New Payment Terms


Goal: Work with your customers directly —
and turn to collection agencies as a last resort.


The knee-jerk reaction to an unresponsive debtor is to turn the
bill over to a collection agency, sell off the debt, or write it off. But
first, call the debtor and offer to set up a payment plan, says Mike McDerment,
CEO and founder of FreshBooks, an online invoicing service. “Negotiate
some of the terms to be more flexible,” he recommends.

Open the conversation by asking why the customer hasn’t
paid the bill. These are extraordinary economic times, and a customer who paid
bills promptly in the past may be faced with unprecedented business challenges.
“Understand the situation they are in today,” says
McDerment. “Stay in tune with your customers. If you can work with
someone through their tough times,” he says, then that business
relationship will last past the economic downturn.

Another option is a debt settlement. With the financial climate
making it increasingly difficult to fully collect on a bad debt, more firms are
offering to forgive a portion of the debt rather than send it to a collection
agency or write it off. href="http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/03/business/03collect.html">Major credit
card companies like Bank of America have quietly started offering debt
settlements to some customers. Even though settling a debt means taking a
loss, it will be faster than going through a collection
agency or litigation. Also, clients who didn’t respond to other
options may jump at the chance to settle.

If no other solution works, resort to a collection agency or
litigation.
“The longer you wait, the less likely you are to get the
money,” says Ullery, who recommends waiting no longer than three
months before sending a past-due account to collections. But beware: Sometimes
collection agencies can go too far to collect a debt. The href="http://www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/pressroom/2009_01/20090122.html">Illinois
attorney general filed a lawsuit in January against a collection agency that
made false threats, including telling debtors that the state’s
child welfare agency would take away their children if they didn’t
pay up. That’s an extreme case, but it underscores the importance of
knowing what kind of agency you’re dealing with. Familiarize yourself
with the Federal Trade Commission’s href="http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/credit/cre27.pdf">Fair Debt
Collection Practices Act to make sure the collection agency is doing things
by the book.

Nitty Gritty

Avoid Difficult Customers from the Start

Clients who already have plunked down a chunk of cash are
more likely to finish paying their bills than those who haven’t paid
anything, so try to weed out the non-payers before they jeopardize your bottom
line. Consider requiring new clients to make a down payment of at least 25
percent — ditto for a long-time customer who is in obvious financial
trouble. “Businesses want the next order so desperately that they
become more vulnerable to being taken advantage of by deadbeats,”
especially in a recession, says Susan Schreter, managing editor of href="file:///C:Documents%20and%20SettingslakelylLocal%20SettingsTemporary%20Internet%20FilesContent.OutlookYDH6DK9Q akecommand.org">takecommand.org and a
professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Washington’s
Foster School of Business. Even if requiring a down payment drives off a few
potential customers, it’s worth the saved collection headaches.