Late paying clients can be a serious problem for a small business with tight cash flow. This is a 2009 blog post from the archive that is one of our most popular ever, so I am reposting it here for newer MyCake users. It is a question we often get asked so lets look at this from a couple of different angles:
- At the start of a project – sit down and assess whether you think the client is likely to be a timely payer or not. If you’re uncertain ask around amongst others who’ve worked with them. If you feel that timely payment may be an issue then agree staged payments and make it clear that you need paying on one stage before moving on to the next. You might also want to make them aware of your legal right to charge late payment fees and the conditions under which these would be incurred. The simplest way to do this is to draw the client’s attention to it and confirm with them that your payment terms and theirs are aligned. This allows you to present it as ‘I want to make sure we avoid this so would like to clarify with you ….’. If you think they’ll try and wriggle or will query your right to make these charges make sure you have your fact right and quote the legal niceties if you need to!
- Whilst working with the client – the worst payers are often the larger organisations who have separate finance departments and very fixed processes. This means that your point of contact may not be keeping track of invoices as they go through the system and may not be aware of whether you’re being paid on time. One way to help your contact to help you is to make it very clear to them that timely payment matters to small firms and that you keep a careful watch on cash flow. Again this foregrounds any conversations you might have to have at a later date if they are tardy. You have the moral high ground here in that no large organisation (particularly in the arts) really wants to be seen to be anything other than supportive of the smaller suppliers it works with. On the flipside some large organisations just struggle to get invoices through their system in less than six weeks but at least they are consistent in paying at six weeks instead of four … if this is the case there’s probably not much you can do except invoice as soon as possible!
- Once you’ve issued an invoice – you can put a call in to the finance department a couple of weeks after issuing/before it comes due and ask them to confirm to you the payment date they have planned in their system. This is a polite way of checking that they are processing the invoice and particularly useful if the client doesn’t send out payment notices. We’ve come across examples where the client is sitting on the invoice and not sending it to be processed until several weeks after you’ve sent it … this process is one way to identify such issues. If the client is sitting on it they’re unlikely to admit it so better that you let them save face and pretend it was lost/delayed but still give yourself the chance to chase it before it becomes due.
Ok, clearly a bit trickier than prevention so let’s deal with this in terms of starting out playing nice and getting to the tough stage if needed.
- Are they aware that the invoice is overdue? – to start with you can ring your main contact and ask for their assistance in sorting the issue. You can give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are unaware of the issue. When you have this conversation make sure that you agree how they will get back to you with an answer and set a date by which they will respond (and if they don’t they should expect you to call again). This is about holding them accountable in the nicest politest but firmest way possible. You could also ask them who is responsible for invoice payment in the finance department and offer to speak to that person. Make it clear that you’re happy for them to chase the finance folks but equally you’d be happy to do the chasing yourself. You could also point out that if this can be resolved quickly you’re happy not to charge late payment fees. Much of the game at this stage is to be confident in your rights so that the client knows that you’re keeping the velvet glove on the iron fist! A little bit of polite giving of a guilt trip is ok!
- They are aware the invoice is overdue and it’s still not been paid – again stick to the asking them to help you approach for a while here. Sympathise with their frustration that the finance department is moving slowly but indicate that you are keen to avoid current projects being delayed or late fees being incurred. Give a deadline by which the invoice needs to be paid if late fees are to be avoided and indicate this to both your main client contact and the finance department. If the delays are due to part time finance folks or the need for a board members signature on a cheque then ask them when the key person will be in next and confirm that your cheque is on their desk. Put this date in your diary and either call on the day or call if the payment has not been made within a couple of days of the date given. By this point your job is to keep holding them to account. Agree a deadline and make sure you follow up on it. If you agree a deadline and it’s not met and you don’t chase the client will learn that you’re all bark and no bite. In MyCake you’ll find that once an invoice is overdue a new option pops up with three letters of increasing firmness which you are welcome to use or tailor to your own needs. You’ll also see that we automatically calculate the late payment interest you’re able to charge.
- Escalating the issue – this can work just as a threat … asking who you need to speak to get the issue resolved, asking for the name of the Finance Director or putting a call in to the Director/CEO. Re-issuing the invoice with a late payment fee added is another way to move up a gear (even if you later waive them). If you do this make it clear that these fees are growing daily and tell them by how much. GOV.UK has a useful tool to help calculate the amount of interest you can charge on the outstanding debt. If you can avoid involving lawyers then it will keep down the cost of recovering the debts owed but sometimes you need to demonstrate that you mean it. A letter from a lawyer demanding payment would probably cost you a few hundred pounds but sends a very clear message. At the same time you might also want to talk to folks at your local Citizens Advice Bureau or a trade association (for example the Institute of Directors offer a free legal advice line) so that you can work out what the steps are for things like small claims courts.
- Clients with cash flow problems of their own? If you genuinely think that they may be having cash flow problems then one approach is to ask them if staging payments would help them in their cash flow. An employee of a larger organisation than yours will hopefully feel guilty and embarrassed at such a suggestion.
Much of the above is about working out what your client will respond to quickest and with least embarrassment to both sides. If you can clearly lay out the ground rules before a project is started so much the better but of course life isn’t always that simple. Knowing your sources of legal help is a good way not just to get assistance when things get sticky but also for assistance in preparing good contracts in the first place. There are several legal firms who specialise in working in the Creative Industries. For more help with contracts, lawyers etc a good place to start is the ARTQUEST site.