“What do you do when you send your client an invoice at the end of month one, and another at the end of month two, and a third at the end of month three, by which point he hasn’t paid any of them, and you haven’t enforced your terms and you have no idea how to do that?”
Received wisdom is that you charge interest. Don’t do that. If you can’t collect your bill, which you can’t so far, how on earth are you going to collect interest on top? Yes, there is legal provision for you to do that if you want to pursue your client through the UK small claims court on a point of principle and never work for them again, but who has time or energy for that? Stop it immediately.
Instead, this is teaching you the error of your ways.
You omitted a vital step when you took on this contract. You didn’t have a discussion with your client in which you explained your terms (28 days) or that you are a much smaller business than his. And you didn’t find out what the process is in his office for getting a bill paid. Does it go to him first for him to sign off? Then to accounts for processing? And only then to the MD who is the only one who can sign off on a payment run?
Dear God! Nightmare! All those people in the chain. So many places for it to go wrong and for them to lose your invoice. So many opportunities for them to dream up reasons why they haven’t paid you. I wonder if you knew you were going to have to wait for three months to be paid, would you have taken on the work at all? Or would you have charged more, or what? It would have been a different proposition, right? I do hope your answer to that is yes. If not, see me after school.
My client wanted to know should she simply put 7 days on her fourth invoice and hope that would speed them up.
Nope. Firstly, they don’t give a damn about your terms. They care about managing their own cash flow. Secondly, you didn’t have the conversation. Thirdly, you didn’t track your invoice through their organisation. You don’t yet know the name of the bird in accounts who you can befriend, who understands your predicament and that you are a solopreneur who is about to start struggling to feed her kids (lay it on with a trowel) and you feel their treatment negates the value of all your hard work. Feelings. Feelings. Feelings. All in the absence of a good conversation.
So, what have we learned from this?
You might escalate your terms from 28 days to 7 days for all future clients, yes. But only if you have that conversation with your client at the beginning of every new relationship/project, the one about what your terms are, what their process is, what are the names and TELEPHONE NUMBERS of all the relevant personnel in the chain so that you can track your invoice through their system and do your bit to make sure they understand your terms since you are a new supplier.
Accounts departments don’t notice or care about any of this. They pride themselves on hanging onto their own company’s money for as long as possible, i.e. maximising their own cash flow. That’s a win if you are an in-house accountant. Many businesses have been founded on precisely this practice and don’t force me to name them here but I can come up with hundreds of them. Frankly I think it is amoral but, of course, we do not have to do business with them, that’s entirely our choice.
OK, I realise you don’t feel you have a choice to begin with. But you do. And you only want to do business with people who respect your terms. And even then you STILL need the phone number of the person responsible for getting your bill paid and you want them to be an ally. And you want to phone them to find out if your bill has landed on their desk yet, and what’s the date of the next payment run in which yours will be included. And you make a note of all of this. Name. Number. Date. And if it doesn’t happen precisely like that, you phone again. You don’t email because they can ignore you and because it’s cowardly. You need have no shame because you’ve done your work. They either do not have a good system for paying suppliers regularly and on time or their cash flow is dodgy and, if so, the sooner you know that the better before you decide to do work in months two and three.
Help them to help themselves. That ally in the accounts department is essential, as are your notes about when she said she’d pay you. If she didn’t, she either forgot or her boss over-ruled her. So you need to call again and point it out (nicely-ish, coolly, assertively, unemotionally, certainly not either aggressively or defensively) and ask if she can confirm that you will be on the next run, and the date of that. A good relationship with Accounts will get you paid every time and prioritised over others who are too lazy or too nice to call and who choose instead to sit at home hoping.
Don’t sit at home hoping. Be all over your own cash flow like a rash. When it comes right down to it, this is why we are employing ourselves for money. For the money! OK, I know there are other reasons but if you don’t get paid too, the whole thing is loppy and disappointing and lots of other not so nice feelings which will spoil your whole enterprise. This absolutely does not need to turn into a battle, so there’s no need to take up that energy. It’s just business, all day long. It’s about helping each other, specifically helping them to pay you within 7 days.
Elsewhere in this book clients and readers have expressed that asking for money is icky. In this instance it most certainly is not, because you have met your part of the contract, they are letting you down and failing by not doing theirs. I can talk you through how to handle this phone call. No biggie. Just because you’d be uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of such a call doesn’t mean they are. It’s their job, and it happens to them all day every day in their office. But you very definitely want to get yourself up their queue and the only way they can stop you phoning for your money is by paying you. Don’t email, too passive. Phone!
But smoothing and easing the process to being paid all begins with that great conversation with your client within the business who is hiring you for money. You are not a monolith who can or will wait till kingdom come to get paid, your terms are 7 days and this is why. Can he make that work within his own system? If not, what’s the best he can do? Is that good enough for you? Yes, OK good, we are in. No, and we’d be better off taking our talents elsewhere, because this doesn’t meet our own needs.
I will tell you that I learned this from my days as an accountant. We used to issue clients with a bill at the end of the month or quarter or year, depending on the nature of our work for them. And wait, and wait, and wait to be paid. Grr. I hired a debt collector, a very nice woman called Jane who would come in one afternoon a week to phone clients and create a relationship with them and do what I have described above. Ask when they will pay. Note down the date. Phone to say thank you when it comes in, or to chivvy if it does not. Relationships, remember?
And, when I sold that business and started another, I selected businesses where this was all automated and mostly where nothing happens without FULL payment in advance. Which brings up another topic, stage payments if your contract is a big one or ongoing. But that’s another topic for another day. But you can already see where I’d be headed with that one too, can’t you? Always make it easy for your clients to pay.
If you are uncomfortable talking about money, asking for money, thinking about money or feel you have a broken relationship with money, there is work to be done. Don’t wait, although your employing yourself for money will cause you to change your mind about all of this in time, simply because it goes with the territory.
If you have not already, start to accelerate your financial education and I will help and support you in this. Start with the Rich Dad Poor Dad books by Robert Kiyosaki and see where it leads you from there. If you can find a local game of Cashflow 101 and play it once a month for a year, you will discover the extent to which you are uncomfortable with money stuff and you can play firstly at fixing that. Then you can do it for real.
Ask if you need support with this. Money isn’t icky to me and soon it won’t be to you either.