If there is one lesson the recession taught even the most successful businesses, it's that their biggest threat is often not a lack of profit, it's a lack of cash flow. Slow-paying customers are frequently the culprit.
In the spring of 2012, businesses were paying bills an average of 7.6 days past due, a 14.1-percent increase from the same period a year earlier, according to a study released by Experian, a global information services company. Big companies—those with more than 1,000 employees—had the sharpest year-over-year increase in late-payment days, up nearly 28 percent.
What is a business owner awaiting payment to do? While no one solution works for everyone, there are proactive steps that cash-strapped business owners can take to keep cash flowing.
- Establish credit policies. Business owners sometimes forget that credit is a courtesy, not a requirement of doing business. Some hurt their own cause by not establishing clear credit policies and communicating them upfront to their customers. When you extend credit, you are, in effect, financing another party's business. To allow a slow-paying customer to abuse this courtesy can, in some cases, hurt a business worse than severing the relationship.
- Invoice promptly. Some businesses deliver their products and services without delay, but wait weeks to invoice their customers. This sends the message that cash isn't important. It's better to invoice immediately and send a clear message that prompt payment is expected.
- Get serious about collections. Many businesses, particularly smaller ones, are not aggressive about collecting past-due invoices. Many fear damaging their customer relationships, not recognizing that a poor collection system actually communicates that slow pay is acceptable. Business owners need a system that notifies them on Day One when an invoice is past due. That same day, the customer should receive a phone call, alerting them to their past-due status and asking when payment can be expected. Such actions put delinquent customers on notice that they are being monitored and that prompt payment is important.
- Consider alternate payment methods. Would you rather wait 60 days for a paper check to arrive, or receive payment immediately via a credit card? More businesses are opting for the latter approach. It's becoming increasingly common for companies whose employees visit customers’ homes or offices to use mobile technology to take electronic payment right at a customer's site. This approach not only streamlines the payment process, it reduces the number of bad checks that must be collected on later.
- Reduce your inventory. Businesses need working capital to grow. Every dollar you invest in inventory is a dollar less you have to spend on working capital. That's why, unless they can afford otherwise, successful businesses push to create an on-demand delivery system, reducing the amount of inventory they carry to a bare minimum.
- Use technology to your advantage. At some businesses, money is coming in; it’s just not coming in fast enough. A business can help itself by using technology to speed the collection process. By using lockbox services, for example, customer payments can be sent directly to your bank. That ensures funds are deposited on the same day they're received, instead of the two- or three-day lag you might otherwise experience.Businesses can gain access to their funds faster by depositing checks in the bank electronically from an office computer or mobile device using remote deposit. And if you haven’t automated your payments and receivables process, now is a good time to consider it. You'll be able to process payments more effectively by reducing manual processing of both payable and receivables. Ask your banker or accountant about solutions to automate.
- Delay disbursements. Are your vendors pushing for quicker payments, too? If so, you might satisfy their needs, while holding onto your cash longer, by using new accounts payable solutions. Some banks offer commercial card products that enable you to pay invoices with a credit card, so vendors receive funds promptly, but the funds don't leave your account for up to 30 days. Many of these programs also offer revenue-sharing programs, turning your accounts payable into a profit center.
The bottom line? While competition for customers is tough, watching a profitable, but cash-starved business fail is tougher. There's nothing wrong with asking to be paid for products or services you have delivered. Your success depends on it. iBi