As we all know, a company’s receivables count for approximately 40-50% of their actual assets. With the economy in chaos we need to revise the rules of the game. Or at least start the game over and play by the rules! Face it friends, businesses are sinking, and if you wish to stay afloat, you must safeguard your “life jacket”. In this day, age, and market, our life jackets ARE our receivables.
Let’s talk about how this differs from previous years though. It USED to be that we needed to ensure that potential clients that we bring in and extend credit to were financially “healthy”. We would insist that we had credit applications, personal guarantee’s signed, received business credit analysis reports on ALL new clients BEFORE extending credit terms to them. We would set terms and conditions and didn’t look back UNTIL there was a red flag signal.
Today we still must ensure that we do all of this pre emptive research before we extend credit terms and conditions to possible new clients HOWEVER we also must make sure that our clients ( even long term customers) receive their daily financial checkups!
For instance, when a baby is first born, they are checked out thoroughly by the Doctor before they leave the hospital. Once they receive a clean bill of health, they are sent home to begin their new life with their family. Yet there are many checkups along the way. Several the first year and then as the child grows, although they are seen less, they still receive annual physicals.
We should treat our clients with the same care. In the beginning of a new relationship, after credit is extended, we should monitor their habits closely in the beginning but we should also ensure that we “check up” on our clients as the relationship matures. In my business, you constantly receive calls from clients that say, “They have been our clients for 15 years…they started getting behind I simply blamed the economy, I never would have thought they would buy from me in November and file Chapter 11 in December”. I have heard that constantly this month. So HOW can we ensure that our receivables are “healthy”?
First ensure that your Front Line work is Clear and Complete …
Have EVERY new potential client complete and sign credit applications. These credit applications should not only give you the necessary information to “check” their financial health but it should also outline your credit terms and conditions in detail. Add a clause that states if accounts are past due by 30/45 (your preference) days there will be an interest charge. Explain that the client will be held responsible for any and all legal or collection fees if the debt exceeds credit terms. Make sure that you secure your rights in the very beginning, because once terms are giving, it is hard to change them (or get an additional signature down the road).
Also, in the credit application process, ask identifying questions, such as how much product do you expect to purchase on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis? Do you expect your purchases to grow as time passes? Give them additional space to explain their answers. This allows you to also see what the client will expect of you along the way. It can also be used when determining credit terms. We will address this shortly.
Although it used to be extremely difficult to have new clients sign personal guarantees, most understand this request in our “rocky” economy. I have suggested to many clients to simply add the PG statement at the bottom of the credit application. This seems to work best then giving a separate form for the potential client to complete.
Of course having a client complete a credit application is only ¼ of the work. YOU MUST FOLLOW THROUGH! Make sure that every single reference is called. KNOW what questions to ask! Then take the extra steps. If you do not have access to credit business reports, you can still check online with the secretary of state in their licensing state to ensure they are active and check for any recent judgments or liens. Google them. Take those few extra steps to give your receivables “peace of mind”.
Now we need to work on slowly “training” our clients moving forward …
Once you establish their financial health…take things slow. Allow your client to earn your trust through a quarterly reviewed credit line. This will give them something to work toward and protect you along the way. You would be surprised how many of my clients simply extended new clients a full credit line of up to $100,000.00, the new client placed two orders, never paid and disappeared. In these cases, we implemented a new process. This may work for some, and not others, if you have particular challenges, call me and we can discuss at no cost!!!
The process they began (and has been working quite well) begins with the credit application process, where they asked those predictive purchasing questions. They utilized this information and offered 50% credit terms (based on average predicted order cost) for the first 6 months. This means the client would pay 50% upfront COD and were extended the remaining 50% on credit with either net 15 or net 30 terms. Additional orders are not accepted until the balance is paid in full for the first 6 months.
Then at the end of their 6 month term, there is a review. Were payments made on time? Were orders consistent? Were there any invalid dispute claims? Take all of this information into consideration before moving forward with a 75% credit line the second half of the year. And the process continues and is revisited upon their one year anniversary.
This process has worked well for many clients in not only safe guarding their receivables but earning the respect and trust of their clients. It also gives you time to “get to know” your clients. If they order 100 crates for 9 months and suddenly order 1000 crates…..that is a red flag. If the first six months they pay by net 30 and suddenly they are late the following two months, this may be a red flag. Taking the time to learn your clients’ habits is important because the slightest change, in this economy, could be trouble.
Last but certainly not least, just as a child needs structure and boundaries to mature and thrive, so do clients! When boundaries are set and then broken, there must be consequences.
Although there is the occasional exception to the rule (if client has a valid dispute, if they request payment arrangements ONCE and follow through, if there was an error on your part) but the occasional exception should not be the norm. If your clients know that at 35 days past due there will be a hold placed on their credit, at 55 days there will be a final demand notice offering them a “last payment option” to avoid collections, and as 65 days they will be sitting in the collectors office (so to speak) they will ensure that YOU are their priority! If your clients know what to expect (as you should outline in the beginning as a part of your credit application), then you will only earn their respect through the process.
If your clients see that you waiver many of your policies, they will utilize you as a second bank. This is not healthy for either of you. So you must have a WRITTEN Receivables POLICY in place and ensure that everyone involved with your company follows this structure. Keep in mind that your sales department should also be aware of these guidelines, and not make false promises or speak of your policy as if “anything really goes”. If everyone in your organization is united regarding receivables, it will only strengthen your company’s bottom line as a whole!
So the rules may not be changing, as much as we have to adapt to actually live by them. These are all basic Accounting 101 procedures, however for so long we have been complacent and so concerned about our clients that we have lost sight of our own bottom lines. We must restructure, reinvent, and reinforce our A/R process if we wish to survive and thrive in the years to come.
Recommended Readings on How to Manage Your Receivables:
- How to Manage Your Accounts Receivables in a Recession
- Making Sure You Get Paid
- How to Increase Cash Flow of Your Small Business
- How to Collect from Customers Who Don’t Pay
This article was written by Jennifer Stacey
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