What's the best way to deal with non-paying or late-paying clients?
I've recently had to deal with clients who pay extremely late or simply avoid paying us entirely. I'd like to try to avoid lawsuits, and I'd also like to maintain as positive a relationship as possible with my clients. What can I do to prevent late payments, and how can I deal with non-paying clients (before I resort to suing them)? What has worked for you, and what do you recommend?
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I'm going to assume you've already set up payment parameters. I like the suggestions of payment upon receipt with a service fee for 1-15 days and a larger fee for anything after. At this point, you are probably at the point of pulling your hair out with either chronically late payers, businesses with cash flow problems, or someone (call me cynical) taking advantage of you.
For these already in motion, consider making sure you have excellent merchant services rates (make sure you have the right designation and that you are on a low interchange plus pricing model) and offer to let them pay with a credit card to catch up. Most companies will take you up on it.
If they truly are having issues, then write a simple contract (I can send you a sample) that asks for X payments of $ for Y months to fulfill their obligation. Have a merchant services portal that can handle setting up monthly payments. (Some are better than others.) Make sure they sign an agreement to pay so they can't come back on you. Include the invoice when charging. It's worth the % to get them to pay up. It may cost you over 3% if they use a high-end rewards card or an AMEX. But you are paid. It's a small hit to take to save a relationship and have the money in hand.
Though in 11 states, you can't charge a fee for using a credit card. You can charge a "convenience fee." If these are repeat B2B clients, you may want to think about ACH (payment via checking accounts). Again, have them sign a payment contract.
In the future, always get a cc on file and have them sign an agreement that any accounts with balances older than X, will be charged to the account. They may try to do a charge-back if they forget they signed it. So have the contract and the invoice handy for your processor. This is generally only going to be an issue if they are trying to get out of paying and never intended to pay in the first place.
All else fails, depending on the amount, small claims court may be necessary. I understand you want to maintain a positive relationship and it's important to verbalize that. However, seem entirely uninterested in maintaining that relationship. Cut off all future shipments until payment is made. Remember, losing an account that is costing you money is actually making you money in the end.
Know when you have to "fire" a client. I have a current client who's average days to pay invoices runs 63 days. Over 90% of my income from this client was payed after the due date, and mostly because I spent additional time with calls and letters and suspending future work until those invoices were paid.
Cutting ties and terminating an ongoing contract with a habitual late-payer is the best way to get their attention and start the conversation when normal methods seem to fall on deaf ears or are met with excuses. Once the conversation is started, explain why late payments affect your business and your productivity. For my business, 75% of my expenses are payroll. "Dear Client, I have an obligation to pay my employees weekly. When I have to wait for invoices to be paid for 6-8 weeks, I'm still providing my employees a paycheck for the time they've spent on your project. If my expenses for the month are $20,000, and $15,000 of that is payroll, you can understand how your unpaid bill of $2,000 can really strain my business when it doesn't arrive for over 60 days, can't you?"
What I have found is that slow-paying clients are slow, not because they can't make the payment, but because this behavior is tolerated! Just like parenting a child, if they can get away with bad behavior, then they will continue to behave badly. Providing them alternate methods of payment is a bandage. DEMANDING timely payment is the cure!
This is an unfortunately "problem" for business. I have had two clients that have "stiffed" me - both when I was new and just figuring out how business worked. I had to change all of my project agreements and the way I approach business, but since then I have never had any issues (some lag, but never a problem that got out of hand).
Here are some tips I've learned.
1. Every client must pay a deposit up front for services. The amount is for you to determine. I sell services, so I have them pay X times the hourly rate up front, and then I bill them weekly. If you are selling a product to them, you should expect payment up front first for a set amount of months or purchases - they need to prove that they are worthy, and then you can approve a line of credit later on.
2. Every agreement/contract you have with a client has a section that explains, thoroughly, your late fee rates/policy.
3. Use invoicing that automatically sets up payment reminders so that you are automatically reminding your clients that it's time to pay.
Some things that have worked for me:
To avoid this in the future, get payment (or partial payment) in advance.
Only do the amount of work that has been paid for, up front.
Make payments due periodically throughout the service, and do not start the next phase of the delivery until the client is paid-up.
If this is not possible, avoid completing the work until the client is up to date in their payment.
Make sure you create a payment structure that you are comfortable with. This means that if a client ends-up to be a non-paying client, you have only lost 1 payment installment. Make sure that size of that payment installment is something you can handle losing.
To prevent payment defaults, steps must be taken BEFORE extending credit by setting up a considerable number of credit controls. Here are some suggestions:
• Offer third party financing.
• Use a credit scoring company.
• Tighter payment terms.
• Require personal guarantees.
• File a lien to establish a security interest in the goods sold.
• Obtain credit insurance.
• Require an annual credit reexamination.
Once late payments start, a well-trained collection staff should begin talking to customers. Collection techniques such as dunning letters that progress from polite reminders to more strident demands for payment, on-site visits, attorney letters, payment commitment letters, and credit holds must be implemented. If you cannot afford to have someone on staff do this, look into a collection agency. Keep in mind; payments 60-90 days beyond terms are rarely collectible and most companies write then off.
To repeat, the best way to prevent late payments is to have good credit controls in place BEFORE extending credit. Learn more about have to manage accounts receivable by taking a course on the subject.
This is one of the tough situations in business to maintain a positive relation with a customer/client but also receive payment for services provided. For late paying clients I have found that a late payment penalty is a good motivator. Another thing to check with the client and see if they have specific cut off dates for their payment cycles - you may be falling into period where you roll into the next payment cycle. One thing that has helped is to have clients on electronic billing and payment transfer. They tend to pay quicker.
You can also address up front with the client and assign payments to milestones in the project - if you are providing consulting services. A payment is required at each milestone gate and then you proceed to the next phase after payment is received. This helps motivate the client so that they get their end product.
Another way to approach the client is to ask them if there is an issue with the invoice - I would work with the person who is your direct contact in the company. If they do not assist then make contact with the person in charge of finance and as a last resort contact the president of the company. The key here is to allow each person you contact time to investigate and assist you.
Best of luck with your clients paying you. Make sure that you have terms and conditions for payment and ensure that they agree to those terms. You do not want to assume they will pay you in 15 days when they have a 30 or 45 day billing cycle.
1. Have rigorous credit approval process for every new client. No exceptions. If they refuse to complete your credit process, they will probably be a problem in the future.
2. Always use signed service agreements that deal payment terms, interest, penalties, etc.
3. Invoice frequently, on time and accurately.
4. Use statements to summarize outstanding accounts. Clients make administrative oversights and sometimes miss an invoice. The older the problem is, the bigger the problem is.
5. Send overdue notices as soon as invoices are overdue.
6. Pick up the phone and call people. Call accounts payable. The person who you deal with in a department might be known for losing invoices on their desk.
7. Always include copies of invoices, in every email follow-up. Most people pay late because they are disorganized. Did I mention to pick up the phone. Ask for specific promises.
Collecting from someone who has no intention of paying is all about documentation for some claims court. Everything else is about making it administratively easy for disorganized and irresponsible people to get it taken care of.
Business Leadership Corp.
Set up a merchant account or Paypal account, so that they pay when the service is performed.
If you must invoice, then specify your terms in writing. If it is "net 30" then if they haven't paid by day 31, give them a reminder call. "We didn't receive your payment. When can I expect that? Can I get a credit card number to handle that?" The one who asks gets paid. The longer you let it go, the harder it is to get paid.
If they don't pay, have a sequence a steps to take.
- Have somebody else besides yourself call.
- Send a letter.
- Send an attorney letter.
- For an ongoing customer, say, "We will be glad to continue our work for you when we receive a payment."
- Take them to small claims court. Getting a summons to court shakes many old payments loose.
"Maintaining a positive relationship" with somebody who is purposefully withholding money they owe you should not deter you from taking forceful steps.
On the other hand, if they don't have any money, or you can see you're not likely to get paid, and it's not a huge sum, then let it go. Don't make your life about this issue.
But don't do business with them again.