Ask most small business owners which task they dislike most, and it’s a good bet that you’ll find chasing money right up there.
While there are Angel clients who happily cough up as soon as your invoice arrives, sadly the reality can be very different.
In depressing statistics I’m sure we’ve all seen, the Federation of Small Businesses found that 1 in 3 invoices are paid late and owners spend more than a day a month on credit control.
If you’re looking for tips to boost your productivity, there’s a whole lot of time that could be better spent right there.
With many late payers citing their own debtor woes as having had a knock-on effect on their ability to make timely payments, it’s a vicious cycle with effects that go beyond cashflow to affect the productivity – and even the personal health – of entrepreneurs.
And it’s just awkward – whichever end of the conversation you’re on.
So here are 8 tips to get your cashflow to flow, without the conflict. And 1 for when you need to kick some ass.
1. Invoice Quickly – Get Paid Quickly.
In 2013, with UK businesses waiting an average of 21 days for payment, FreeAgent looked at a large sample of their client’s invoicing to see which were getting paid faster and why.
What did they find?
Invoices sent within a week of completion of the job get paid within 5 days on average, even when they include a longer payment term.
So send your invoice as soon as you can – and within 7 days at the most – while the value you’ve provided is still top of mind.
2. The Magical Payment Term.
Attitudes to payment terms have changed – gone is the time when people expected 30 days.
Ignoring big corporations who subject small businesses to ridiculous payment processes (45 day turnaround? After sign off? You know who you are, supply chain bullies), it’s now common practice to ask for payment within 15 days or less.
And be specific.
This research by Freshbooks took the time taken to pay and percentage of invoices settled, and pitted them against the invoicing terms used.
They found that “upon receipt” is interpreted more flexibly than using an exact timeframe.
So what was the best result – the Magic Formula? It was “21 days”, with “15 days” running a close second.
3. It’s the Little Things…
Just being polite increases your chance of being paid by 5%, according to a study from due.com.
Include wording on your invoices like “We appreciate your Valued Business”, or “Thank you in advance for your timely payment”.
4. Agree Your Terms Upfront.
Make sure you’ve outlined your terms upfront – draw up and use T&Cs and contracts, and emphasise those terms on your invoices.
On longer projects, try staging payments and invoicing incrementally.
For example, you could charge a percentage upfront with further monies due at important milestones and the balance on completion.
And with new clients (or repeat late payers), you could pre-empt issues or excuses by attaching relevant supporting documents, referring to contract dates in your invoice wording and CC-ing your internal contact on your correspondence*.
* A note. Don’t CC too many people. The study from due.com found that more than 4 recipients means you’re 2x less likely to get paid on time…
5. Streamline your Invoicing Process.
If you’re even remotely tech and finance savvy, using a Cloud Accounting package will save you loads of time, and make you look more professional.
Automated reminder emails, recurring invoice functions and Apps for billing on the go – not to mention bank feeds, automatic transaction recognition, collaboration with your Accountant – all are features which combine to make the life of small business owners so much easier.
There are lots of excellent free or low-cost options available, from Xero, Sage and Quickbooks to FOC choices like Wave or Freshbooks.
And automating reminders allows you to…
6. Distance Yourself.
If (like me) chasing money makes you cringe, then a polite, automated email nicely separates you from your credit control efforts.
Basically, hide behind a faceless internet robot. Win.
Also, there is a saying that “polite persistence pays”, and automated reminders are the simplest way to put this into practice.
Just let the software get on with it – then you only need involve yourself if you have to and can keep your client relationships free of money-talk awkwardness.
7. Keep on Top
Don’t wait until an invoice is overdue to start chasing.
You can set your automation up to send reminders regularly from the due date onwards, saving you loads of time and effort and keeping your payment top of mind.
So you are bugging them – just in a nice, inoffensive way.
One tip I’ve always found really effective is to send a friendly email 2 days before the due date to confirm “the invoice has been received and is in the system for payment on time.”
Also, if you repeat your payment advice in your covering emails, you give clients everything to hand to settle the invoice easily.
8. Maybe there’s a genuine problem
If a client opens up to you about their problems, it’s better to take a helpful stance as far as you can.
You could suggest instalments, or an extended payment terms – after all, better something than nothing and this way you’ve got a better chance of getting paid than if you let it drift and get acrimonious.
If they’re genuine, and trying to do right in a bad situation, they’ll remember the ones who helped when it was needed. Lots of people in that position bounce back. It might be a bridge you don’t want to burn.
And if they’re taking the ****? Hello Plan B.
Plan B. Because there’s always one…
They’ve ignored the nice, persistent emails from your internet robot – and then they’ve ignored the increasingly passive aggressive ones from you.
Introducing Plan B – otherwise known as ass-kicking time.
It’s amazing how many of this type magically cough up when presented with legal letters.
Here are 4 great – and effective – templates from mycreditcontrollers.co.uk, from the first request for payment through adding interest to your debt (with handy calculator) to the final demand letter.
And if all else fails and you can prove the debt? It’s time to look at roping in an ethical, professional debt collection agency.