When a customer stalls over paying its bills, how does your company respond?

1. Waits 90 days, keeps its corporate fingers crossed, and hopes the check will eventually wind up in the mail.

2. Bombards the customer's accounts-payable clerk with irate, increasingly threatening letters and eventually surrenders the whole mess to a collection lawyer.

3. Calls -- politely -- to inquire what your company has done to create the customer's payment problem.

If the third possibility strikes you as an act of corporate masochism, consider this: slow payers can often provide valuable information about financial or other glitches within your organization. It's worth a phone call, urges Jim Shaw, whose Cupertino, Calif., company, Shaw Resources, advises companies on ways to improve their management systems.

What might you learn? "Maybe the customer isn't paying on time because your company shipped something it didn't order or sent the wrong quantity, and the customer is angry," notes Shaw. Here's another common self-inflicted problem: "Your company might have sent its invoice out before it shipped the product. So the customer's payables clerk may have filed away the bill until the order arrived -- and wound up forgetting about it entirely." Once you know that problem exists, it's easily corrected through better timing of shipping and billing.

Other problems may also be responsible. Maybe your sales staffers make special deals with customers about delivery dates or other conditions -- but don't tell the rest of your organization. "Or slow payers might confide that your bill is tough to understand because of acronyms or codes," Shaw says. In such cases, speeding up collection is often a matter of redesigning the invoice.

To increase your chances of gathering useful information from collection calls, ask your accounts-receivable clerk to take notes that will be shared with management on a weekly or monthly basis. "Then he or she should approach the call with a respectful, cordial demeanor, starting with the assumption that the client is honest, wants to pay you, and must have a reason for delay," advises Shaw. After that, it's up to your company to resolve the problem quickly. "If the customer fails to pay you promptly at that point, then and only then is it time to ask yourself if you've got a problem customer."

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Admit it. Does your company's approach to customers who are truly problem payers leave something to be desired (such as a successful resolution)? You may find some useful new strategies in Collect Those Debts! How to Get Your Money and Still Keep Your Customers (Self-Counsel Press, 1704 N. State St., Bellingham, WA 98225; 1994; $8.95), by Timothy Paulsen, a collection expert, who offers a range of good ideas.