Some reports we're hearing from entrepreneurs suggest that customers may be beginning to drag their heels on making payments--often an early-warning sign of a weakening economy. In any case, now's a good time to improve your system for collecting bills. To assist you, we've conducted an evaluation of available how-to information about collection. Here's our thumbnail guide:

Save it.

Collection Techniques for a Small Business,
by Gini Graham Scott and John J. Harrison (Oasis Press, 800-228-2275, 1994, $19.95), is one book worth adding to your shelves. It offers 294 pages' worth of usable advice on key issues such as how to communicate with problem payers and motivate them to pay. For just one glimpse of this book's savvy approach, see pages 142 and 143, which deal with such thorny matters as how to respond to indignant debtors and field attempts at partial payments. Also included: excellent samples of collection letters and other valuable documents.

Credit and Collection: Letters Ready to Go!
by Ed Halloran (NTC Business Books, 847-679-5500, 1998, $14.95), isn't focused on theory. Instead, this 151-page book is chock-full of sample letters, E-mail messages, and other forms that should help entrepreneurs navigate their way through every stage (and every possible problem) involved in the accounts-receivable collection process. Some, such as a sample promissory note, are downright essential, while others will be relevant only to particular business situations (such as a "We miss you" note to late payers whose patronage an owner doesn't want to jeopardize). One valuable section (pages 84 through 95) deals with foreign collection difficulties, which are almost a given for any business owner involved in overseas transactions. Our assessment: if you keep this book close at hand, you'll be prepared to take quick action to address any of a wide range of collection problems.

Chapter 10 of Every Manager's Guide to Business Finance,
by Robert G. Finney (AMACOM, 800-262-9699, 1994, $26.95), is a good choice if you're unwilling to read a whole book about collection. This chapter focuses on ways to maximize cash flow by improving the management of accounts receivable and other key internal systems. It offers fewer specific tips but a good bit of general knowledge. As for the rest of the book, you don't need to bother with it.

Skim It.

Accounts Receivable: How to Tame the Beast
is for the truly time-strapped--or the truly thrifty. This five-page brochure, free from Dun & Bradstreet Receivable Management Services (800-333-6497), contains a surprising number of useful suggestions--along with, of course, Dun & Bradstreet's sales pitch for its receivables-management division.
This site is better than much of the material about collection that's on the Web. Although the site is maintained by a trade association representing collection agencies (who clearly believe that they, not you, do the best job of bringing home the bucks), there are some good points here, including offers for freebie brochures with titles like "A Guide to Effective Collection Procedures." The site also includes recent statistics that highlight problem trends. Best of all, though, is its directory of collection agencies, should you decide that your problems are severe enough to warrant hiring an outside gunslinger.

Skip It.
This Web site is one you needn't seek out for collection information--unless you want a taste of how vapid most collection advice tends to be. The site reprints several insultingly condescending articles on credit and collection matters. Too busy? Then let us reproduce one of the few tips of value: obtain full credit reports on all customers while maintaining relations with them that are "completely open and candid and disciplined." -- Jill Andresky Fraser