Fifteen of the 120 people employed worldwide by Intershoe Inc., designer and distributor of Nickels shoes, spend the majority of their working hours pestering retailers who have fallen behind in their payments. In fact, says Ivan Rempel, the company's vice-president for finance, Intershoe's entire 61-person corporate headquarters in Millersburg, Pa., is organized around the principle that "virtually everything we do here is oriented toward collecting money."

Intershoe mounts an unusually well coordinated attack on what is today a nearly universal business problem: collecting overdue payments, especially from giant organizations. Many companies' efforts to extract long-overdue payments are hampered by the fact that for some big companies, delinquency is a key business strategy.

"The major stores have found that they have to delay payments and take all the unauthorized discounts and allowances they can in order to maintain their profits," says John Sasa, credit and office manager at Intershoe head-quarters. Leading retailers, he says, often operate on slim profit margins. Thus, with interest rates hovering around 14%, paying a supplier 75 days after delivery rather than 30 days -- and investing the money in the interim -- can mean the difference between profit and loss.

But prompt payment of bills can also mean the difference between survival and bankruptcy for some small firms already caught in a tight credit market. Cash-flow problems are generally considered to be a major factor for the growing number of companies now filing for reorganization or liquidation. According to a recent Dun & Bradstreet study, business failures may be higher in 1982 than in any previous year -- among not just wholesalers and retailers, but manufacturers as well.

In the face of such discouraging news, many small companies are tightening up their collection procedures. Those familiar with the process say the two keys to extracting cash are superb record-keeping systems that tell managers who isn't paying; and polite, regular telephoning of past-due debtors by specialists who know how to handle excuses. (See The Law, page 101.)

Intershoe, with annual sales of $50 million, tackles the problem with a large, well-managed collections staff taught to handle a wide variety of excuses from slow payers. Customers, for example, try to avoid payment by returning shoes as defective or damaged, especially if they're no longer in style, and the customer doesn't want to get stuck with outdated merchandise. Or, they will take unauthorized discounts on items they keep, but claim are damaged.

Some customers will claim the shoes never arrived, even if Intershoe has mailed three or four copies of proof-of-delivery documents.Others will say that the shoes weren't exactly as ordered, or weren't delivered precisely according to instructions.

Intershoe uses its staff to analyze every questionable excuse or payment document from the firm's 2,500 customers. "We've invested enough people and money to enable us to see through smoke screens," says Rempel, noting that his accounts receivables and collections staff has quadrupled over the last four years.

A large collections staff, however, is a luxury not all companies can afford. Roberts Proprietaries, of Moonachie, N.J., a $7-million-a-year health and cosmetics manufacturer and distributor, plans to hire one accounts receivables person to operate the company's computerized collections system. But company president Keith Roberts has no plans to add enough staff to analyze every confusing document from the firm's 3,000 customers. "The bulk of my money comes in from the drugstores, and they pay their money on time," he notes. The department stores, he adds, "are basically a hassle to deal with no matter what I do," and the result is "endless wrangling. I'm saving money by not worrying about it too much."

Edward Kramer, a consultant with Arthur Young & Co. who has worked with both Intershoe and Roberts Proprietaries, believes both are responding properly to their respective customers. "The president of a company has to decide whether to fight or accept a loss equivalent to 2% to 5% of its money," he says.

Most companies, however, regardless of their size, can minimize overdue accounts by following certain rules:

* First, consider whether it is worthwhile to set up, or increase, a collections staff. Intershoe's Rempel would argue that most companies could benefit by expanding this department. "If a clerk collects one big bill a year from a guy who's going bankrupt, he's earned his salary," Rempel says.

On the other hand, some firms' bills simply don't justify a collections staff large enough to analyze the peculiarities of every customer, as in the case of Roberts Proprietaries. The decision should be made based on an analysis of the benefits of improved cash flow vs. the cost of the extra personnel.

* Start telephoning customers soon after a past-due notice goes out. Sometimes a call even before a payment comes due can unlock a big organization's cash drawer. "Occasionally the merchandise has to go to the West Coast and the invoice has to go to central billing on the East Coast," says Thomas Langenohl, credit manager of Koss Corp., of Milwaukee, a $25-million-a-year manufacturer of high-fidelity equipment. "Then it's worthwhile to give a call to make sure everything is in order. It may result in a $150,000 payment getting here 15 days sooner." At 14% annual interest, $150,000 for 15 days is worth $875, an excellent return for a phone call or two.

Often a full-time collections person can do a better job than a top manager. "You need a person who can be a buffer between you and the guy who owes you money," says Langenohl. "If they get stuck, they can put the guy on hold and think and then come back and say 'I've talked to my boss and he says such and such."

* Minimize the risk of a really big bad debt by setting a maximum bill any customer can run up and a maximum number of days he can run overdue before you cut off shipment to him.

In addition, analyze each major account, and make sure you still earn a profit after allowing for the customer's interest-free loans and claimed discounts. You may want to consider increasing prices to cover probable collections costs and losses.

Some misers won't part with their money for even the most eloquent collections agent. If cash isn't forthcoming, businesses have three options:

* cut off shipment

* call in a collection agency

* sue

Few companies manage to avoid resorting to collection agencies or the courts at one time or another. Some debtors simply won't pay till they find they are being turned over to a third party. Agencies can't do much that a creditor company can't do itself, aside from using the intimidating phrase "collection agency." But it's usually worthwhile to give an agency the accounts a company regards as hopeless, since there is always a chance the agency will collect. Koss, for example, sends out accounts when they become 150-180 days overdue; agencies have collected about one-third of the payments due between July 1980 and September 1981. (An agency normally charges a client 20% to 30% of the amount collected.)

Collection agencies may sell their clients menacing letterheads or stickers that threaten a slow payer with agency action if the account is not paid. Dun & Bradstreet will give an unlimited supply of such stickers to a company that sign up as a subscriber to its commercial collection service. The service costs $100 a year and doesn't obligate the firm to actually turn any accounts over for collection.

Ultimately, creditors can sue for their money. But suing usually involves more time and trouble than a debt is worth. Even in small-claims court, where corporations may sue without an attorney for amounts usually less than $1,000, garnishing a debtor's assets or wages will require half a dozen legal steps and may take months. And if an attorney sues in district court -- the only recourse if a debt is too large for small-claims court -- a slow payer can use legal maneuvering to delay the case for a year or more.

Often, suing is worthwhile for one reason only: Many delinquents settle as soon as they receive an official notice from a court. Intershoe has sued many of its retailers over the past two years while continuing to deliver their shoes. "Suing shakes up a customer's accounting people so that they say, 'Hey, guys, let's talk about this," says Rempel. Intershoe has been successful in settling most of these suits before they've had to go to court.