Finding new customers is great, but how can you tell if the people clamoring for your products or services are also prepared to pay you? Lots of companies order reports from credit agencies whenever there's any question. But there are other ways to gather credit information that might provide a more telling indication of whether customers will honor their credit obligations. Here are two:

* Ask your banker to do a bank-to-bank check. Many companies ask customers for bank references. But if you try calling those references yourself, you may not get much that's useful. "There's a language bankers use for exchanging information," says Deryl K. Schuster, president of Emergent Business Capital's central division, in Wichita, Kans. "And since bankers are reluctant to offer negative information, you really need to know how to read between the lines." Bankers usually don't charge for making bank-reference calls for customers, but they will charge you if they purchase third-party credit reports or order lien searches.

* Quiz other credit managers. Another good source of credit information is other credit managers who may have had direct experience with the customer. As a rule, says Charles Bodenstab, owner of Battery and Tire Warehouse, in St. Paul, Minn., "a credit manager will be very candid with another credit manager -- even if they're competitors. They know if they withhold something important, they won't be able to get information when they need it."

If you want to network more regularly with people in the credit community, consider joining the National Association of Credit Management (410-740-5560). The NACM, with 60 regional chapters around the country, maintains its own credit database. Depending on where you're located, memberships run between $150 and $250 annually. For additional sums, you can join one of the NACM's industry-specific credit groups. -- Bruce G. Posner