If you have been losing sleep over cash-flow issues lately, you are in good company. The economy has slowed, and so have the checks from customers. But although the money may not be coming in as quickly as before, the bills definitely are. You don't have to sit and wait, however, while all your cash drains away. These five companies have found creative ways to get customers to pay on time -- and weed out the ones who won't.
Choose your customers more carefully
Pauline and Thomas Nakios, the husband-and-wife owners of New York City -- based women's apparel company Lilla P, used to be rather trusting. Once, they accepted a $2,000 check written on an account that turned out to be closed. Sometimes, they allowed first-time customers to pay on delivery, without even doing a credit check.
Three years ago, the company decided to get serious about due diligence. Lilla P hired Bernard Sands, a credit-rating agency that has deep data on the retail industry. Bernard Sands charges Lilla P $2,000 a year for about 200 credit checks, a small price to pay for avoiding deadbeat customers. And Pauline and Thomas have started doing their own research. They reach out to other designers, and they check the insider website retaildish.com, where clothing designers go to complain about their customers. If a boutique has a few negative comments on the site, and Bernard Sands is wary, Lilla P demands payment in advance. And if the customer balks, Pauline and Thomas don't hesitate to reject the order. In the past four years, says Thomas, business has grown sevenfold, to $6 million in sales. But the number of accounts it sends to collections has remained the same -- fewer than a dozen a year.
Find an excuse -- any excuse -- to call
OmniSource Marketing, an Indianapolis marketing firm, has a collections strategy that is "pleasantly annoying," according to CEO Janet Goldberg. A couple of weeks before a bill is due, someone on OmniSource's 41-person staff will call the customer's accounts payable department just to check in. The OmniSource staff member will ask if the client has the right address or offer to help in any way. The question is irrelevant; it's just an excuse to stay on the client's radar. If the client doesn't pay on time, OmniSource will call back and ask for a definitive date when the check will be cut. If the client says Thursday, the staff member will call back then. And he or she may call even earlier, just to be, well, annoying. "Sometimes a customer has to make a choice in terms of who's going to get paid now and who's going to get paid later," says Goldberg. "And the squeaky wheel gets the grease."
Consider credit insurance
If you are particularly risk-averse, you may want to consider credit insurance. A credit insurer will pay you if a customer doesn't. Travelon, a luggage manufacturer in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, has been buying credit insurance from a company called Euler Hermes since 2000, insuring all accounts worth at least $10,000, about 75 percent of Travelon's receivables. If any one of those clients doesn't pay, Euler covers 80 percent of the bill. Travelon's premiums cost about $58,000 a year -- less than a quarter of 1 percent of its revenue.
In the first two years the company had the insurance, the coverage paid for itself, because Travelon received more in claims than it paid in premiums, according to CFO Roberto Mustacchi. Since then, Travelon hasn't filed many claims. One reason: Euler does quite a bit of due diligence on Travelon's behalf. When-ever Travelon gets an order from a new client, Euler searches its database to see if the potential customer has ever failed to pay one of the other 56,000 companies Euler insures. If the search turns up too many missed payments, Travelon will reject the order or make sure to require a credit card. And many retailers and wholesalers know about the databases kept by credit insurers, so invoking Euler's name is sometimes enough to get a recalcitrant customer to pay.
There's another upside to credit insurance: It increases the amount of money Travelon can borrow. The company uses its receivables as collateral for a rolling line of credit. Usually, banks will advance a maximum of 80 percent of the value of a U.S. receivable and won't accept foreign receivables as collateral at all. But with credit insurance, Travelon can borrow up to 80 percent of the value of a foreign account and 85 percent of the value of a domestic one.
Bring your accounting staff to meetings
Cash flow is looking good at Avanceon, an Exton, Pennsylvania -- based consulting and software design company. A year ago, Avanceon's customers took an average of 70 days to pay up. Now, that number is down to 45. Many of Avanceon's tricks for speeding up collections were pretty standard -- asking for payment up front, for example. But one was unusual: Avanceon started including finance staff in weekly project meetings. By looping in the finance department, Avanceon, which projects $35 million in revenue this year, has been able to head off potential snags.
At a meeting early this year, for instance, Avanceon's finance staff foresaw a roadblock on a $200,000 account, according to CFO Mark Pollock. Avanceon was billing the client according to a preset series of milestones; after Avanceon delivered a model of the software for testing, the client was supposed to pay $50,000. Avanceon's work was on schedule, but the client wanted to delay the test. When the finance team realized it wouldn't be able to bill the client at the end of the month as planned, it told the project manager and sales rep to ask the client to amend the contract. The client agreed and paid the $50,000 on schedule. "Prior to the meetings, we would have discovered this issue at the end of the month," says Pollock. That would have delayed payment for at least four weeks.
Turn your salespeople into collection agents
Todd Palmer knows how much it can hurt when a large client goes bankrupt. In 2004, as president of Diversified Industrial Staffing, a staffing company in Troy, Michigan, he had to pay $200,000 out of pocket because a customer went belly-up and Palmer had personally guaranteed a bank loan for the company. So Palmer started getting serious about collections, and he gave his salespeople the job. Salespeople generally start calling their contacts the day after an unpaid bill is due. And they get commissions only when the client has paid in full.
Palmer, whose three current sales staff members all joined Diversified Industrial after the new policy was implemented, is very frank in interviews about what the job requires. In some cases, he even hires people with billing and collections experience. "The last thing a typical salesperson wants to do is go into a client's office and complain about not getting paid," says Jean-Paul Tessier, Palmer's top salesperson. Fortunately for his boss, Tessier is not typical; as a controller at his previous employer, he spent more time on collections than on sales.
Palmer now expects clients to pay within seven to 14 days, compared with 30 to 45 days back in 2004. If that's a dealbreaker, so be it -- in the past year, four potential customers walked away after hearing his terms. Palmer says he wasn't sorry to see them go. And when a customer fails to pay, he threatens to pull all the temp workers Diversified is sending to the client that day. He made that threat to one client in early June. "At first, he said he didn't have the money," Palmer says. "But wouldn't you know, I had the check by noon that day."