Odds are you didn't spend a lot of time thinking about how you'd get paid when you started your business. You figured you'd do the work, send a bill, and a check would come a few days later.
Given that receivables rarely work that way, most of us can use some help when it comes to getting paid. Here are nine ideas that work.
1. The easiest way to collect is not to have any receivables at all.
The more you can get up front, the less you will need to collect later.
2. Get the whole thing up front.
It can happen if the client is big enough and you offer a substantial discount. (There are precedents. High end hotels and rental car companies like Hertz will offer up to a third off, if you pay in advance. This approach works well if you have a stellar reputation (so the client doesn't have to worry about your doing what you promised).
3. No money? No work.
Just about everyone has learned this one the hard way. "I never want to be in the business of financing the client," says a buddy of mine who is a homebuilder in Florida. "I won't begin work without a payment and I won't continue work if the customer falls behind."
4. Easy installments.
The shorter the intervals between when you do the work and when you get paid, the better your cash flow. People typically bill half up front and half when the work is done. But why not even bill more frequently, say, every time 10 percent of the work is complete.
5. Send the bill immediately.
No matter what option you go with--50 percent, 10 percent, or even 8.5 percent--send the bill the moment you hit the benchmark. Clients rarely pay quickly. There is no reason to compound the problem by waiting on your end.
6. Follow up faster than you think necessary.
You mark the bill "due immediately," which clients read as "pay when you feel like it." Given that, it is not tacky to start following up within 15 days. It doesn't have to be anything fancy, maybe just an email saying "just checking on the check." If the client objects to the note or the frequency of the follow-ups, offer a discount for paying immediately what is owed.
7. Keep following up…
Every 10 days at the latest.
8. Make it personal.
One entrepreneur sends out follow-up emails that begin, "If it were up to me, I wouldn't be sending these payment reminders. But since the bursar at College X, where my kid is now a sophomore, has no sense of humor when it comes to late payments, I would sure appreciate it if you could send a check."
9. If a client has an automatic payment option, take it.
And do so even if, in exchange, clients take a small discount--it is usually 2 percent. The discount is not onerous and they typically wire the money on the exact day promised.
And Two Things Not to Do
Some "experts" suggest offering a 2 percent discount if your clients pay within 30 days and adding an interest charge for late payments. Most entrepreneurs I talked to hated both ideas.
If customers want a discount they'll ask for it during the initial conversation about price. Besides, invariably, clients will take the 2 percent discount and pay when they want to anyway and odds are you are not going to fight over that 2 percent that they are not entitled to.
As for charging interest, it struck most people as a penalty, and imposing a penalty is not a particularly good way to stay in your customers' good graces.
Getting the money owed is hard enough without alienating people with penalties.