Late payment is one of the scourges of UK business, and it is getting worse. Last month, BACS, the Direct Credit and Direct Debit company, published a survey of the SME sector, which includes the great majority of resellers. It found that 59 per cent of SMEs had experienced problems with delayed customer or supplier payments, almost double the 2004 figure.
Resellers may be particularly at risk, said John Lord, sales director at business information provider Dunn & Bradstreet, because IT tends to be a one-off purchase rather than a regular, core business item.
“If a business is in trouble it’s more likely to put off payments against non-essential contracts [like IT],” Lord said. “The biggest single cause of bu-siness failure in the computer sales sector is cash flow constraints caused by late payments and bad debt.”
The sad fact is that many organisations find that paying late is the cheapest way to finance their business. So how can resellers prevent themselves from becoming unwilling bankers to their customers?
Often the ball is in the reseller’s own court, said Suki Gallagher, chief executive of finance company smartfundit.com.
“For resellers, the key reasons for late payment are failure to evaluate the customer’s credit risk and ability to pay, inefficient invoicing and credit control, and a reluctance to upset customers,” she said. “Over-optimistic salespeople can also cause problems, because in a tough market the customer’s ability to pay often gets left behind.”
Glen Bullivant, vice-president of the Institute of Credit Management, said: “The biggest danger here is not knowing who you’re dealing with.
If I came into your showroom and asked to borrow £1,000 you’d say ‘no’. But if I wanted to take away £1,000 worth of equipment on credit you might say ‘yes’.”
Checking a customer’s credit-worthiness via a credit reference agency or lo cal chamber of commerce is the obvious starting point, yet many suppliers fail to do this. A thorough enquiry could include not just checking credit references, but checking with the Insolvency Service and county court judgments, seeking credit references (such as from your own bank) and trade references from other suppliers, asking to see the company’s accounts, and keeping your ear to the local grapevine. Tables showing how fast UK firms pay up can be found at www.paymentscorer.com.
Existing customers should be checked out as well, according to David Robertson, chief executive of Bibby Financial Services. “Aim to run credit checks on existing clients on a bi-annual basis to ensure their financial situation hasn’t changed,” he said.
Informal yardsticks can be very helpful, said Bullivant. Anyone who actually visits the customer’s premises, from salespeople to delivery drivers, can give useful feedback. For example, ‘the showroom looks very empty’ or ‘the doors were still locked at 11am’.
Once you have confirmed that a company is fit to do business with, make sure you have a proper contract with clear terms and conditions.
Robertson said: “Terms and conditions, designed to protect your rights, limit your liabilities and provide you with some security, need to be clearly stated on all relevant documentation to both existing and new customers. Payment terms need to be set at the beginning of a relationship and followed up with written confirmation so that everyone knows where they stand.”
Bullifant said: “There’s often a reluctance among SMEs to negotiate terms, which two major companies would thrash out beforehand.”
Many firms seem unaware that it is essential to incorporate terms and conditions into contracts, according to Nichola Evans, dispute management partner at Ricksons Solicitors. “It’s amazing how many people think they’ll be protected if reference to payment terms is [only] made in the delivery note or invoice,” she said.
After delivery, resellers must make sure that they invoice promptly. “One of the biggest reasons for not being paid is not asking to be paid,” Bullivant said. “So invoice accurately and clearly, and no more than 24 hours after delivery.”
The clearer resellers make things, such as stating the actual date when payment is due rather than just ‘30 days’, and the more care they take to ensure that the invoice is sent to the right person, the more likely they are to get paid on time.
Accepting payment electronically can reduce payment delays and processing costs, said BACS, which is running a Pay Me Direct campaign to encourage businesses to include their bank details on invoices and billing statements.
It is also worth considering electronic invoicing, as long as it is done properly. “It’s cheaper than invoicing on paper, there’s less likelihood of a customer alleging that an invoice was never received or is lost, it’s easier to send copies, and research shows that it speeds up payment,” Evans said. “There are some administrative steps to take and you must seek permission from the National Advice Service. There are some technical provisions on format and invoices must be submitted via a secure environment.”
Whichever method channel players use to send invoices, they need to file them and keep track of them so that they know when they become due; the firm’s accounting software should be set to flag this up. If they become overdue, the reseller must act at once, particularly with high-value customers or customers whose credit rating or payment history is below par.
“There’s no point waiting a long time before you realise you haven’t been paid,” Bullivant said. “From day two or three you should be chasing.”
He adds that resellers should not be afraid to chase unpaid debts. The customer’s accounts staff will not take it personally, because it is the company’s money that the reseller wants, not their own cash.
Experience shows that the longer the seller leaves it, the less likely they are to secure payment, Bullivant added. Chase an invoice at once and there is a very good chance of it being paid. Once it becomes 60 days overdue, the likelihood of getting paid is only 80 per cent, falling to 50 per cent after six months and just 10 per cent after a year.
Like many SMEs, resellers are often bad at chasing overdue payments, partly through lack of resources and partly because they tend to focus on selling rather than getting paid.
It helps if the reseller has established a ‘human’ relationship with the customer’s accounts people, a representative for the Better Payment Practice Group (BPPG) told CRN. “They may just be inefficient and not realise the damage that late payment can do – not just to their suppliers, but to their own reputation.”
Bullivant said: “You want to retain the customer’s goodwill and train them to pay on time. And if you act professionally the customer will recognise this and know that you mean what you say.”
An important step is to ascertain whether the customer cannot pay because it has a genuine cash flow problem or just will not pay because it wants to finance its business with your money. The ‘can’t-payers’ are often more up-front about the issue than the ‘won’t-payers’, and it may be possible to schedule payments by installment if the customer cannot find all of the cash at once.
Resellers should also be careful that their customer’s financial problems don’t become their problems, too, advised Evans. “If cash flow is a problem make sure that [your] bank is made aware of the situation, as there are likely to be a tight couple of months until the new regime has settled into place,” she said.
Chasing payment is an art in it-self. Bullivant said VARs stand more chance of success if it contacts people by name, not just department. Bullivant builds up a list of names from accounts clerk to finance director so he can escalate if necessary.
Contacting the actual buyer may be more profitable than badgering the accounts department, since they have more interest in keeping the supplier happy if they want to do business with the firm again. However, VARs should take care not to alienate them if it really is not their fault. And make sure any outstanding problems are resolved, so the customer has no excuse for withholding payment.
“Phone is the prime collection medium, because you can’t ‘file’ a phone call like you can a letter or email,” Bullivant said. He also recommended giving a specific date for
payment, asking open questions that will allow you to find out more and keep control of the conversation, and taking notes, so that if the customer claims that the cheque will be in tonight’s post you can catch them out if it is not.
Steve Websdale, director of Venture Finance, an independent invoice and asset-based financier, said: “Expect to have to make more than one call to each company. The second call is usually the most effective. Try to break down why they are not paying, to remove the likelihood of them making an excuse. For example, check that they have a record of the invoice, that it has been passed to the correct person for authorisation or when the next payment run is.”
If resellers prefer to chase in writing, the BPPG representative suggested that they make their first letter a polite but insistent reminder, while the second should be a strongly worded final demand.
Websdale said: “Maintain your credibility by not relying on empty threats. The debtor must believe that you mean what you’re saying and will carry out a threat of action if necessary. So know how far your company is prepared to take things.”
If a VAR needs to get tough, a solicitor’s letter can be a good starting point, said the BPPG representative. “It’s not the nuclear option, more like the build-up of conventional forces.”
But think very carefully before going to court, Bullivant warned, because then you will probably lose the customer even if you get your money. Also, court orders can be easy to obtain, but difficult to enforce.
“I believe in using collection agencies, although you must use a reputable agency because they’re representing you,” he said. They should, for example, be certified members of the Credit Services Association.
Under the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998, small firms (with up to 50 employees) are entitled to charge interest on late payment at a hefty eight per cent above the Bank of England base rate. However, research suggests that many small firms are too scared of alienating their customers to take advantage of this.
However good your procedures are and regardless of how tough your stance is, there is no point in being naive and assuming that all of your customers will suddenly start coughing up on time.
Evans said: “For the past few years the Federation of Small Businesses has been compiling statistics showing the average length of time that companies take to pay suppliers, and the average remains resolutely at 46 days.”
A dash of realism will allow resellers to manage their own cash flow better, according to Tim Clements, channel financing manager at IBM Global Financing.
“One solution is for the reseller to work with vendors or distributors to negotiate extended payment terms that better match when their customer will be paying, especially with longer project roll-outs,” Clements said. “This may be provided free, or in partnership with a financier at a competitive rate of interest.”
VARs also need to be realistic about how much time they spend chasing late payments, which costs the UK SME sector an estimated 286 million man-hours and nearly £3.6bn a year, according to Bibby Financial Services.
A growing number of suppliers are turning to factoring and invoice discounting, believing that the cash flow and efficiency benefits outweigh the cost. Leasing offers another route to prompter payment, according to Peter Austin, general manager of leasing provider Siemens Financial Services, since the finance provider should pay on the day the sale is completed. More than a third of IT sales are now funded using asset finance, Austin added.
However, regardless of how they choose to deal with it, late payment is a problem that all resellers need to address.
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