Dealing with late payments

Blogs 18 Feb 2019

Steps to take when late payment becomes an issue for your small business

When a customer doesn’t pay, they’re hanging on to money that is rightfully yours and you have the right to ask for it. You should have a routine system for following up non-payment that includes letter, email, and telephone, but be prepared to act more quickly if the amount is large or you are concerned about the customer. Ideally, it is part of good customer services to call the customer before the payment due date to make sure it has been received and there is no query, especially when it is a large payment. Where payment has not arrived, make immediate contact. You may need to be assertive about what you expect and when you expect it, and make the consequences of non-payment clear. Follow up promises to make sure they’re met.

If a customer persistently pays you late or makes excuses, check them out and consider whether you’re prepared to continue supplying on credit terms. It may be better to lose an order, or even the customer, than supply goods, not get paid and suffer a bad debt - when that happens you lose the goods and the money you’re due. At a net profit margin of five percent, to recover a bad debt of £1,000 will require additional sales of £20,000! Needless to say, you should always be polite, professional and persistent - do what you say you’re going to do when you said you were going to do it. Over time, it’s also good practice to try to get customers to pay by electronic transfer or Direct Debit (BACS) to avoid having to wait for the cheque to arrive.

Of course even with the best planning and the most insistent activity, some customers may still fail to pay on time. This unfortunate reality means that businesses must carefully consider cash flow, always, asking themselves if they have sufficient finance available to meet any commitments as they fall due. A regularly updated cash flow forecast to ensure you stay within your financing facilities is always a recommended. And it’s always a good idea to keep checking whether your customers may have been having financial difficulties that might make them pay you late, or not at all.

An effective business will plan its cash flow requirements carefully allowing for differences in the payment terms received from suppliers and those given to customers. You should look to regularly update the cash flow forecasts to ensure you stay within your financing facilities. Monitor your plan as much as you can so you can spot any variances. If you think you might have a cash flow problem then make sure you talk to your bank immediately. The earlier you discuss this with them, the earlier they can assist you with what options are available to you. If you can’t pay a supplier on the due date, talk to them as soon as you know you cannot do so. Again, earlier communication allows for all options to be explored and gives more of a degree of flexibility.  Don’t forget, early communication is key – if you avoid talking to suppliers, your bank and other parties, you might find supplies or finance have been withdrawn or legal action has started and things will quickly escalate.

But what to do when all else fails? Sometimes, you just can’t get paid. You’ve done all the right things and the money has still not arrived. The longer the debt remains unpaid, the more likely it is to turn into a bad debt and damage your business. Legal action is always an option – and bear in mind the important benefits available from FSB Debt Recovery - but there are other solutions available in the market.  You should also go back to basics and check that the invoice was correctly addressed and so has definitely been received.  Are you sure there are no queries? Do you believe the customer has the funds to pay you?

Commencing legal action yourself is always an option but takes time and effort (see Money Claim Online which is run by HM Courts and Tribunals Service). Using a solicitor will save you effort and time. FSB Debt Recovery offers FSB members initial solicitor letters free of charge. This service allows you to recover debt the easy way via a simple online system with step by step processes to assist you along the way. The process is completely self-managed and allows you to view the progress of the case(s) online.  Further discounted litigation options exist for people who refuse to pay, and they too can be instructed on-line through the easy to use portal.  Bankruptcy is a further option, if the debt is at least £5,000 (for an individual) or £750 for winding up a company.  You need to bear in mind that, if the customer fails to pay, their insolvency may follow and you are then even less likely to recover the debt.

Best practice involves making sure the invoice details are accurate before you consider taking further action. Next, always write and advise your customer that you will be exercising your statutory right to claim interest (at eight percent over the Bank of England base rate) and compensation for debt recovery costs under the Late Payment legislation and that you will be taking further action – this might be enough to prompt them to pay.   If you still can’t get paid for the outstanding debt, don’t let it grow. Stop supplying any further goods or services. If your product or service is important to your customer, it might be just the lever you need to get payment.  Always consider the commercial reality – if the customer is insolvent or has no available funds, further action is unlikely to help, and consider the costs of any action against the size of the debt. Finally, check out any solicitor or agency before you instruct them; make sure they belong to their appropriate trade association or professional body and check that their background and expertise matches your needs.