Every now and then a Client doesn’t pay their bills and deciding how to handle that is a challenge for every entrepreneur. The 3 key variables in this process are: the amount to be paid, the timing of payment(s) and how you move forward. Here is how I do it in my business consulting practice:
- Establish the amount due: provide written documentation to the Client and ask for confirmation that the amount is correct
- If they agree to the amount, negotiate a payment schedule, send them notices in advance of due dates (requesting read receipts), call them right away if they are late or miss a payment – staying in touch with them throughout this process is key as you want to hold them as close as possible to their commitment. You are relying on their ethics. It’s easy to get fatigued and stop paying attention but don’t let that happen – stay vigilant!
- If the Client does not acknowledge the amount, engage them in a discussion to understand their point of view and consider the legitimacy of their claims. Try to find out very specifically the points of agreement and disagreement. Based upon a dispassionate consideration of their statements, was your Company’s performance worthy of the invoiced amount? Are you willing to accept a smaller amount either because they have a legitimate point or simply in order to move on?
- If you are not willing to negotiate, tell them so in writing with a request for payment. If they do not respond to this in a reasonable timeframe, ask your attorney to send them a demand letter – this will often do the trick and its money well spent.
- If you are willing to negotiate the amount and the timing of payments, tell them so. You may want to estimate your expected legal fees and the value of your time. Generally speaking, small claims are not worth pursuing from an economic and opportunity cost perspective. Large claims may be worth your time and money.
- Ultimately, if they won’t pay and the amount owed is large enough to justify your time and investment, you may have to pursue them via legal means. Unfortunately, in our legal system, it is very unlikely that you will recover your legal costs, and the process may take 1-2 years to complete so make sure you have the stamina and wherewithal to go through it.
A year ago, a business advisory Client did not pay the final amount due on a business plan because he had cash flow problems in his business. It was disheartening because I had gone the extra mile on the Plan and really enjoyed working together. He was never willing to commit to a payment schedule despite my numerous repeated attempts but the amount was not large enough to justify taking him to court. So, I stayed very constructive in our communications – though I was tempted to not be civil – and a year and a half later he stopped by and made his first payment and handed me a note that said “This is a very small part of what I still owe you. You will have the balance in full soon.” Conducting yourself as a professional craftsman sometimes pays unusual dividends.