If you’re a small to medium sized company (SME) and have been in business over the past 5 years, I’m willing to bet that you’ve probably heard it all when it comes to excuses for late payment from your clients. The figure for debts owed to SMEs seems to grow month on month. In July 2014, the debt burden on small businesses is reported to have hit the £40 bn mark, rising from its previous £37 billion peak in 2012.
In such a sticky (not to mention financially precarious) situation, there’s very little SMEs like Thruinc, etc can realistically do, particularly when multiple clients are routinely late, leading to a chain of late payment loggerheads (your client is unable to pay you, you are unable to pay your clients in turn…). Legal recourse is often considered too brutal a step which leaves many companies with little defence against late payments except for undertaking good due diligence before taking on a client.
I’ve been talking to a number of businesses who have successfully reduced the level of late payment they face by being a little choosier when it comes to new clients. It’s surprising how much information is available through free company check tools. Yet, sometimes, no matter how diligent your research, late payments happen. And when they do, you’re likely to hear some pretty flimsy excuses. Here are some of the worst we’ve come across. How many have you heard?
- “I lost the invoice”
This is a classic. In a survey from Santago, 44% of SMEs had heard this old chestnut. I’ve chosen this excuse as the number one, not because it’s an unbelievable excuse, but because it’s so prevalent and so, well, stupid.
In the 21st century, we’re willing to bet that your clients are fully up and running with an email account. To help eliminate this age-old excuse, send a paper invoice and an e-invoice to clients to make sure they have no reason not to cough up, no matter how “absent-minded” they are.
- “I never received the invoice”
Again, this is another old favourite highlighted by Santago’s survey. A huge percentage of UK SMEs have been spun this line by their clients. Sometimes it could well be legitimate (we all know the state of Royal Mail), but in other cases it’s just a flat out tall tale.
To help reduce the number of times you hear this excuse, use e-invoices and paper invoices. If you’re particularly plagued by the problem, send your invoices as “recorded delivery” to make sure you know they reach their destination. Finally, ensure your address book is fully up to date and you should be able to scrap this terrible excuse altogether.
- “I thought I was going to inherit money from my mother, but she is still alive”
This is a genuine excuse shared during a survey of SMEs. I’m not sure whether this excuse is worse because of the moral implications or because of how flagrantly unprofessional it is. How would you argue with this line?
- “I accidentally shredded the invoice”
And when you say accidentally, you mean you intentionally shredded this invoice whilst whistling innocently, right? “Whoopsie, silly me!”. Colour me unconvinced.
- “Someone stole all the paperwork”
This (genuine, real life) excuse is totally understandable, what with the spate of paperwork theft perpetrated by criminals who can’t get enough of other people’s admin currently plaguing the UK. Fair enough.
- “The dog ate it”
Here is another genius, genuine excuse picked up in a poll of small businesses. I love it because, by using the classic classroom excuse, the client in question clearly isn’t even trying to hide the fact that he can’t pay. They might as well have claimed that it was vaporised by a low-flying spaceship. Infuriating.
- “I’m waiting to be paid myself”
This isn’t a bad excuse, but it is bad from a wider perspective. This kind of “payment traffic jam” is very common and very tricky to handle. Legally, unless you agreed this sort of credit relationship previously, you are within your rights to demand timely payment. However, as an SME also struggling with late payment, you might want to offer more flexible terms like accepting a post dated cheque or allowing up-front part payment.
- “Our money person is on holiday”
This excuse sucks, but often it is legitimate. While the “money person” is off enjoying pina coladas by a sparkling sea, you’re stuck chasing up unpaid invoices. You can try to work around this “excuse” by taking the following tacks:
- Ask if another member of the team can authorise BACs transfers
- Ask if the “money person” left pre-signed cheques for such occasions
- Confirm exactly when the individual in question will be back and ensure you follow up your invoice on that date.
This is the ultimate excuse. And one which is very tricky to navigate. As sad at the situation may be, life goes on and your invoice remains unpaid. LLPs, PLCs and LTDs will in all likelihood continue operating, while partnerships will leave the surviving partner with responsibility for the business’s debts. A gentle approach is best. Extend your payment deadline and take extra care when dealing with a family business.
Which of these excuses have you heard from your clients? How do you handle outrageous excuses? What’s the longest period you’ve waited to receive a late payment? Share your stories and experiences with our readers below.
Marianne Nichols is a freelance web-based wordsmith sharing insight and opinions on everything from personal finance to boosting business productivity.