Driving to work this morning I was thinking about my aging receivables and was becoming increasingly frustrated. Although I am a lawyer and work in a Philadelphia law firm, I am also, at my core, the owner of a small business. I provide services and expect or hope to get paid. My situation isn’t very different from any business or service provider. As I thought about what I could do better to insure that I got paid, I thought there are probably a lot of other business owners, chief financial officers and the like that would appreciate options they can consider implementing to increase their chances of being paid for services rendered, products delivered or items that were manufactured.
The starting point – your contract. Whenever a client or potential client calls me and wants to discuss how to structure a transaction to insure they are paid or at the very least minimize the risk they are not paid the starting point is always the same. Have you worked with this entity before and do you have any written agreements or standard terms and conditions that govern the contemplated transaction? Every contract starts with the assumption that each party will be responsible for paying its own legal fees? This concept is known as the American Rule. However, if your contract or standard terms and conditions state that the buyer will be responsible for all costs and expenses, including legal fees incurred in connection with your collection efforts – you have successfully shifted the American Rule on its head. Now, not only is the breaching company responsible for paying your outstanding receivable, but it is now responsible for your legal fees as well. Keep in mind that this does not necessarily guaranty payment but you not have another hammer in your negotiation arsenal to use against the defaulting party.
Cash is king. In my line of work the only way I can completely guarantee payment is with the retainer. Similarly the simplest way to guarantee payment is cash up front before services begin. This is why, for example, doctors require the co-payment before services are rendered and not on the way out. However, recognizing this is stating the obvious, other possibilities include timing the payments better. For example, if you are manufacturing a specific part for a customer or providing consulting services, develop a payment schedule that is tied to verifiable deliverables. If you meet a deliverable milestone and they don’t pay, you stop working. Other possibilities that can be explored is cash on delivery (COD). COD is a very basic but effective method to insure that you are paid when a physical product is involved.