Mailing invoices is time-consuming, expensive and old-fashioned. No wonder so many entrepreneurs are using e-mail to shorten the cycle between billing and payment (and save big-time on postage).
One company is making it easy to bill clients via the Net. Just copy Inzap (http://www.inzap.com) on all your outgoing invoices (most small-business accounting software programs, like Intuit's Quickbooks and Peachtree Accounting, have features that allow you to e-mail invoices), and Inzap sends follow-up reminders to your customers via e-mail or fax. The service costs $49.95 per month with the first month free.
Shannon Kinnard (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of Idea Station, an e-mail marketing agency in Atlanta, and author of Marketing With E-Mail (Maximum Press, $24.95, 800-989-6733).
Many entrepreneurs have faced the unpleasant experience of clients who refuse to pay up. Your options--taking the client to small-claims court, hiring a collections agency or simply letting the money go--aren't particularly pleasant, and the whole experience is typically frustrating, disappointing and expensive.
Enter Cybersettle.com Inc. (http://www.cybersettle.com), an online dispute resolution service billed as a quick, easy way to settle small legal matters. How does it work? A defendant enters three confidential settlement offers via Cybersettle.com's Web site. The other party submits three demands, one for each of three rounds. If an offer and demand are within 30 percent or $5,000 of each other, the computer program splits the difference to come up with a settlement amount, and the case settles immediately.
Having reviewed the site, Bill Collins, an Atlanta attorney, says, "The drawback is not having the parties deal with each other in person, where one side's obstinacy can usually be assuaged and simple observation can discern bluff or artifice."
But Cybersettle.com sees this as a plus. "Emotions often get in the way of settling a lawsuit," notes James Burchetta, chair of the New York City company. "With our system, the amount of each settlement offer is kept confidential, so neither party is prejudiced by revealing their real bottom line, and personal animosity isn't a factor."
Cybersettle.com doesn't concern its service with the law; it simply provides the electronic vehicle for settling claims online. The disagreement must be limited strictly to the value of the claim.
You've Got (Too Much) Mail
Like most entrepreneurs, Brian Boettcher, president of ReloNetworks, a San Mateo, California, relocation service that caters to high-tech professionals, handles most client contact via e-mail. Not surprisingly, he's often swamped with a deluge of incoming messages.
How can a one-person business handle e-mail professionally? Automation and organization. Boettcher, 26, uses more than 40 folders in Microsoft Outlook to file incoming e-mail before looking at it. Most e-mail programs allow you to create filters, which look for key words (such as the name of an existing client), then automatically send each incoming message to the appropriate folder, tag it with a priority label or redirect it to another e-mail address.
For frequently asked questions, Boettcher relies on autoresponders (pre-written courtesy messages sent automatically by the server). If your program doesn't have this option, contact your ISP--it may offer them as an add-on feature.
If your needs are very complex, you may need an outside consultant. Ken Mallin, a partner at Close the Distance, a sales consulting firm in Atlanta, helps small businesses streamline e-mail by setting up automated programs that send a series of predefined e-mails (such as post-purchase follow-ups) queued according to the inbound e-mail received.