Every small-business owner also needs to establish a payment-terms policy. Although you certainly want to standardize the way you get paid, at the same time you will also have to be flexible enough to meet clients' needs on an individual basis. Setting payment terms covers deposits, progress payments and extending credit. It's important to establish clear, written payment terms with clients prior to providing services or delivering product. Your payment terms should be printed on your estimate forms, included in formal contracts and work orders, and printed on your final invoices and monthly account statements.
If you're run a service business, you have to get in the habit of asking clients for a deposit prior to providing services, especially if the work also involves product sales that have to be paid for by you in advance. In this case, the deposit should be for at least the value of the materials. If you're supplying labor only, try to secure a deposit of at least one-third to one-half of the total value of the contract in advance of providing any services. Your order form or contract should have the deposit information clearly stated. Information on canceled orders or contracts and your refund policy should also be on your forms. Securing a deposit is your best way of ensuring that, at minimum, basic out-of-pocket costs are covered should the customer cancel the job or contract.
Progress payments are also a way to ensure that you do not leave yourself open to financial risk. The key to successfully securing progress payments is to prearrange your contract and payment terms. Agree on the amount that will be due at various stages of the project. You can use percentages to calculate the progress payments, such as 25 percent deposit, 25 percent upon delivery of any materials, 25 percent upon substantial completion, and the balance at completion or within 30 days of substantial completion. Or you may arrange for more concrete progress payments based on indicators that are relevant to the specific scope of work, the job or the services provided. Regardless of the system you use, progress payments on larger jobs can dramatically lessen your exposure to financial risk.
In most cases there's no need to extend credit to consumers unless you deliver a service such as pest control that's billed monthly or a major contract that is completed in stages. As a general rule, when a transaction is complete you should be paid in full. However, in the case of business-to-business sales, commercial clients will generally want some type of credit on a revolving-account basis, such as 30, 60, 90 or sometimes 120 days after delivery of the product or completion of the service. Ideally, you want to be paid as quickly as possible, so you might want to offer a 2-percent discount if invoices are paid within one week. And if you do extend credit, make sure to conduct a credit check first, especially when large sums of money are at stake. There are three major credit-reporting agencies serving the United States and Canada: Trans Union, Equifax and Experian. All three credit bureaus compile and maintain credit files on just about every person, business and organization that has ever applied for credit.
No matter how careful you are when it comes to extending credit privileges to customers, once in a while you will not be paid on time or at all. What can you do to get paid? The first rule of getting paid is to keep the lines of communication open with your delinquent client, and keep the pressure on to get paid through the use of nonthreatening telephone calls, letters and personal visits. You cannot legally intimidate clients into paying you, but you can explain why it is in their best interest to pay you--namely, to keep your business relationship intact, that nonpayment can hurt their credit rating or that you may sue them if they do not pay.
Another option is to hire a collection agency to collect the outstanding debt. Collection agencies generally charge a percentage of the total amount owed as their fee, which can range up to as much as 50 percent. The Association of Credit and Collection Professionals is a good starting point for finding a collection agency to work with.
Your final option is to take the delinquent account to small-claims court, but remember that small-claims courts have limits as to how much you can sue for in your state or province, ranging from $1,500 to $25,000. Filing fees vary by state and province as well, and these must be paid upfront. But if you win, the fees are added to your award. As a rule of thumb, small-business owners that take people to court for nonpayment generally represent themselves, as the amount of the potential award is usually small and doesn't justify lawyers' fees and expenses. Even if you win, you will not necessarily be paid the amount you're awarded. You may win a judgment, but still have to chase the defendant through garnishment of income or seizure of assets to get paid. You can learn more about the small-claims court process and filing fees by contacting your local courthouse.
James Stephenson invests his 15 years of small business, marketing and sales experience into his books. He has started and operated numerous successful home based businesses, and is the author of Ultimate Start-Up Directoryand Ultimate Small Business Marketing Guide, as well as the 202 Series.