Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Best Kept Collections Secret

I have spent a huge portion of the last two decades, meeting with, working with and helping professional service firms achieve increases in the collections of their accounts receivables. I have also lectured on AR management, WIP management and the treasury function in professional services firms. During this time I have probably met with and been questioned by close to 400 professional services firms. Of the 100+ of my favorite questions, the following are from the top ten: “Should we centralize our collections function?” “How do you motivate billing and collections?” “How do we begin to clean up this mess?” “What should be our next step if the client continues to withhold payment?”

For the most part these firms ask the ‘How to’ type questions. These questions are direction seeking type questions, such as ‘show me the way’, and I will do it. Just give the secret. However, the problem and ultimately its resolution is much more complex than simply pulling out a text book, flipping to page 76 and in the second paragraph the answer is blazingly clear. To arrive at the solution, one must completely understand the problem. To find your way from being lost, you must remember the road you have traveled.

There was an interesting article in today’s edition of The Times paper entitled Slaughter and May v Clifford Chance: who is pursuing the best route? The article basically outlines UK law firm business strategy along a continuum. Author Dominic Carman outlines how firms like Clifford Chance has spent the past decade opening offices all over the globe, while Slaughter and May operated at the other end of the spectrum, in closing offices and focusing on the elite type clients. Carman goes on to explain how Freshfields has adopted the middle of the road approach somewhat more of a hybrid of expansion and contraction. The article is filled with quotations from each of the ‘magic circle’ firms’ managing partners how their approach is the best and the others are wrong. One interesting point emerges from the article, “Slaughter and May emerged as clear winners in profitability: its highest earning partners comfortably passed the £2 million-a-year mark”.

Upon a cursory reading of the article, the reader may be left with the notion that the Slaughter and May approach is probably correct because the profit per partner is higher than the others and as is the profit per top partner is highest. Others may argue that is only a current phase and with increased globalization those figures will flip and the firm that is truly global will be the leader in profitability. This article should raise many questions in the minds of the reader, what is the right approach? Is it sustainable? What will be the impact of increased globalization? Maybe with a crystal ball, the answer would be very clear. One question I ask you to ponder would be: Would one expect the same results of Slaughter and May if a firm like Clifford Chance were to adopt the contraction and focus model?

Based on my reading, I think the answer is very simple. Insight to the answer was determined about 10 years ago in business school research and publications. The focus of study was how rainmaking stock brokers lose their thunder when they move to another firm. The answer – culture. It is through a firm’s unique culture that they all achieve profitability in their own business approach. It is the culture of the organization that provides the environment for the rainmaking stock broker to be great at one firm and be average at another. It is the behavior and belief characteristics of an organization that define its outermost capability.

The best kept collections secret, begins in understanding your firm’s culture. That will define how you view your clients and what value is placed on billings and collections. This is not to say you cannot enhance your returns because of cultural limitations. Instead, once you understand your culture, you can then implement policies and procedures that are in alignment with your culture and thereby tap that enormous pool of aging AR and covert it into cash. This is exactly the Slaughter and May approach, know thy self and focus on thy abilities. You already know The Secret and it begins with introspection.

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