Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Time to Ride

Over the last several weeks all of the pieces to an effective credit policy were formulated. By now, the astute person would have this framework awaiting approval. Policies are essentially useless unless they are put into action to initiate change. The beginning of change comes with the collection policy and related efforts.

The collection policy essentially outlines the systematic steps that must be applied to manage the accounts receivable. Recall that the credit policy established the guidelines on which the organization will manage their client relationships. The collection policy starts the moment accounts receivable is generated in the relationship. If you are following this process closely, the question you should have is, “How is inventory (work in progress) managed?” The management of inventory is defined in the assessment of client risk, as it is the sum of inventory and accounts receivable that designates the investment in the client relationship.

After years of research into the reasons for delinquent accounts receivable, the causes can be reduced to: relationship, billing and/or economic. To the credit/collections professional, these issues can all be resolved. The easiest issue to resolve is that of billing. A simple flow audit through the organization will unearth some of the issues surrounding billing. For a bill to be accepted, it must conform to the terms of the engagement. i.e. meet the terms of the Purchase Order, or engagement letter. The bill must clearly outline what goods and services are being billed for, with identification of the timeframe the bill covers. Most importantly the bill must identify a specific recipient, date, when payment is due and any supporting documentation. One of the faux pas with professional services firms is the use of the caption ‘payable upon receipt’. Turning to Webster for clarification, payable can be defined as, “capable of being or liable to be paid’. Sounds a little illusive, how about “payment due upon receipt”, which removes any ambiguity!

Delinquent receivables are the result of client related economic issues, and this is a tremendous opportunity for the organization to establish client good will as well as solidify a long term relationship. Economic misfortunes may or may not be the result of client actions. It is the astute firm that can use the situation to complete or continue the engagement while ensuring payment is forthcoming. This is where the savvy collection sense of the credit department can leap in to action. In so doing, provide payment options for the client so as to maintain the relationship.

The most difficult issue surrounding delinquent receivables occurs when there is a relationship breakdown. When this occurs, the client has essentially professed their position with their check book by silently stating, “I am not paying you!” At this point, firms have options. They could simply walk away from the receivable, otherwise known as a write off. The firm could turn the account to an outside firm that may litigate and possibly recover some of the amounts. This option brings a significantly reduced payment and the possibility for counter claims. Therefore, the firm must be sure that they did everything according to the original engagement. Can you see why it is so important to get the relationship off the ground correctly? The last option is for the client representative to go back to the client and attempt to rebuild the relationship. Rebuilding the relationship isn’t negotiating a settlement, it is accepting that a relationship has two sides and it took two to break up the relationship.

What ever the cause of the delinquent receivable, it is the task of the credit department to flush it out and get the cash flowing. There has been much written in this area, sadly much of it unprofessional. The best piece of advice in this area is to become familiar with the credit/collections laws in your jurisdiction. In the United States credit/collections falls under the, Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Keep in mind that there are or could be laws for local jurisdictions based on your type of business. A good layperson’s resource written for the US market is The Credit & Collection Manual (CCM), put out by the Credit Research Foundation. This text packs a tremendous amount of resource information in a small handy text. It is a definite must have for any credit department desk.

Regardless of the cause of the delinquent receivable, the first action is to flush out its root cause. The best way to do this is by way of monthly statements of account. For many organizations the sending of monthly statements is deemed to be a waste of time and postage. However, the recipient of a statement can quickly identify what they owe and discrepancies in the billing; whether they choose to act on it or not. For a publically traded company this information is paramount, as a reconciliation of payables is one of the areas investigated during the annual audit. Sending statements is even more important for law firms’ clients. For clients who require an annual audit, information as to the involvement in a lawsuit is paramount, and a statement from the law firm makes it clear to the auditors.

In addition to the monthly statement, the credit department must make contact with the client. According to the CCM, computer generated form letters provide substantial saving in time and expense while being marginally effective. Keep in mind, in light of an economic or relationship distress a ‘nasty-gram’ letter won’t open a dialogue to getting the issue resolved and receiving payment. The text goes on to say that individually prepared collections letters only give the recipient evidence that someone is monitoring the account, but the results are somewhat the same. Collections letters will only generate payment when the recipient simply hasn’t received the billing or truly wants to pay the account but has simply fallen behind. This means of communication isn’t really aimed at problem resolution, it is simply and audit trail toward litigation.

The best approach to flushing out an issue and begin problem resolution is direct telephone contact. This approach is heavily encapsulated in laws; therefore it is only for those well versed in collections laws. Ed Poll in his book, Collecting Your Fee, refers to this time as dial and smile. When done correctly credit professionals will flush out the root cause of the nonpayment, relationship or economic, and thereby begin to formulate a resolution.

There is no mystery to getting your bills paid; it all comes down to having a plan. The plan begins with understanding your affinity for risk, then building a policy for managing the risk. From there, gauge every client relationship against your risk profile while making sure both sides knows what is expected in the relationship. Do the best job you can to fulfill your obligations and have a procedure for managing those few accounts that become delinquent.

To most organizations, the concept of change seems like hiking Mt. Everest. Firms can continue along doing what they have been doing and expecting the same results – that is insanity. Change takes courage, vision and determination. The fork in the road must not be an obstacle, but the chance for a new beginning – choose a direction and let’s ride!

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Albert Einstein

“When you get to a fork in the road, take it!” Yogi Berra

"When you look for excuses not to change...they will be found. It takes courage, determination and fortitude to get off the merry go round." S A Miller

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