Creativity in Accounts Receivable

©2003 Gerald M. Weinberg, www.geraldmweinberg.com

The introduction of the new $20 bill has me thinking about the Bureau of Printing and Engraving today. They’re one client I ever had who couldnt use the slow-payment excuse that they’re short of cash, since they print the stuff. One of the most irksome parts of being an independent contractor is the client who doesn’t pay, or at least seems like they won’t pay in time for you to pay your own bills.

First of all, this is not a new problem, so it’s important not to take it personally. Taking it personally only gets you annoyed and out of your best thinking mode. True, some clients believe that contractors don’t need to think creatively: “Just keep your ideas to yourself and get back to coding,” they say, but they’re wrong. Creative thinking is your best ally when it comes to getting your fair share of the cash.

There are, of course, traditional ways of enticing your clients to pay you on time. My father was in the auto painting business, and I recall how careful he was to pay his paint bills on time in order to earn his “2% discount for payment in less than 30 days.” Knowing that this discount strategy worked well to motivate my father, I once tried it on a slow-paying client.

This multi-billion-dollar company had typically taken 4-5 months to pay my tiny bills. I started adding that “2% discount” clause to my bills, and sure enough, it motivated them to change their behavior. They still paid in 4-5 months, but they now deducted 2% from every bill.

I learned several lessons from this experience. The first lesson is that large clients have payment patterns that no rinky-dink contractor is going to change. I call this Gilb’s Law, because I once asked Tom Gilb about a recruiting firm in Europe that wanted me to do some work with them. I’d had some trouble getting payments overseas, so I asked him about their payment practices. “Oh,” he said, “they always pay. Eventually.”

In short, their consistent pattern was reliable, but slow. The second thing I learned was that I can use the client’s consistency to my advantage. Knowing that they typically paid 6 months late, I inflated my normal billing rate by an amount equal to 6 months of interest on that rate. If they wanted to compete with my bank for my CDs, that was fine with me (but I did add a tiny bit more because they didn’t offer Federal Deposit Insurance).

This strategy has worked well for me ever since. The most important part is that I no longer get annoyed with my clients for playing financial games with my money. It’s never a good idea to get annoyed with your clients, so it’s never a good idea for someone like me to feel that I’m a victim of my client’s lack of adaptability. After all, if I’d wanted to be a helpless victim of a large corporation, I could have been their employeeand gotten health insurance to pay for my psychiatric bills.

A few clients actually understand their own slow-pay patterns and have worked out solutions that I have adopted as my own. (As Tom Lehrer says, “if you steal from one person, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.”) I gave a short course once at a large government agency, and I was picked up at Washington National airport by Chuck, my contact at the agency. As we drove to the agency, Chuck asked if I was in a hurry to get paid. “How much of a hurry?” I asked. (That’s another good consulting techniqueanswer difficult questions with other questions.)

“Well,” he answered, “we seem to have a difficult time processing this kind of payment in less than eight months.”

“In that case,” I said, “I’m in a hurry.”

“I thought you might be,” said Chuck. “But don’t worry, we can pay you in cash.”

This wasn’t the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, so I was rather surprised that they could actually do cash business. I told Chuck of my doubts, but he reassured me. “In fact,” he said, “we’ll get you paid in advance, just in case there’s any hangup.”

And, sure enough, when we arrived at the agency, he took me directly to a barred window marked “Cashier.” The little guy behind the window lacked a green eyeshade, but otherwise looked just like the teller in a bank about to be robbed in a Clint Eastwood Western. He didn’t even blink when Chuck slipped him a hand-written voucher for $2,500. He asked me for some identification, then a signature, after which he counted 25 hundred-dollar bills into my hand. I was then led to the classroom where I gave a stunning class, never once being distracted by worries that I might not be paid.

I’ve now added “cash in advance” to my repertoire of payment possibilities. It’s especially useful in cases of doubt or complication, such as working overseas. There can be drawbacksevery solution creates new problems, as every consultant knows. Once, after an extended tour of Japan, my sponsor had me in for a tea ceremony, during which he handed me an envelope wrapped with a red ribbon and containing, I presumed, my fee for the visitin cash, as our contract had stipulated. I thought it would be discourteous to count it in front of him, but as I was about to slip it into my inside pocket, my translator suggested it would be rude not to count it.

Knowing that cultures differ, I opened the envelope and counted over $10,000 in crisp new American money. The amount was correct, but counting it raised my anxiety about carrying so much cash. I wanted to take it to a bank and convert it to some sort of non-negotiable instrument, but I was told, regretfully, that it was “Honor Old People Day,” so the banks were closed. That night, I slept with the money under my pillow (and not too well).

The next morning I had to leave for the airport before the banks opened, so I had to carry the cash with me all the way home. I learned, also, that when you carry more than $10,000 cash into the USA, you have to have a friendly discussion with the customs agentsa discussion in which you must convince them that you’re neither a counterfeiter nor a drug dealer. I also discovered that it wasn’t even that easy to deposit that much cash in my own bankonce again, lots of rather personal questions.

In other words, cash has some disadvantages of its own, in addition to the disadvantages of money in general. Disadvantages of money? Yes, life is never as simple as we contractors think it should be. Indeed, the worst accounts receivable situation I have had to solvethe one that took all my creativity and morewas when, Lily Gilding Limited (LGL), one of my best clients paid the same bill twice .

The bill was $4,240. (It would have been $4,000, but I had added the interest for their 4-month pay cycle.) The first check arrived right on schedulethat is, four months late. Unfortunately, even before I had time to spend all of it, a second check arrivedsame invoice number, same amount, same date.

LGL was a good client, so it wouldn’t have been good business to try to pretend that we didn’t get the second check. We called their Accounts Payable Department right away to tell them of their double payment, but they said, “No, you must have made a mistake. We couldn’t possibly have paid you twice. We have controls . You’d better have the manager of your Accounts Receivable Department check your records.”

I smiled, thinking of how Lois would feel being called the “manager of the Accounts Receivable Department,” but I kept my mouth shut. A/P departments can only talk to A/R departments, not to the do-everything-person-named-Lois in a small consulting firm. Lois checked everything again, and I double-checked Lois’s records. Same result. LGL had definitely paid twice.

After about twenty calls back and forth, I became convinced that LGL could never admit to such a mistake. I then brought the matter to the attention of my contact person, Nel, and she made a few phone calls on my behalf. Next time I was consulting at LGL, Nel told me, “I’ve tried everything I can think of. My advice to you is just to keep the money.”

“But I can’t do that,” I protested. Mostly I was thinking that LGL might someday discover their error and think I was dishonest. It’s always harder take being thought of as dishonest when you really are dishonest.

“No, really,” Nel said. “Even if you could finally get us to take it back, it would cost us more than $4,240 to get it cleared up. Believe me, this is the best solution for both of us.”

Well, she was right, of course, but Lois is one of those honest Nebraska farm women who simply couldn’t keep money that didn’t belong to her. She simply wouldn’t accept any solution that involved us keeping their money, so I turned the problem over to herhaving exhausted my own creativity. And, as usually happens when I have the courage to admit I can’t solve a problem, Lois found a way.

Her solution may not always work for you, but since LGL was a good client, Lois simply deducted $4,240 from the next bill she sent them and called it a rebate. Apparently they were happy to receive a “rebate,” and we never heard another word from them. Another accounts receivable problem solved, and another happy client!

Whats the moral of all this? It reminds me that when youre in business for yourself, your problems never end, and even that wonderful event – getting paid – can be one of your worst problems.

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