June 12, 2002
KEEP THE CASH FLOWING By Rosemary Ann Ogilvie
Every career writer has been there: weeks without a single check arriving in the mail, nails chewed down to the knuckles worrying whether you'll be able to eat this month, let alone pay the rent. In a perfect world, checks would arrive precisely on the due date, every single time. Unfortunately, our dear old world is far from perfect, and accounts-payable departments even less so, for a whole range of reasons: inefficiency, the ubiquitous cash-flow problems, understaffing, staff changes, vacations, illness, computer problems, editors who are too busy to sign off invoices. Even the promptest and most reliable payers occasionally experience hiccups that see an invoice overlooked, with the result that an anticipated payment is delayed.
Just as you have in place procedures to get your work out there, so you must also have in place procedures for promptly following up overdue payments, because the responsibility for ensuring the money flows in rests with you.
The initial step in your collection procedures is prompt invoicing: raise an official invoice as soon as an editor accepts your article. Be sure that invoice details all relevant information: the contract number or any other reference number you have been asked to quote, the name of the commissioning editor, the name of the article, the edition of the magazine, and payment terms. Indicate on the invoice that you are happy to accept payment via electronic funds transfer. You may get your money more quickly, and writers who refuse electronic payments may find they are dropped from a publication's list of preferred suppliers. Now, in your diary or contact management software calendar, note the date the invoice is due for payment. If the check doesn't arrive within a day or two of that due date, e-mail a brief, low-key, non- accusatory note to the editor: 'Pam, payment for my [name] article was due on the 30th, but as of today's mail, it hasn't arrived. Is there someone in accounting I should speak to?' Pam may respond with the name and contact details of an accounts payable clerk, or she may say something to the effect that she's followed it up, and the check will definitely go out in today's mail. Note her response, and keep a brief record of every collection discussion for future reference. Allow sufficient time for the check to reach you, and if it doesn't arrive when expected, contact her again with a friendly: 'Pam, hate to bother you, but still no check'.
If the editor gives you an accounts-payable contact, note the person's details - and use them! Don't bother your editor again, for payment is out of her hands: the accounts department controls the cash flow and determines who gets paid when, and she has enough on her plate without fielding late-payment enquiries. The only time to break this rule is if the check does not hit your mailbox after several collection discussions with the accounts person. Again, keep the note/chat friendly, polite, and brief: 'Pam, I've spoken to [name] in accounts four times, my check still hasn't arrived and it's now two months overdue. Anything you can do to speed things along would be greatly appreciated.' If possible, make your initial contact to the accounts payable person by e-mail. Provide as much information as possible to make her job easy: invoice number, date, article name, publication date in the body of the e-mail, and attach a copy of the invoice to the e-mail. If she doesn't respond within a day, call her, because the larger the organization, the less reliable e-mail communications can be. Be friendly and polite: this person is your ally, not your enemy, so focus on building a relationship with her. It may require several calls and some excuse-countering (see below) to get your check. However, don't automatically assume the company is 'out to get you': every organization experiences cash flow problems, and contrary to widely held belief, huge multi-nationals are not exempt from them. Think about it: they, too, are dependent on their customers paying them on time. If two or three large customers are slow payers, it means that perhaps millions of dollars are unavailable for the company to pay their suppliers of goods and services.
So: the keys are:
+ Keep things pleasant and friendly throughout the collection process. It's in your best interest: bear in mind office gossip and the good, or harm, a chance remark can do. Much better for your career if your accounts contact says to your editor over coffee: 'Isn't Jean Smith lovely? Her calls make my day! I wish everyone was as nice' than 'That Jean Smith is the rudest b**** I have ever spoken to.'
+ Be prompt: ask about overdue payments within a day or so of their due date. Don't leave it until two months after the check should have arrived. Ensure your follow-up contacts are equally prompt: you have to show that you are serious about wanting payment. Delaying a follow- up call for a month or two won't do much for your credibility.
+ Be persistent: note down responses, counter excuses, follow up when the check doesn't arrive, call again, note response, counter the next excuse, follow up. It's the old 'squeaky wheel' technique: the one that makes the most noise gets the attention!
+ When a payment is overdue and it's obvious you're not going to get paid without a fight, get tough. Re-read Angela's article 10 Ways to Make Deadbeats Pay Up...Fast! .
Along the way, you will encounter all sorts of excuses about why you haven't been paid. Following are some of the classics, along with responses to counter them. Excuse: That check was posted ages ago.
Response: I'm very pleased to hear that, Anne. However, it should have been here by now. Could you just tell me the check number and the actual date it was posted? Note down the check number when she gives it to you. Then solicit more information, such as the bank, the exact amount, whether she or someone else physically posted it. If the debtor is a habitual defaulter, you could then say "I'm sorry, I didn't write down that check number, would you mind giving it to me again?" Compare them to see if they agree – she may have just used any old number that came into her head, thinking that you'd never check on it anyway! She is not necessarily lying, but it's a warning signal to heed.
You may want to take the opportunity to go further to press home the fact that the account was not paid on time as per the agreed payment terms: "Anne, I'll be looking out for that check. However, I need to ask this: is there a reason I should know about for it being mailed three weeks after the account was due? Are my invoices not reaching you on time, or not getting to the right department? Excuse: Your second call to a customer: the first time they said that the check was drawn but was awaiting the accountant's signature and would be sent out. Now, they are saying the invoice still has to be approved for payment (this illustrates the importance of making notes for each call). Response: Anne, I'm sorry but I don't understand. Last time you said that the check had to be signed. Now you are saying that it hasn't even been drawn yet. Is there some other reason I should know about for the delay in paying me?
Excuse: The person who signs the checks is ill /in hospital / on holidays.
This is one of the most common excuses, and may need some work. In other words, you may need to use more than one of the following responses:
How long has he/she been ill?
Who is responsible for her duties while she is absent?
Perhaps I should speak to her supervisor?
Do you have all the documentation necessary to approve payment of the account?
Did she leave some signed checks for instances like this?
The invoice should have been paid before she left. Is there any other reason for the delay?
How can we avoid this problem in the future?
I must receive payment. I'd like to offer to pay for a check to be couriered to her so that she can sign it?
Excuse: I'll check the information and get back to you.
Response: I am happy to hold, if you could obtain it for me now.
Next Excuse: No, that's not possible.
Response: When will it be available? I'll phone back then.
Excuse: I don't appear to have the invoice/ copy of your contract.
Response: I'll fax/e-mail it through to you immediately and call you back in ten minutes.
Excuse: We are experiencing cash-flow problems at the moment.
Response: Could we arrange to pay the total amount by installments?
(Should you continue writing for someone experiencing a cash crisis? It's your call, for there is no correct answer. By continuing working with customers in cash crisis, I've been both rewarded with lots of additional work, and badly burned with a sizeable bad debt. It depends on whether you want to continue building the relationship, how well you know the editor/company, whether you trust them, and how much other work you have.)
Excuse: The person who signs the checks isn't available right now.
Response: Could she be reached, perhaps on her cell phone?
Excuse: We are changing computers at the moment. Everything is a mess.
Response: Would it be possible to revert to manual operations for this one check? I'm really anxious to receive it.
Excuse: All our books are at the accountants.
Response: If you could give me their number and a contact name, I can phone them and find out how we can organize a check.
Inevitably, someone sometime will floor you with a totally original excuse. When this happens, employ Kipling's "five honest serving men" that serve writers so well when countering those objections: Who? What? Where? Why? When? Remember, too, that you can always call the customer back if you think of another question you should have asked. Just be sure to apologize for bothering them again.
Rosemary is a fulltime freelance writer/photographer who recently re-located to Australia's beautiful island state of Tasmania. More than eight hundred of her articles have been published in magazines, newspapers, and online in Australia, New Zealand, USA, and the Netherlands. With a practical, private- sector, middle-management background embracing accounting and quality management, Rosemary specializes in business writing, both profiles of successful business people and how-to articles for small business. Her other writing specialties include e-commerce; call centers; natural health, beauty and fitness; parenting; travel; gardening; and dairy farming. She is now moving into Web-content writing and management. Visit her website at: http://www.rosemaryannogilvie.com.au
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