You’ve done the work or provided the goods. The client is happy – or at least they’ve not said they’re not – and you’ve sent the invoice. But the deadline as stated in your payment terms has been and gone and no payment has dropped into your bank account. Oh dear. What do you do?
The logical thing is to call them. But the prospect of an uncomfortable phone call sends your adrenaline levels soaring. The flight instinct kicks in and you avoid it. You’d be happier going to the dentist for root canal treatment than calling your client! It’s a quandary and no mistake.
Yet there are things you can do to make the process a whole lot less painful.
1. Remember: it’s your money
You’ve done what you agreed to do and you’re entitled to get paid for it and on time. If you discussed and agreed terms with your client before you either did the work or provided the product, there’s no excuse for them not to pay you on time.
Don’t feel guilty for asking for your money. You entered into a business transaction and you have upheld your end of that transaction. It’s not personal.
2. What do you want to happen?
Be clear before you even pick up the phone what outcome you want. It may seem obvious, i.e. I want you to pay this invoice. Yet you need to be more specific. I want you to pay this invoice by xxxxx date.
3. Get your facts right
Preparation before a call is crucial. If you’re ill-prepared it’s all too easy to lose control of both the call and your credibility.
Make sure you are clear on:
• What are you owed for what goods or services
• When did you provide them?
• Any disputes there may have been and how were they resolved
Know the client’s payment history. Is late payment their usual modus operandi? Or is it unusual?
Be clear on who you want to talk to.
4. Consider how you ask for payment
Communication is a very complex mix of body language, tone and the words we use.
Start with the right tone. The tone you use will determine the success of the call, so if you start in an aggressive manner it’s not going to end well. Be assertive, confident and professional and smile when you speak. Your client will hear the smile in your voice.
When we communicate with others we tend to use language and behaviours that we are most comfortable with. But not everyone will respond to those words and behaviours as we would.
When we’re dealing with people in person we have visual clues, via body language, to help us gauge how our communication is being received. As this article from Psychology Today, about the basics of body language points out, we throw out a storm of signals all the time.
On the phone though you have none of this to show how your communication is being received. Ergo, you need to listen with care to the language and tone your client uses to respond to you. And, if necessary, change the words you use to get your message across.
I could talk all day about communication. I’m no expert though and there are lots of different communication models. Check out theProcess Communication Model as an example of how we all communicate and receive messages in different ways.
5. Be prepared to listen and ask probing questions
You should expect some storytelling, even some lies. If you deal with the same clients on a regular basis you’ll come to recognise these. However, never dismiss someone’s story outright. Ask probing questions to either catch out the lie or get to the crux of the problem.
Sometimes your client won’t appear to say very much at all. You need to listen for clues that may help you understand why they haven’t paid your invoice.
Pick up on words the client uses that point to a significant event – e.g. illness, redundancy, death, cash flow problems etc. Sometimes people feel embarrassed that they cannot pay their bill because of a sudden change in circumstance. They can react emotionally or with aggressive language to cover up such embarrassment.
Let them have their say, stay calm, and then ask your probing questions to get to the bottom of the issue. You might find it more effective to politely end the call and try again later if the client gets very aggressive.
You can empathise with your client’s story but stay focused on your objective here. For genuine changes in circumstances you can change the terms of the outcome you want but you should not change the end goal. If payment in full is not possible consider agreeing a payment plan with your client.
6. Get a firm commitment and follow up
You are looking for a commitment to pay from your client.
If you’re being told that the payment is stuck somewhere in the process, get the name and number of the bottleneck (e.g. the Finance Director who has to sign the cheque) and call them.
Make sure you get a value, amount, payment method and name during the call. You should confirm all these details in an email to your client after the call.
If you can’t get a firm commitment for a payment date, get a commitment for something else, such as a call back date. This is useful if the client queries the invoice or requests a copy.