As a business owner, receivables (accounts receivable or A/R) are a vital part of your business. If you are not billing or invoicing clients and consequently, collecting those receivables in a timely fashion, your business will be unable to sustain itself. Without a steady, positive cash flow, you will be unable to make payroll, buy supplies or inventory, make investments into your business and/or pay vendors and other business operating expenses.
It is also important to understand that billings or receivables do not necessarily represent 100% income or revenue when there are applicable direct costs (ex: cost of sale, cost of goods sold). Why is this important? Well, because you don’t want to “rob Peter to pay Paul.” If you invoice a client $10,000 for a project but $5,000 of that invoice is for direct costs to a third-party vendor, only $5,000 constitutes income or revenue (your actual business income) which can go towards paying your business operating expenses, not the full $10,000. The $5,000 for direct costs should be earmarked and set aside to pay your third-party vendor.
Far too often, some business owners don’t make this distinction and may use that full $10,000 to satisfy their immediate business cash flow needs. For instance, a business owner may choose to use that $10,000 to help cover their payroll or pay a vendor that is looking for payment on a past due invoice (aka “the squeaky wheel”). In essence, the business owner has “robbed Peter to pay Paul.” The business may be experiencing a cash flow issue and has decided to use the cash that is due and payable to another vendor to pay other business expenses or other vendors. While this may not seem like a bad thing on a short-term basis to satisfy immediate business cash flow needs, there will be a domino effect which will ultimately impact the business in the long-term. It should go without saying that this is a terrible practice to follow!
So, how can you keep receivables in check?
Billings - It’s important to stay active and on top of client billing. For a small business with limited resources and staff, the business owner may need to be the one to take care of billing or perhaps you have a billing clerk or third-party that does billing for your business on a fixed schedule each month. Whatever the case may be, you must get your client billing done on a timely, regular basis. How often you bill or invoice your clients may depend on existing client contracts or agreements that are in place and/or when a project or phases of a project are completed (ex: milestones); however, the most important part is to get your billing done and invoices out to clients as soon as possible. Book those receivables!
Collections – Typically, you should have established payment terms with your clients. Your client contracts or agreements should state the specific payment terms and your invoices should re-iterate the general payment terms (ex: Due upon receipt, NET 10, NET 15, NET 30). Monitor your AR Aging on a weekly basis. Your Accounting platform should be able to generate reports like an AR Aging Summary and Open Invoices. Depending on your comfort level with your clients, you may extend the courtesy of up to NET 30 payment terms, even if your standard payment terms are due upon receipt. Regardless of the courtesy that you extend to a client, when invoices go beyond NET 30 payment terms, you need to actively follow-up with clients on the status of payment. Be sure to send past due notices which include copies of the past due invoices, send account statements and follow up directly with your clients by phone and/or e-mail. Be active and NOT passive!
Be sure to invest in a good Accounting platform that allows you to generate invoices and statements as well as offers robust reporting to provide you with the necessary financial reports that serve your business needs. Try to use platforms that are widely-used, familiar and popular. It will be a lot easier to find people who are experienced using these types of platforms should you need to bring someone in to manage or takeover your books.
When possible, send invoices to clients electronically whether through the Accounting platform (if supported/available) or by e-mail (ex: PDF attachment) in lieu of regular postal mail. In addition, consider accepting electronic payments from clients (ex: wire, ACH) instead of paper checks. This should help to minimize lost checks and may speed up payment turnaround time. When considering electronic payments, check with your financial institution to see if any fees are applicable to these types of transactions. Many financial institutions will offer ways to avoid and/or reduce bank and transaction fees.