Having a Bad Day, by Michael C. Dennis

Michael C. Dennis

A bad debt can ruin a good day. A bad debt is any debt that cannot be collected. Bad debt write-offs are a cost of doing business on open account terms. No matter how carefully the credit department reviews existing customers and new applicants, such losses are inevitable. Bad debt losses are a cost of doing business on open account terms.

When a bad debt loss occurs, you can either lament your losses or learn from them. I encourage you to consider all of the ideas below when such losses occur:

  1. Learn a lesson. Use this opportunity to reflect on what just happened. What could you have done differently? Even if the answer is that the credit department did ‘almost everything’ right, there is still room for improvement. Your goal is to take something positive away from the event, ideally so you can keep it from happening again in exactly the same way in the future.
  2. Keep things in perspective. Even if this is the biggest loss of the year, remember that some level of bad debt write offs are inevitable. Why? Because there is some level of risk in every open account sale. This includes sales to your largest and most creditworthy customers… not to mention the customers you recognize and self-identify as marginal credit risks.
  3. Every bad debt is an opportunity. Write-offs are opportunities to change, to improve and to refine your department’s policies and procedures. Each refinement brings you closer to the optimum internal credit management process intended to properly manage or balance risk and reward.
  4. Seek guidance from management. Use a bad debt as an opportunity to ask for comments, advice and guidance from your manager or senior management. Doing so is not a sign of weakness. It is an indication of maturity, and a great way to make certain that your ‘appetite’ for credit risk is consistent with your company’s taste for risk.
  5. Take responsibility. If you are the department manager, you are responsible when losses occur. This is true even if you personally didn’t take part in the decision-making process. Please don’t try to blame your subordinates. Instead, take the hit squarely in front of your manager and then move on.

I am convinced there are lessons to be learned from every bad debt write off. Among the most common mistakes uncovered are:

  • Information in the credit file was out of date
  • Financial analysis was not done or done poorly
  • The customer was allowed to exceed the credit limit
  • Orders were released while the account was past due
  • The credit manager was not told soon enough to make a difference
  • The collector did not focus enough time and attention on the account
  • The creditor company failed to place the account for collection quickly enough

Each of these mistakes has something in common. That common theme is that if the collection team is provided with clear guidelines and work instructions, fewer mistakes will be made and losses will be reduced

When [not if] bad debt losses happen, don’t lose faith in yourself or in the policies and procedures you have in place. If you ever fall into the trap of believing that what you do doesn’t matter, that idea can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. You will never be able to control all of the external forces that result in bad debts, but you can control what you do and how you respond.

Michael C. Dennis is the author of the Encyclopedia of Credit (www.encyclopediaofcredit.com), a free, fast, internet resource for credit and collection professionals. He is a consultant, and the author of “Credit and Collection Forms and Procedures Manual” as well as a frequent instructor at CMA-sponsored educational events. His most recent book, “Happy Customers, Faster Cash,” is available at amazon.com  He can be contacted at 949-584-9685.