This is a common-sense approach to the problem of determining whether a customer is about to become a collection problem. Companies that have a cash flow problem must choose which vendors they will continue to satisfy and which vendors they will not. If a company has insufficient cash on hand to pay all of their vendors on a timely basis, some of their vendors are not going to get paid on time. This can be a one-time problem and things could get back to normal fairly soon, or it can be an endemic problem and if you don’t act promptly it may cost you.
When you first spot a problem, you are not going to know whether it’s a short-term thing or the customer is in financial difficulty. It behooves you to make a determination and act as quickly as possible. Some of the signs to look for are discussed below. Essentially, they represent behavioral changes in the account. The chances are that if the account is having financial problems more than one of them will be evident, but the occurrence of only one may still signify a real problem. In any event, once you make your determination, the quicker you turn the account over for collection, the more likely you are to realize a significant cash return. Here are the things to look for:
The Account is Over 90 Days Past Due
The customer has been a solid citizen and almost always paid on a timely basis. Now they are 90 days past due, and it seems they are struggling to not go to 120. They answer your calls, but promises to accelerate their payments and clean up the past due balance are not met. They may also be evidencing some of the behavior discussed below. The chances are you have a problem and turning them over for collection may save you some money and in many instances, save you a customer.
The Account is Not Returning Your Calls
This is a sure sign of a problem. They are past due and ducking you. If they won’t talk to you after repeated attempts to reach them, your collection agency may be your only solution. Collection agencies have trained recovery professionals that focus on working with these types of accounts and experience this problem as a normal course of their daily activity. They will get your customer to the table because it’s what they do for a living.
The Account Has Started Purchasing Erratically
Over time, the customer has always bought, even if it’s seasonal, a reasonably predictable amount of product. Your salesperson on the account can’t understand what’s going on. There are several possible reasons for erratic purchasing. It is possible that the demand for your product(s) has become highly variable and the customer is purchasing accordingly, or your customer is having financial trouble and is having difficulty staying current. If other customers are still purchasing the same products on a consistent basis than the chance that there is a demand problem is small. So, a financial problem may be the reason. This is something that needs to be checked out before it costs you money.
The Account Has Stopped Buying
If the account has stopped buying and owes you money, even if it’s not past due, you need to be on the alert. For whatever reason, if the account no longer needs you, they don’t have a reason to be prompt. If they go 90 days past due, you are probably going to need outside help to collect your money.
The Account Changes Bank Accounts Too Frequently
Good banking relations are vital to a company’s health. If your account is suddenly paying you from a different bank it may not signify a problem, but if they pay you from a different bank every time they send you a check, something’s wrong. This needs to be checked out. An updated credit check is called for, and if it doesn’t come out clean, you need to pay extra attention to the account because, if they are not overdue yet, the chances are great that they soon may be.
You Receive Negative Trade Information on an Account
As of now, the account is not past due, but you receive some negative trade information on the account at a recent credit group meeting or from a credit report. This needs to be checked carefully. When an account gets into trouble, they start allocating their available cash. The more important vendors may not see a problem, but the secondary vendors find the account is falling behind. For example, if the account is a supermarket, to be in the soda business they need Coke and Pepsi. The alternative soda brands will see a problem, but Coke and Pepsi will not until the company is ready to go belly-up.
The Account Has Several Unresolved Disputes
There are always disputes with customers. They received the wrong items, or the items were received damaged, or they were entitled to a discount are some of the reasons an account will not pay an invoice in-full. However, these types of disputes are easily settled if both parties are willing to compromise. But when an account refuses to settle and the dispute grows old, and additionally more invoices are disputed and they too age, you have a problem and it has nothing to do with the disputes. The account is holding on to cash and the disputes are a way of justifying their non-payment.
We recommend having a strategy in place to determine when to pull the trigger and place a customer with your collection partner. The warning signs listed above are usually evident during your internal collection efforts and the sooner you recognize them the better. We recommend being proactive with your internal efforts as soon as your customer is past due. If the customer is more than 90 days past due, you obviously have a problem and the account should be turned over for collection to maximize your cash flow.
But even if your customer is not 90 days past due, you may be about to have a problem. When an account evidences any of the behavior discussed above you need to get on their case sooner rather than later. Prompt action will save you money. If the account is behaving erratically you should turn them over as soon as they trigger the 90 days past due signal because in all probability things are not going to get better, only worse.
Sam Fensterstock is Senior Vice President, Business Development, for AGA, a leading commercial collection agency based in Melville, NY. He can be reached at (631) 425-8800 or firstname.lastname@example.org.