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A major customer has gone broke and you are left with a large amount of money owed to you that you are not able to collect. The resulting cashflow issues that this can create are significant or, even worse, could force you out of business as well. It’s the stuff of nightmares. 

What’s more, when a business goes into liquidation the liquidator can also, in certain circumstances, claim that any payments you received from the business in the prior six months, were ‘preferential payments’ and therefore demand that these be repaid adding further cashflow pressure! It’s enough to make you break out in a cold sweat.

The warning signs

When I talk to victims of this scenario they usually say one of the following statements:

  • “I saw this coming for a while” (often a year or more ago), and
  • “I wish I did something about it earlier”.

The tell-tail sign of a problem is often slow, delayed, or part payment of your invoice – e.g. 80% of the amount due along with a promise of the balance being paid ‘shortly’.  This is normally enough to keep the suppliers and subcontractor happy enough to keep working or supplying … but the debt gets bigger.

Fears and taking back control

Typically, subcontractors and suppliers have the fear if they stop work then: 

  • They will never get the balance of money owed to them 
  • They won’t find other work as they are too busy to look for it and need the cashflow – even if it isn’t the full amount. 

Recognise and acknowledge the warning signs and take back control by:

  • Stop working for them until you get paid – if they are busy, they also need you to turn up! Advising them that you can’t work for them at short notice as you need the cashflow, often works. 
  • Start looking for other work and reduce your work hours with them 
  • Commence collection action (blame your accountant or partner for making you do this).

BE BRAVE! I frequently see subcontractors and suppliers lose 6-12 months’ profit by not being brave and challenging the situation.

Before starting work for a major customer

It’s exciting starting work for a new major customer but you should do your homework: do everything you can to make sure you will get paid. After priority payments to employees, banks and the ATO there can often be nothing left for suppliers and subcontractors. 

Here’s what you should be doing and asking:

  • Why do they want to work with me?  
    The easiest customer to win is one that someone else has stopped supply with because they need your product or service. Therefore, ask they why they want to change and use you. Does it sound reasonable?
  • Tell them your payment terms right from the start.  
    This important. Communicate in writing, right from the start and get them to agree how long they have to pay you (e.g. 7 days). That way, if you are not paid in time, you can advise them that they are out of your terms and this is going to create problems for you to be able to complete the work. Having a legally prepared agreement to cover you is the best option.
  • Ensure they complete a credit application 
    Don’t have a credit application form? Then get one drawn up by a lawyer, to ensure that you’re asking the right questions. 
  • Do a credit check on their business  
    When I worked for a large company in charge of a credit team, this saved us so many times! We got permission to conduct this as part of our credit application process (see above); occasionally we would get an application with a poor credit report which alerted us to a potential risk … we managed this by saying NO! Banks and finance companies do this, why wouldn't you? 
  • Set a Credit Limit  
    Banks do this (ie overdrafts, credit cards), so should you! 
  • Get References 
    Ask to speak to their suppliers about how they are getting paid. Don’t 100% rely on this as if they are choosing who they let you speak to then you assume it would be the good ones. Do some research yourself on who you know that works with them. 

Not getting carried away with the celebrations of picking up a new client and spending a bit more time at the start to set things up properly, can make things smoother and a lot less costly later on. 

If you’re unsure how to set these things in motion for your business. Speak to us. We can help you get your processes right before things get difficult. 

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