Staying afloat in tough economic times
Many of my clients have told me that their business is down: fewer homes are being buit, materials purchased, real estate sold, and so on. This, of course, is no surprise, and many of my clients are currently retooling their business to help bring in additional income during these times.
But staying profitable isn't just about earning money off of new business; it also means that you need to get paid for the business you have already performed. It's easier to lose one job (and the potential income) than it is to perform the job, expend the effort, labor and materials, then not get paid. For many of my clients, it may take two or three paying jobs to cover the cost of one job for which they didn't get paid.
How, then, can you protect yourself so that you get paid for the work you do, so that you get paid?
1. Written contract. Many of my clients are subcontractors (brickmasons, graders, plumbers, etc.), who work on houses, and they rarely get a written contract with the person or company who hired them. However, this is very important. Obviously, a written contract will show proof there's an agreement, but that's the least important factor (after all, if you've done the work, that's proof as well). No, a contract is more important because it will outline the terms of what you are supposed to do, and when you can collect your money, so that your client can't hold you at bay (e.g., saying, "I'm not paying you until the house is finished by everyone"). Also, in North Carolina, you typically can't collect attorney's fees unless you have a contract providing for it, nor can you collect interest on late payments without an applicable provision in your contract. Sure, if you hire an attorney who successfully collects your fee, you're somewhat relieved; but you'll also be disappointed once you subtract his fee, and realize that your money could've been earning interest over the six months it took to collect. By contrast, a well-written contract could provide that the debtor has to pay you 15 percent attorney's fees and legal costs if you have to sue, and can provide for 18 percent annual interest on bills more than 30 days due.
2. Personal guaranty. Many clients simply do business with the "company," even if the company is a one-man operation. If you're doing business, attempt to wrangle a personal guaranty, in writing, from clients. In other words, if you don't get paid, the person with whom you're dealing should personally guarantee payment of the debt. If you're performing contract work for, e.g., Wachovia Bank, this may not be possible. But I suspect most of your clients are small businesses. These businesses' owners have to guarantee their bank loans; make them guarantee payment for your work. If a business owes two bills, and one of them is personally guaranteed, the bill personally guaranteed will be paid first--simply because that bill shall cause the owner personal liability and therefore is more urgent!
3. Cutting off work early. Nobody wants to quit a job or stop supplying a customer, but as a small business owner, you need to be careful not to extend credit for too much work/supplies, nor should you let the unpaid bills linger. Often, a customer may get further in debt trouble the longer your bill lingers. If you haven't been paid in 30 days, do not continue to supply services, material or labor, or you can be getting YOURSELF further indebted to your customers. Some of my clients used to take a "double down" gambling approach: they know they shouldn't keep supplying goods or services, but don't want to make their customer mad and have them walk away. The problem with this approach is that the more the customer owes you, the more desperate YOUR become, and the harder the debt becomes to pay. Get out early, and collect your debt--by lawsuit if necessary. My clients, under my advice, now cut off credit after 30 days and send accounts to me shortly thereafter. Some of their customers get upset, but in the past two years, many of their customers became insolvent--but we got paid because we called our accounts due while there was still money for us to be paid.
If you have questions about account collections or creditors' rights, please contact me for an appointment at 704-735-0483.