If your customers are not paying your invoices on time this may indicate they are under financial stress – which should be of a concern. However, more often, it merely demonstrates a lack of respect. In either case, dealing with late payment excuses quickly and firmly is needed to set your relationship back on track.
Here are some tips and tricks for dealing with the top 8 excuses for late payment of invoices.
Excuse #1: “The job isn’t finished”
Most terms of trade allow for progressive invoicing, and this is important for small businesses working in industries where the jobs are large and ongoing. Unless you have agreed to only invoice at the end of a job, you are within your rights to invoice on a progressive basis. Explain to your customer that without the cash flow from the progressive invoices, you cannot sustain work on their job. Customers who value your work will pay up without further complaints.
Excuse #2: “I haven’t received the invoice” OR “I have lost the invoice”
This can be resolved easily – send a fresh copy of the invoice (preferably by at least two methods) and request a confirmation. Or better yet, telephone the customer the following day to confirm receipt. You should also confirm future delivery means (i.e. confirm the postal address, or ask for the account manager’s direct email) so that this excuse cannot be used again by that customer.
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Excuse #3: “The money isn’t due yet”
This excuse can mean one of two possible things: either your customer genuinely does not understand your payment terms, or your customer is trying to delay payment. If your customer does not understand the terms within which you trade, it is a good idea to assess your terms for clarity and ease-of-use – it may be the case that your invoice terms need to be updated or simplified. If it is clear that your customer is trying to delay payment, you need to re-state your terms firmly and stress that you may impose penalties for late payment (most invoice terms will allow you to collect interest on late payments).
Excuse #4: “The director/accounts manager is away”
This is a frustrating excuse, similar to “our computers are down”. It is not your fault that your customer’s internal systems have failed, and you should not have to suffer non-payment as a consequence. Be persistent and try to speak to other senior people in your customer’s organisation (not just your contact person). You can also press them for what arrangements have been made in the director’s/manager’s absence for payment of other important expenses, like staff wages, and try to use this as a means of securing payment of your account.
Excuse #5: “We will pay in a lump sum”
Some customers will want to pay a few months’ invoices at once, rather than on a progressive basis. If you are willing to allow this (particularly for reliable and long-standing customers), ensure you have a policy in place to make sure that individual invoices do not slip through the cracks. If you are not comfortable with this system, tell your customer that you require each invoice to be paid within its terms. However, you may be able to reach a compromise to keep both of you happy by adjusting the frequency of your invoices to that customer. You could also suggest to the customer that they pay a lump sum upfront, and you then credit each invoice in accordance with its terms – this will ensure you maintain your regular cash flow, whilst minimising administrative work for your customer.
Excuse #6: “We’re a loyal customer so you should give us some extra time”
Just like in any long-term relationship, customers get more comfortable with you over time. This can lead to the customer thinking that they can make their own rules, particularly about payment terms. Ultimately, you have to remember that you run a business, and that the end goal is to have money coming in the door. For your key customers, you may be willing to offer extended terms – if that is the case, confirm it in writing and emphasise that the extended terms are a reward for their loyalty, not an indication of your leniency. If you are not willing to extend your terms, let the customer know that you have noticed their payments getting later, and offer to work with them to ensure that they can make payment on time. You may be able to send an email reminder when the invoice terms are about to expire, or send statements showing the outstanding balance on a regular basis to help them keep track of their account.
Excuse #7: “We don’t have the money to pay you at the moment”
Your customers’ cash flow issues are not your responsibility, but they are your problem. Let the customer know that their failure to pay is not acceptable – they decided to contract for your goods or services, and they knew that an invoice would follow. In these instances, it may be appropriate to put a payment plan in place where the customer pays affordable, regular instalments towards the amount outstanding. This will relieve the immediate burden on your customer, and you will feel more comfortable seeing the debt reduced.
Excuse #8: “The cheque is in the post”
This excuse leaves a customer with very little room to manoeuvre. Ask for cheque and postage details (i.e. cheque number, date of postage and what address the cheque was posted to). If the cheque has not been posted, the customer will not be able to answer your questions. If that is the case, you should consider terminating the relationship immediately – the only thing worse than a non-paying customer is a dishonest customer.
The information contained in this post is current at the date of editing – 20 November 2023.