In this interview, we delve into the world of accounts receivable management with Dee Bowden, a seasoned expert in assisting small and medium-sized businesses in addressing the often-overlooked challenge of collecting unpaid invoices. Dee shares her insights on tackling this issue through a strategic framework that emphasizes Problem-Solving, Customer Service, Gratitude, and Relationship-Building. Drawing from her own experiences, she highlights the importance of implementing effective tracking systems, paying attention to contract details, and confidently following up on payments. With a mission to empower business owners and prevent financial pitfalls, Dee’s journey from a small IT company to becoming a Revenue Recovery Specialist underscores the significance of accounts receivable in sustaining and growing businesses.
Who do you help, and how do you assist them?
I assist small and medium-sized business owners across various industries, such as tech, software, government agencies, and government contractors. My primary focus is tackling a common issue that many businesses face but often don’t openly discuss – unpaid invoices. When you’re in business, you typically provide a product or service, fulfill your contractual obligations, and then send out an invoice, expecting payment. However, things can get uncomfortable when more than 30 days pass without receiving payment, depending on the contract terms.
In my 10+ years of experience, I’ve found that unpaid invoices are often a symptom of underlying problems or issues related to the invoice. I’ve developed a framework that I teach business owners to use. First, we identify and address the root cause of payment delays. Effective cash collection is also a critical aspect of providing excellent customer service. I firmly believe that after making a sale, diligent follow-up is essential. Additionally, expressing gratitude is a softer skill that shouldn’t be overlooked – a simple “Thank you for your business” on an invoice can go a long way in maintaining positive client relationships. Lastly, building and nurturing relationships is crucial in business, especially for ongoing transactions, and I provide guidance on how to do that.
The second key aspect of my teachings is emphasizing the importance of tracking invoices. Many small and medium-sized business owners lack an efficient tracking system. Without it, they struggle to keep tabs on clients, total contract values, purchases, invoice due dates, and expected payment dates. This oversight can lead to financial challenges, especially during times like the end of the year when outstanding, untracked invoices can strain businesses. Therefore, my main teachings revolve around a problem-solving framework that includes customer service, gratitude, and relationship-building on the front end, along with the critical skill of invoice tracking.
Ultimately, my goal is to ensure that business owners receive the payment they are owed. This is driven by the realization that many small businesses, including those impacted by the COVID pandemic, faced financial hardships, and some even closed down. I believe that some of these businesses may have had unpaid invoices that could have provided much-needed support during tough times. However, the reluctance to approach clients for payment may have prevented them from accessing these funds. That’s why I emphasize the importance of following through on every aspect of the sales process, from securing contracts to delivering products or services, invoicing, and, most importantly, receiving payment. Consistently tracking these steps ensures prompt payment and reduces the need for collections.
I aim to empower business owners to feel confident about taking all necessary steps, including effective follow-ups, to maintain healthy cash flow and strong client relationships.
Could you share an example with the ultimate outcome?
Certainly, I have two examples to share, so let’s start with the first one. There was a small company run by a business owner specializing in IT services. When we initially spoke, he expressed his frustration with having $10,000 in outstanding payments and not knowing how to resolve the issue. We decided to meet at a Starbucks to discuss the situation further.
During our conversation, I asked him about his methods for tracking his customers and their transactions. He admitted that he had no tracking system in place, which is why I emphasized the importance of implementing one. I explained that he needed a system, even if it was as simple as an Excel spreadsheet or, in his case, a Google document. This system would help him keep track of customer names, contract numbers, dollar amounts, the specific products or services they purchased, invoice dates, and expected payment dates. We also included a notes section for additional information. This tracking system is a fundamental practice I’ve taught every small business owner I’ve worked with to ensure they have a clear overview of their financial transactions.
For this particular business owner, I used his $10,000 outstanding balance as an example and created a template for him. In less than 30 days, he applied the principles we discussed, and the results were impressive. I guided him through the process, providing him with a script on what to communicate to his clients. He needed to remind them of their contractual obligations, highlight the services he had delivered, present the invoice, and confidently request payment. To his amazement, he found that this approach was effective.
I emphasized to him the importance of maintaining the client relationship during this process, as preserving goodwill is essential for securing repeat business. Handling the back end, which involves securing payment, is just as vital as the front end, where you initially secure the sale. The outcome for this IT company was that they were able to recover the $10,000 in outstanding payments, which significantly improved their cash flow and allowed them to continue serving their clients effectively.
What are some common myths or misconceptions about accounts receivable issues?
Certainly, there are a couple of prevalent myths and misconceptions surrounding accounts receivable (AR) issues that I often encounter:
- Myth #1: AR is often associated solely with aggressive collection tactics. Many people believe that managing accounts receivable is primarily about being confrontational and pressuring clients to pay immediately. This is a common misconception.
- Myth #2: Some business owners mistakenly believe that managing AR is not an integral part of the sales cycle, from securing a sale to contract management and billing. They may underestimate its significance in the overall business process.
- Myth #3: Another misconception is assuming that having a good relationship with a client guarantees automatic payment. While a strong client relationship is essential, it’s equally crucial to invoice clients promptly. Without invoicing, clients cannot make payments.
Additionally, when people learn that I’m a revenue recovery specialist, their initial assumption is often that I’m involved in debt collection. In reality, I am a receivables management consultant. My role is to empower business owners with the knowledge and skills to manage their receivables effectively. In business, individuals are typically educated on various aspects like sales, marketing, social media, and website development. However, there is often limited guidance on tracking invoices, especially for businesses with contractual obligations.
For example, consider a scenario where a coach offers a 90-day coaching program with a $10,000 fee, including a deposit. In such cases, there is a contract involved, and proper billing is necessary. While some people may swipe their credit cards, issues can arise, such as declined payments or insufficient funds. In these situations, clients may feel embarrassed or hesitant to communicate their payment challenges. It’s crucial to encourage open communication and offer solutions, like granting a brief extension for payment or retrying the credit card.
I believe it’s essential to understand that accounts receivable management goes beyond aggressive collections tactics. My objective is to teach business owners how to manage their AR more effectively within their own operations. While I can assist with collections if needed, my primary goal is to empower you to handle your receivables successfully in the long term.
What are some common mistakes people make with accounts receivable?
Certainly, there are some common and significant mistakes that people often make when it comes to managing accounts receivable:
- Lack of Tracking System: The most significant mistake is not having a tracking system in place. This omission is crucial because without a tracking system, individuals have no means of keeping tabs on the number of clients they have, the amount of money owed to them, and the due dates for payments. This oversight can lead to confusion and financial challenges.
- Inadequate Contract Attention: Many individuals, especially those dealing with contracts, fail to pay adequate attention to the contract details related to invoicing. Whether it’s a corporate or government contract, there are often specific payment terms and requirements outlined in the contract. These details include information like the vendor’s name, banking details, the nature of the purchased goods or services, the total amount, and any performance metrics. Neglecting these contract-related invoice details can be a costly mistake.
- Lack of Confidence in Payment Follow-Up: Another significant mistake is lacking the confidence to follow up and request payment. Interestingly, many small business owners are confident when it comes to making sales but may hesitate to assertively request payments. It’s important to remember that confidence should extend to both asking for the sale and requesting payment because they are interlinked aspects of doing business.
In my experience, many small business owners enter the business world with a strong desire to make a positive difference. They want to address problems and provide solutions. However, they may not anticipate the complexities of tracking systems, proper invoicing, and confidently following up on payments. These aspects are not often discussed but are essential for long-term business success. To sum it up, having a robust tracking system, preparing accurate invoices, and being confident in payment follow-ups are key elements of effective accounts receivable management.
What inspired you to start in this field?
My journey into this field began around 18 years ago when I joined a small IT company located just outside of my hometown of Boston. When I was hired, I was informed that the company had $8 million in outstanding receivables. It was a staggering amount, considering the size of the company, with about 100 employees at the time. I was placed on the collections team, and I immediately felt the weight of this responsibility.
Sitting at my cubicle, I couldn’t help but wonder how the company had amassed $8 million in unpaid IT services. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the key to solving this puzzle lay in four essential elements: problem solving, customer service, gratitude, and relationship building. Taking a proactive approach, I made a phone call to one of our vendors, and during our conversation, I uncovered the root of the problem. The vendor had recently changed their billing system, and by reformatting and resubmitting our invoices in the new system, we could immediately collect $2 million out of the $8 million owed.
I asked the vendor when they had communicated this change to their clients, and they mentioned sending out an email. Surprisingly, our company had not received that communication. In a single phone call, I managed to recover $2 million, and within just 60 days, I had successfully retrieved a total of $6 million. However, an unexpected turn of events occurred when the CEO summoned me downstairs and announced the immediate shutdown of the company, just two months before Christmas.
In the corporate world, salespeople received commissions, while those in accounts receivable received bonuses. This experience marked the beginning of my journey into the world of revenue recovery. I realized that a significant part of the company’s downfall was due to inadequate accounts receivable management, among other issues. I began contemplating how I could bring this critical aspect of business to the forefront for small business owners, so they wouldn’t encounter the same challenges I had faced – making sales, fulfilling contracts, and providing services, yet lacking a proper system to track payments.
This realization motivated me to create a tracking system and emphasize its importance. I wanted to ensure that business owners didn’t overlook the crucial role of accounts receivable in sustaining their businesses. My determination grew stronger during the COVID-19 pandemic, as I observed similar issues, particularly with theaters and vendors who had contracts for shows that never happened. Sales went uncompleted, money remained uncollected, and losses piled up. This further reinforced the need for proper accounts receivable management and inspired me to continue my work in this field.
What are the next steps for someone interested in learning more?
If you’re interested in diving deeper into this topic, I appreciate your enthusiasm. Here are the next steps:
- Read My Book: I’ve written a book titled “Collect the Cash,” which goes in-depth into the principles and strategies we’ve discussed. You can get a copy at www.collectthecash.biz/book.
- Free Resource – 5 Tips to Collect the Cash: To kickstart your journey toward effective accounts receivable management, I offer a valuable free resource called “5 Tips to Collect the Cash.” This resource provides insights into setting up tracking systems and what to do when payments are not received.
Here are the 5 Tips.
- Create a Tracking System
- Identify the Smallest Accounts to Collect
- Set up Reminders
- Make It Easy to Pay
- Ask for the Payment
These resources will equip you with valuable information and guidance to help you gain a better understanding and effectively manage your accounts receivable.