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It’s Your Money: Steps to Improve Collections

By Michael Baker

Almost every law firm has issues with collections at one time or another. At the very least, most firms would benefit from making improvements to their collections processes.

So let’s take a look at some different approaches to see what might pay off for your firm.

Focus Internally First

If you want to improve collection results, you’ll need to examine what you’re doing and be prepared to make some changes. Start by looking at internal processes. A few simple (and quick) changes and tweaks like these can make a big difference:

  • Bill regularly. I am surprised by the number of firms that delay billing or simply bill irregularly. Your best opportunity to collect is when your service (or product) is fresh in the mind of your client. Billing quickly and regularly will improve collections and lessen the risk of unknowingly providing additional services to a client who is unwilling or unable to pay.
  • Fix problems with your collections system. Flow-charting your billing and invoicing processes will help you identify inefficiencies and bottlenecks. Take a look at last month’s billing process and create a timeline of the steps until the last invoice was mailed. You’ll spot weaknesses and problems soon enough.
  • Review invoice formatting. Does the invoice clearly state when payment is due and who to contact for questions or additional information?
  • Identify targets. Set a monthly goal for getting invoices out, and hold yourself and others accountable for meeting that goal. Make the invoicing deadline a top priority — even in the busiest of times.

Put Someone in Charge and Follow Up

Unlike fine wines, receivables do not age well. Don’t wait until an invoice is 90 days past due to follow up. If there is no follow-up until the invoice is past due and the client fails to pay, it means no one owns the process. You have to put just one person in charge.

For many firms, that person might be the office manager. But no matter who it is, that person needs to have regular, face-to-face progress meetings with an owner or supervisor. It’s not too much to ask for that meeting to be held weekly. In fact, it’s preferable if you want to make real and steady progress. If the collections meeting is every Friday, guess when most of the follow-ups will get done? “Every Thursday afternoon” is the correct answer.

Get Face to Face

Several years ago, a client doing multiple high-dollar projects for a large international company was having a big collections issue. The customer’s accounting office was several states away, and invoices went unpaid due to improper formatting and poor communications. When it was clear that emails were not getting the job done, our client had his office manager and receivables clerk fly out and meet with the customer’s accounting staff and take them to lunch to discuss it.

The result? An open line of communication and better collections. The collections staff developed a personal working relationship with the customer’s payables clerk, and soon collections were no longer a problem. You’ll never develop that kind of relationship by trading emails. Put your people and your client’s people in the same room and have them share a meal! If the client is close by, making this happen is easy. But even a short trip could pay real dividends.

Would You Lend the Client Money?

Think of yourself as a loan officer when it comes to clients who won’t pay. Would you lend this client money? As long as you’re not getting paid, that is exactly what you’re doing. If you would not make that loan, it’s time to lower the client’s credit limit or revise payment terms.

I once heard someone say they’d rather go broke fishing and drinking beer all day than doing work with a thin margin for someone who’s slow to pay. If you have doubts about a client’s ability to pay, take action. Securing advance payment before beginning any additional work is one way to limit your exposure with a client deemed to be a credit risk.

Being on top of collections and contacting a slow-paying client in a positive, courteous manner not only reflects professionalism, it demonstrates your competency to the client.

Never be bashful about asking for your money. It is, after all, your money.

Illustration ©

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Michael Baker

Michael Baker is Managing Partner at Dent Moses, a national accounting consultancy based in Birmingham, Alabama. A CPA and Certified Financial Planner, Michael’s practice is concentrated in the area of taxation and general business consulting. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the Alabama Society of Certified Public Accountants and the Financial Planning Association. Additionally, he serves as Chairman of the UAB Accounting Advisory Board and is involved with Samford University’s Brock School of Business.

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