Getting Paid. Can You Appeal to Your Debtor’s Conscience?

There are moves afoot in the UK (Late Payment Tsar) to make it easier for small companies to persuade big companies to pay their bills on time. Whilst there are, of course, many wonderful advantages in running a small company, getting paid quickly isn’t one of them.

Some large companies, especially those in the retail trade, even demand a fee from their suppliers for the privilege of being a supplier, and payment terms when you do business with big corporations are not always kind, and whatever they are, they are very often breached. We accept this troublesome behaviour because we need these big companies to be our customers, not only because they enhance our reputation, but because business with them, if we do a good job, can grow and grow.

unpaid invoices

Fortunately, most of the international companies LLP Group works for are reasonable and fair, but there are sometimes exceptions. One of them is a global company that owes us a very large sum that should have paid at least three months ago. The sum covers software ‘maintenance’, and it is properly contracted, with fully agreed terms.

The difficulty currently lies in finding the people who can authorise payment. You must jump through hoops to win a deal, more hoops to sign a contract, and finally, when it comes to billing and getting paid, you can’t even find the hoops to jump through. Furthermore, people come and go in large international organisations and it’s often difficult just to find out on whose desk your invoice is sitting and who can sign it off.

But what can you do? Do you suspend services, do you threaten legal action, do you become unpleasant or moralistic?

In the case we’re wrestling with, we’ve already paid half the amount to our software supplier, who is ultimately responsible for software corrections and debugging. They’re a large and tough company too, and our contractual terms with them demand that we pay them even if we haven’t been paid ourselves. So we’re caught in the middle.

In recent days I’ve discussed the issue with our managing director, who’s responsible for the relationship both with the customer and our supplier, and we arrived at two slightly different views as to how to put pressure on our customer. I take the view that ‘moral obligation’ can be persuasive, and that if we tell our customer that we’ve already had to pay our supplier on his behalf, our customer will feel moral pressure to pay. I somehow trust to good nature. He, on the other hand, believes that if we tell them we’ve paid our supplier, then they will no longer feel they need do anything at all, since software ‘support’ has been bought, albeit by us, not them.

Does it depend on the nationality or the culture of the debtor? Perhaps. I may be old-fashioned in believing that business has a moral dimension, but I think it’s something one can and must occasionally point out.

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