Coach's Corner

A selection from frequently–asked questions...

Dear Coach,

Two years ago I took the plunge and went into business for myself in the rare books / book binding business – it’s a passion with me. I love what I’m doing and I’ve been able to attract some very good accounts by delivering very high quality work. The prognosis seems to be very good generally.

My challenge is that a few of my larger clients – as measured by the volume of the services they require – are extremely slow in settling their accounts and so I’m frequently extended financially. I don’t want to offend them but I simply cannot afford to carry them. What’s your recommendation for dealing with this?

Response:

I’d like to speak to the over-riding issue here before addressing a precise course of action.

Many of us are very reluctant to complain directly. I’ve heard that nineteen out of twenty people would rather walk away from bad service than mention it; this is likely true in my experience. I, and many others I know, have suffered long and hard over an injustice before we’ve taken effective action to remedy it.

Why is this? Why do we avoid confronting and attempting to resolve the issues? Well, there’s the rub! ‘Confrontation’ stirs up a number of uneasy feelings, provokes levels of anxiety we can do without and suggests dangers that we’ll go far to avoid. Yet the word/concept is harmless – it simply means ‘eye-to-eye’, ‘face-to-face’ and up-front, and few of us have any issue with this kind of openness.

Still we make every attempt to avoid such dealings, placing them so far back in our minds that we even fail to recall they are there at all – in effect, what problem?

So, well done; you acknowledge that there is an issue and it needs to be dealt with. However, let me ask you why there’s a problem with this. You set up the initial business transaction in a responsible manner, I’m sure. You requested all the relevant information to set performance specifications for the job – expectations, timings, quality of materials, quantities, etc.  You likely also negotiated on costs, price and delivery. So why would you not include payment terms?

If you did do this and the clients have failed to honour their side of the contract, your course is clear and totally defensible so remind them of their contractual responsibilities. If you omitted to negotiate payment terms, then you didn’t plan the job completely; the old adage is that if you fail to plan then you plan to fail!

I mention this because it’s a common failing and it’s related to the ideas above about avoiding confrontation. We do not address the issue at the beginning of the assignment because we hope that payment won’t be an issue; but by so doing we can make it an issue. We would not fail to specify the work quality requirements and perform work without a precise appreciation of the client’s expectations in this area. The understanding is incomplete and this now becomes a problem for the assignment and perhaps for the relationship.

There’s nothing wrong with being upfront and clear about expectations – both ways. We all know the dangers in making assumptions. We also recognize that different people have different perspectives on priorities and even on realities. We need to contribute fully to a meeting of the minds – at the outset.

Let’s say that you did this to an adequate extent and still there’s been a shortfall on payments. All you have to do is gently, politely but firmly remind your client of the arrangement as you approach the payment deadline date(s). When this is attached to a solicitation for feedback or feed forward on client satisfaction, it will cause no offense. Should they fail to respond to your reminder you can follow through to enquire about the cause of the delay in response with a problem-solving mindset.

If the issue of payment was not adequately discussed at the beginning of the assignment, then you should request a meeting to rectify and clarify the terms. It is best done face-to-face rather than by ‘phone or (heaven forbid!) by email. Combine this initiative with a benefit for the client- new product / service offerings, more favourable terms for future assignments, collateral information, or similar.

When payment has already become a problem, for whatever reason, you would still request a face-to-face meeting to clarify the terms for mutually satisfactory business. You could open a dialogue by simply stating, "I’ve realized that when we set up the assignment, I likely omitted to clarify the payment terms with you; might we do that right now?”

The client could take immediate action, agreeing to a date for payment and to include late payment fees. If there’s no quick agreement, or a difference of opinion, then jointly explore the causes and consequences. Be very open and candid about what the late payment means to you but also seek out the impact on the client. I’ve found that when consequences are mutually explored in real time and courteously, the payment resistance often evaporates.

Not confronting the problem or failing to address it fully and openly will lead to a deteriorating relationship. What we do not put into words we’ll eventually put into our actions; and frustration is a very visible emotion.

Since your motives are honourable and constructive and if you choose dialogue rather than discussion – seeking out both sides of the issue as opposed to focusing on your own, you will probably find that confrontation can actually make the longer-term relationship even more healthy.

I hope this helps.