Tool Up: Learn to have those difficult conversations

There is a real reticence to talk about money. In a survey of 2000 adults a quarter said talking about money made them “anxious” and “nervous”. They were more comfortable talking about mental health or infertility.

Some people grew up in households where money was a taboo subject, or where talking about money was “socially unacceptable”, However in business money is an inevitable part of the mix so there are times when, like it or not, we have to address the thorny issue of money or it’s possible that we won’t get paid. You can’t afford to let reticence to talk about money stop you holding your customer to account. We’d rather avoid confrontation, and telling people we want money from them (even if it’s money we’re owed) feels like it might lead to confrontation.

Maybe it’s a feeling of a lack of control, or even that the other party will have the upper hand. Get over it and get paid the money you’re owed or face financial difficulties and even insolvency.

Think, prepare, practice and stand your ground, nicely.

Because you’re worth it

You can’t afford to be modest about money.

You provide a service or product which others don’t or can’t provide, or don’t do as well as you do, or isn’t as acceptable to your customer. That customer has already valued it sufficiently to make use of it, so paying you the agreed price for it is simply the final part of the deal.

The unpaying/non-paying customer is the one who should feel embarrassed or awkward about being late in paying, or not coming up with the cash.

Not all negotiations or conversations about money are going to be simple or straight-forward but if you know your true worth and approach the conversation with the belief in that worth the outcome is more likely to be positive.

Don’t assume the worst

It’s easy to assume that the customer is deliberately withholding money. That might be the case. However, companies that owe us money, and the bigger they are the truer this is likely to be, are very complicated and often have several departments dedicated to ordering goods, reconciling accounts and invoices, getting approvals for payments, and eventually paying out money due. Your invoice may be stuck in the process and between departments.

Stay calm and polite

If you’ve wound yourself up about making a call and having a conversation about money that’s late or hasn’t been paid, it’s tempting to go in all guns blazing. Shouting and threatening legal action isn’t advisable. The person you speak to may be of the mind to sort things out for you and an aggressive approach is likely to get their back up and leave you on the back foot. Be assertive but not aggressive. There’s a big difference.

It’s highly unlikely that the first, second or even third person you speak to is the person responsible – so venting your anger on them isn’t going to help anyone. They may be even less likely to be helpful as a result.

Mistakes do happen

There may be a reasonable explanation as to why your money has been held up. You may have sent it to the wrong person/department, forgotten to put an important piece of information on it, made a mistake somewhere on the invoice. Investigate the delay rather than rushing to blame.

Disguise your call as an enquiry

You may be phoning up to moan, but no one wants to hear that. Instead, call to say that you’re going through the books and there appears to be a payment missing. Can they help? Pause, leave a silence, and you may hear an admission of guilt and an offer to sort the problem out straight away.

If that’s not the case, ask what you need to do to get paid. That suggests there’s goodwill and a willingness to act from YOUR side, and that can smooth relationships effectively. Ideally, you want to keep these people on-side because you want to get work from them in future. Be assertive, not aggressive; rational, not emotional.

Assume the best

Go into a conversation assuming things will turn out alright, rather than assuming it will all go badly. This should help put you in the right mindset.

And if this IS going to end up with no option but to ask the Small Business Commissioner’s Office for help or take legal action (which really is always the last resort) that’s going to happen anyway. Behaving aggressively from the beginning is probably not going to change things.

Plan and prepare for the call

Get all your ducks in a row: dates, invoice numbers, times of calls etc. It’s astonishing how many people make calls without a copy of the disputed invoice in front of them.

Have your persuasive arguments lined up and practice them so you can avoid getting too emotional.

Couch your call as an enquiry in terms of “is there anything I can do to speed things through?

State that you will call back and when. If you say you will call back do it, at the time you said you’d call.

Be clear in your mind what you will accept in terms of clearing the debt and what you will do if the money isn’t forthcoming.

It’s easy to do anything else rather than make that phone call. But delaying things is only going to make things worse.

Delaying gives the customer the impression you’ll wait longer. Make it clear the waiting is over.

Prevention is better than cure

Do everything you can to prevent the situation arising in the first place. Negotiate your responsibilities, get the contract in place, in writing. Make sure the terms are clear. Check what exactly you need to do to get your invoice paid and when. Act in advance rather than waiting until you haven’t been paid and the conversation gets uncomfortable. Call the week before your invoice is due to be paid. Get through to the right person and ask if they have all the information they need on your invoice to make it payable. Establish rapport. Be pleasant. Be humorous, even. They are more likely to remember you and do all they can to help you later.

The bottom line

You are likely to be worried that the conversation itself, that chasing up the missing or late payments will itself damage the working relationship. However if the relationship is really going to be that tough, is it something you really want in your life? Be prepared to walk away and look for better customers who also know your worth and are willing to pay fair to have you supply them.