‘Trouble is that my cash doesn’t so much flow as tinkle…’
Cashflow is a common problem, and not just among small businesses. Complaints about slow payment are frequent – so what can you do to encourage your clients to pay on time, and in full?
Well, you could begin by thinking of this as an issue with your business process rather than an issue with your clients…
Why your process could stop you getting paid…
Have you ever reviewed your accounting process?
When asked, it’s amazing how many people say ‘no’. And yet it’s one of the first things you should do if cashflow is important to you. (And if it isn’t, you probably don’t need to be in business!)
Taking it step by step:
- When – and how – do you send an invoice?
- What is your process for checking it has been sent – and received?
- How can you be sure that the right person is receiving that invoice – i.e. someone who has the authority and ability to pay it?
- How do you ensure that they fully understand what they are paying for?
- How do you ensure that they know how to pay – and where they should send their payment?
- How do you ensure that they understand your terms of payment?
- What is your process for recording payments made?
- How and when do you send payment reminders?
- Do you send overdue notices? How and when?
- How – and how quickly – do you respond when clients fail to pay?
I am constantly amazed at how many businesses have nothing in place for one or more of these critical steps. So amazed, in fact, that I’ve produced a beginner’s guide to avoiding payment.
It shows you exactly what not to do – and you can see it here…
But the invoice, of course, is just part of the process. You need to consider the whole process – in detail.
Is someone who struggles with change ‘resistant’ to it? Or are they simply not ready for change?
The difference is important, because ‘readiness for change’ is something you can gauge even before a change takes place.
By knowing how ready for change they are – and working to increase their readiness – you may never need to deal with ‘resistance’ at all.
Using the word ‘readiness’ also removes the rather judgemental associations of the word ‘resistance’. That will affect the attitudes and approach of the people who need to make change happen.
So – how can you determine someone’s readiness? (And let’s give the ‘someone’ a name – Hubert – to avoid complicated language. Apologies to anyone called Hubert, of course…)
There are two issues you need to think about:
- The drivers: How bad does Hubert believe that things now? How much – in Hubert’s view – will change improve them?
- The restraint: How secure does Hubert feel with things as they are?
Drivers for change
If Hubert’s unhappy then he’s far more likely to welcome change. And the more unhappy he is, the more willing he will be to try something new.
If Hubert is comfortable with things as they are it may be hard to persuade him to do things differently – let alone to do things that are different.
So – in essence – a successful change needs to be driven by at least a moderate level of dissatisfaction.
But it also needs to overcome…
Restraints on change
Good research suggests that Hubert’s own feelings of security may be a critical barrier to change. And (by definition) those feelings will be very difficult for anyone except Hubert to determine! That’s because we’re talking about subjective perception, not objective reality. So to truly understand Hubert’s position you’d need to be inside his head. And seeing the world exactly as he sees it.
This subject is tricky enough to deserve a post of its own. So, for the moment, let’s assume we have at least a rough idea about Hubert’s level of felt security.
What effect will this have on his readiness to accept change?
Suppose Hubert is feeling insecure at the moment. That means his anxiety levels are high, and he will be unwilling or even unable to cope with change.
If, on the other hand, he is feeling very secure then he won’t be interested in new information or new ideas.
Drivers and restraints – how they work together
That – as you can see – creates a fascinating picture.
The shaded area is where Hubert is fairly dissatisfied – but also feels reasonably secure. This is when he’s most likely to accept change.
To the right – where he feels almost completely secure – the chances of that become far smaller. If he feels both secure and satisfied (bottom right) then he will obviously be quite happy with things as they are. And If he feels completely secure he will probably become a contented and complacent ‘fat cat’. Even the boxes above, on the right, will be sparsely populated. That’s because new information and new ideas have little appeal to people who feel secure.
The left-hand column poses a different problem. If Hubert is here, even the strongest arguments will fail to cut much ice – because he is incapable of change. The very thought of change will induce the kind of panic that makes a rabbit freeze in the face of oncoming headlights!
So how can we find out where, on this diagram, Hubert feels he is?
And, more importantly, how can we move him to a position where he can and will change?
So you’ve started documenting a process.
Making a record of the best way to do a particular job.
But your first question is bound to be a very obvious one.
How long will it take?
Or, to put it another way: ‘What’s the process for documenting a process?’
And the answer, of course, is; ‘Well, that depends…’
It may not take very long
If it’s a straightforward process, then it won’t take you long to write it down.
So why wouldn’t you take the time to do it?
Suppose that the person who usually does it is away on holiday. Or off sick.
(And yes, that could be you. I know business owners are never ill and never take holidays. But even so…)
Either no one will do it. (Oops…!)
Or someone will do it. Badly. And wrong.
So what’s the choice?
Well, if it’s a planned absence you could take the time to tell someone what to do.
But if you have to do that more than once, you’ll wish you’d written it down!
So – why not take the time when you have it available? (And not while you’re trying to think of everything you need to do before you go away.)
It may take a long time
All right, so it’s a complex process. There’s a lot of detail. Many things that need to be ‘just so’. Perhaps some crucial interactions with other people.
So – if it’s that complex doesn’t it need to be written down?
Think how many opportunities there might be to get something wrong.
Better yet, is it worth thinking about why it’s so complex?
Does it need to be? Could it be simplified? Could it be done better? Or another way?
Time, perhaps, for a review. Or at very least a good, long think while you write everything down.
Because the simple fact is – that simple always works best.
So – how long will it take?
The simple answer? As long as it needs to. But however long it does take, it’ll be worth it for your business.
When you start up a completely new business there’s no business process – as such. There’s only what you decide to do at the time.
Which is fine – to start with, anyway. After all, you need to work out the best way to do all the tasks your business needs.
Some things you’ll have done before, perhaps in another business or in a previous job. In which case you’ll either decide to do those things in the way you’re used to, or to do something completely different. (Perhaps because the way you used to do it never actually worked?)
Even so, at some point you’re going to settle on a specific approach that you’re happy with. That doesn’t mean you won’t review it every so often – after all, what works for a small business may not work for the larger one it will later become. But it’s reasonable to say that there’s now a process in place.
So why would you need to write that process down?
What’s the point? You know what you’re doing, after all!
And that, of course, is precisely the point. You know exactly what you’re doing – but no one else will know unless you tell them. And if it’s not written down, they are far less likely to remember exactly what you said than you are. You’re doing that work all the time, after all. They’re doing it only when you can’t. If you’re off sick, or away on holiday, or at the dentist, there’s a fair chance that some poor soul in your team will try to remember what you told them. And get it horribly wrong.
So what’s the answer?
Unfortunately, the answer is very simple. Take the time. Write it down. Yes, it’s tedious (for you) and there are probably dozens of other things you’d rather be doing, and dozens more clamouring for your attention. But if you don’t, you’ll waste even more time clearing up the mess your team will make of a job you see as simple.
Don’t have a team? Do it anyway. Because one day you’ll be tired, or distracted, and you’ll forget one critical step in the process. And then you’ll spend the rest of the day, or the week, or the month, cursing yourself as you clear up your own mess!
So one final question. How long will it take?
Read some answers in Documenting your process (or – how long does it take?)
Checklists don’t always get a good press. ‘Just ticking the boxes’ is one of those phrases which suggests someone is doing the barest minimum – that they don’t actually care about their work. In which case what’s so great about them?
Imagine you’re on the way to the airport and looking forward to a two-week holiday. An hour after you leave home, your partner asks if you remembered to turn off the cooker.
Well? Did you?
Wouldn’t it be great if you had a checklist of everything you needed for the trip? And everything you needed to do before you left? And used it? Properly?
You’d avoid that moment of pure panic twenty minutes from the airport. You’d avoid one or more heated arguments with your partner. In fact, you’d be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.
Provided, of course, that you’d given careful thought to your checklist in the first place…!
Checklists as a life-saver
Well, they can be. Research published in 2013 showed that surgeons who used a checklist in an emergency situation were 74% less likely to miss a key step in life-saving care than those working from memory alone. And airline pilots use checklists all the time – but most especially in emergencies.
Both professions are highly regarded. They demand long and intensive training. They enforce the highest possible standards. Yet both can benefit from a simple, memory-jogging checklist at a moment of crisis.
An established business process answers the question ‘by what method?’ It deals with the ‘how’, if you like. Checklists are the next step: a way of documenting the ‘how’ so it can be done the same way next time.
Which can be useful if you’re entirely new to the process…
Put yourself, just for a moment, in the shoes of a new recruit. Your new boss welcomes you with genuine warmth. After a few minutes of polite conversation she shows you to your desk. At which point she says: ‘Well, there it is. I’ll leave you to get on with it.’ Get on with what, exactly? How? Where? And in what order?
Checklists could be… well, rather useful?
And so, when you think about it, could be the process of producing checklists. If there’s a task you do on a regular basis, have you ever thought about how you do it? What steps are involved? What errors you now know how to avoid? And whether there might be other, or even better ways of doing it? Writing a checklist helps you focus on these issues and may even raise concerns (and ideas) that have never occurred to you before.
Because checklists can be changed!
So if you’ve never loved checklists before, now could be the time to start.
But what makes a good checklist? And what’s the best process for creating one? More in our next!
At its simplest, a business process answers the question ‘How? By what method?’
Almost everything we do demands a process of some kind. So imagine – for example – that you’re a competitor in the Great British Bakeoff and you’re asked to make a sponge cake. You’ll need to decide how, exactly, you’re going to make it (assuming that Mr Hollywood and Ms Berry haven’t already given you the recipe…)
Or – if this is more your scene – imagine you’ve been given a kit car to assemble. Even if you choose to ignore the instruction book, you’ll still need to think about what to do, and in what order.
But assuming you did have a recipe, would that stifle your creativity? Would it mean you couldn’t make a sponge cake? Or build a kit car with your own long-desired modifications?
It wouldn’t, of course. And yet many people see business process as a constricting shell, stifling growth and creativity. Which could be why we’re so often asked to ‘think outside the box’.
But is business process a ‘box’? Does it really constrain you to that extent? Is it like a beetle’s carapace – an exoskeleton that holds you in? Or is it more like your own skeleton – the supporting framework at your very core? A framework that provides the anchor points you need for your creative muscles, and gives them total freedom to grow and develop?
How creative do you want to be?
Creativity is a wonderful thing. After all, it has produced the world’s greatest works of art (not to mention most of the everyday tools, gadgets and devices that make life possible, tolerable, and even enjoyable).
But it can be overrated. Leonardo da Vinci was so creative with the painting methods for his Last Supper that his work began to deteriorate almost before he’d finished it. By contrast, Sophie Caroline Hill’s highly imaginative use of the third dimension – so that her pictures spill out into the room – suggests a new definition of working ‘outside the box’!
Let’s take a more down to earth example. You could be very creative next time you take the car out. Or perhaps you could drive on the wrong side of the road. How about taking a short cut through someone’s garden? Or choosing to ignore traffic lights for the day? Yes, you could do all these things. But the results would probably not be encouraging (and might well be fatal). It’s unwise to get that creative with anything related to safety.
And how creative would you want an employee to be with their time sheets? Or with accounting for your company’s money?
The truth is that even the most creative process can thrive on constraint. A short story is just that – short: so there’s a constraint on its length. And every invention is constrained by the laws of physics. (Unless, of course, you’re operating in the Star Wars universe or your name is James Tiberius Kirk…)
A good business process won’t constrain your people – it will simply provide a supporting structure they can build on safely, and with confidence. After that, what they can build will be constrained only by their own ability and imagination.