Solving "slow-pays"

How to charge a customer who is not prompt with their payments. May 9, 2001

We have a few customers who take their time paying us, even though on the contract they signed, it says 1/2 down and 1/2 at installation. When do I tack on a finance charge, and how much should it be?

Forum Responses
Look at it from a financial aspect. If you have to borrow against your accounts receivables in order to complete a job, typically you would pay about 9-11% interest. You should charge more, maybe 15%, to cover interest and inconvenience. You may also charge a standard past due fee, such as 2%, to cover any bank fees, if you have to borrow money until you get paid. One way to increase timely payment is to offer a discount if paid within ten days. Typically, I see 2%.

I know it may sound a little harsh and excessive, but I take a deposit of 65%, and 35% on delivery/installation. Before I leave the shop to install or deliver, I call the customer and remind them I am on my way and remind them of the balance due, and ask them if there is going to be any problem with final payment. I have never had a problem collecting.

We have this problem from time to time. You will never eliminate it. But we have been getting 1/3 down at time of order, 1/3 at start of work, and final 1/3 on completion. We always call the client the day before we know we will finish and ask them to have a check ready. If they really get nasty, we let them hold 10% and go over the job for (1) punch list within 1 week. Take care of any problem, no matter how trivial, at once. Don't walk away and let them keep the money. This is what some customers want.

You should check with your private attorney, state attorney general or state consumer affairs department. Different states have different laws concerning how much you can legally charge and how many days from payment due you are allowed to start charging. Some states also have requirements regarding "customer's right to know" about interest charges at the time of purchase (they require you state your intent to charge and the conditions on the original bill). Sometimes just knowing up front that interest will be charged is enough to keep your customer prompt. In the event you choose to work with a customer's hardship or if payment is delayed because of need to handle a customer's legitimate complaint, you can still exercise your right to credit the interest charge back out.

"Due upon installation" is the key phrase. I've never once not been paid and I'm not a jerk about it, either. Some clients you can just trust, but if you don't know them, let them know--after the job is under way, but way in advance--that a check will be needed on site before the truck is unloaded. It sounds harsh, but if it's not the day before installation and you are kind and joking about it, they can't uphold the contract against you, and you already have their money.

If it's more than a pop-in-place installation, then by all means, a 10% punch list amount should be withheld, but once you're 90% finished, you have 90% and I can't imagine they wouldn't give it to you unless your work is not good or your attitude is untrustworthy. I've only done that twice and everything went smooth. We always get paid because we ask that we do and they need their furniture or cabinetry.

Get your money in thirds for larger jobs. It's nice to get the 50%, but you're always richer at the start of a job and waiting on 33% is easier than 50% at the end when you're the poorest.