The C.E.O. of the firm was a thoroughly unpleasant man. I didn’t like him. I don’t think anybody did. Someone from his family, perhaps his mother, if pressed, might have had something nice to say about him. Might have. His reputation, for being on the short side of social niceties was legendary. More than one of his subordinates reported he was the only person that both Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa had punched in the nose. Yet, in a firefight, this is the guy you want at your side. He had been brought into the firm because of his survival skills, not to be popular.
When I was ushered into his office, he looked at his watch and said “We have a good product and our surveys say our customers like us, so “Mr. Collector”*, you have five minutes to explain why we’re not getting paid on time.”
Perhaps it could be called ‘tough love’ or maybe more realistically, ‘consulting suicide’, but after taking a deep breath, I said, “You’re not getting paid on time because you’re slow…and stupid.”
He stared at me and I figured that I had less than the five minutes to explain.
“Too slow,” I said, “in prodding the ‘right’ customers for payment. A deal is a deal and people and organizations need to know there is a price to pay for not paying as agreed, even if it is only talking to sales and receivables as soon as they are past due. Too slow in resolving issues with sales and customer service. Too slow on the follow up with collectors who do well and those who don’t, too slow on reporting to senior management for action to be taken and much to slow in following up on a broken promise to pay.”
A lot of people ask you to ‘tell ‘em like it is’, but not everybody means it. The C.E.O. stared at me for a few moments and asked, “Slow at everything?”
“No, you’re fast at pissing off some good customers when you don’t have the right information in front of your team, you end up contacting customers who have paid or who have provided explanations to your sales team or others and adjustments need to be made.”
He sat back in his chair and took a sip of his coffee before he said, “So, you’re saying do what we do, faster…and that solves the problem.”
I shook my head.
“No?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Speed is important and needs to be done, it isn’t difficult and reasonably inexpensive, but if ALL you do is what you’re doing now – faster – you just speed up the mess. Like that poster I’ve seen that says, “Drink coffee – do stupid things faster with more energy”.
“It seems like some of the people in accounts receivable were too abusive for customer service and were sent, banished may be a better word, to accounts receivable, where it was figured that sort of attitude would be of value. That isn’t so bad in and of itself, some very good collectors are not superstars at customer service, but that should NOT be the starting qualification. A few others come from a third party collection background where they follow the collection by decibel theory and most of the others are too shy or embarrassed to ask a customer to pay their bill.
After cash, accounts receivable is your largest liquid asset and a lot of people in your organization have been building up relations with customers, relations that can be damaged beyond repair by the call of just one indifferent, inexperienced and abusive member of accounts receivable. Many years ago, during the darkest days of World War II, the embattled Prime Minister of Great Brittan, Winston Churchill said, ‘Give us the tools and we will do the job,’ Yet, he and others knew you had to get those tools in the hands of trained and dedicated professionals in order to truly punch above your weight.”
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*He said ‘Mr. Collector’ with the same ironic and no respect tone I hear from close friends and family!