One of the neat aspects about this business of ours – collections, is that you can never be quite sure of the reaction you’ll get when you call a delinquent customer.

On more than one occasion, I have worked with clients who are obliged to contact some long outstanding delinquent accounts. A few of them had gotten into the habit of having to take a really deep breath and hold the telephone receiver away from their ear once they introduce themselves to the customer and tell them why they are calling.

Because the customer may not be delinquent? Not at all. Some of the calls that require some expertise include those where the customer has been delinquent for a longish period of time and we really should have called them much sooner and another is when we are contacting them when they are past due – but they don’t see it the same way (“But, I always pay at 60 days!”)

One of the challenges that some of my clients and perhaps you may face, is contacting a client on a long overdue account – one where they ‘really’ should have been contacted much sooner. The reasons do not matter much, could be the introduction of a new system, perhaps a change in management or internal policies.

The Accounts Receivable team can expect to hear something along the lines of: “Why are you calling me now? We never had to pay according to the terms before”, or “You never asked us to pay on time in the past” and of course the old standby: “We pay all of our bills at 75 days.” Some of them are hinting that you are being less than fair. There are others who go beyond hinting and let you know in no uncertain terms that it’s just not fair for your firm to expect them to pay on time.

There is some good news here. If you and your team learn how to handle this type of call right, you may never have to speak to this (delinquent) customer again!

Here is what I suggest:

“Mr. Debtor, you are right and we may have been wrong…back then…to not follow up with you when your accounts payable person ell didn’t adhere to your original agreement. I’m sure you will agree though that two wrongs don’t make a right.

It is my job to ensure that we and all of our Customers will adhere to the original agreement. We don’t want to stay wrong, anymore than one would want to continue driving on the wrong side of the road.”

(Note: Your style, customers, type of business you are in, your country and even urban vs. rural will tell you how effective some of these ‘homilies’ may work. If you have the Vice President of Accounts Payable on the other end of the line, I suggest you cut back a bit or eliminate altogether.)

Though your objective is to get them to pay the outstanding account now and keep up to date in the future, you have another card to play if necessary. “Even though this account and many others before it should have been paid sooner, we are willing to take some time to get this individual account up to date. Are you in agreement that between us we can have it current within the next 60 days…90 at the most?”

Hold the telephone away when you call? Not when you are fully ready to handle the excuse for non or delayed payment. It was Oliver Cromwell who said, “Not only strike when the iron is hot, make it hot by striking!”