Late payment isn’t just a headache for small businesses, it can put the brakes on economic growth.
According to an FSB investigation into the impact of poor payment practices, 30 per cent of payments to small firms are late, and 38 per cent have experienced cash flow difficulties as a result. Addressing this issue could unlock around £2.5 billion, FSB estimates, and keep an additional 50,000 businesses open.
Measures are being taken to address this issue, but may take some time to bear fruit. Since April this year, larger businesses that fulfil two of the following three categories – a turnover of £36 million or more, a balance sheet of £18 million or more, or more than 250 employees – have been legally required to report on their payment practices every six months under new legislation called the Duty to Report.
Companies can also refer to the Prompt Payment Code, a voluntary initiative that businesses can sign up to where they agree to adhere to a range of terms towards treating suppliers fairly. FSB has also lobbied over the scope and powers of the new Small Business Commissioner, who will have the power to name and shame companies with poor payment practices. “We hope that the data that emerges from these two measures will empower small businesses to know – before they enter relationships with suppliers – how they’re likely to be treated,” says Tony Baron, Chair of the Treasury Policy Unit at FSB.
Sharon Stevens-Cash, Director of marketing agency Gravity Digital, has experienced the impact late payment can have on cash flow. “If we’ve paid upfront for something such as a website, that’s a big capital outlay so that can be tough if we’re waiting six weeks to get paid,” she says. “I’m the one who chases people up and it can take up so much of your time. We can’t take on new people or buy new equipment to grow our business if we don’t have enough cash.”
The firm aims to agree payment arrangements before starting work for clients and has systems in place to begin chasing if they go beyond their 30-day payment terms. There have been a handful of occasions, however, when Gravity Digital has had to send out a legal ‘letter before action’, and one instance where a background check at Companies House revealed a serial non-payer had set up multiple businesses. “It was obvious we were never going to get that money,” she adds.
It’s not just late payment that causes issues, either. Poor payment practices can be just as harmful to small businesses. In 2014, food manufacturer Premier Foods was found to have asked its smaller suppliers for payments in order to remain on its supplier list. Small businesses often have to agree to unfavourable payment terms before they can even be eligible to tender for certain contracts, or are forced to wait weeks while they register with overly bureaucratic procurement systems. “There’s a definite imbalance of power,” adds Mr Baron. “Small businesses tend to have terms imposed on them rather than negotiating them.”
However, there are now tactics to ensure these issues don’t derail your business, including the use of third parties to help chase outstanding payments. FSB members now have access to FSB Debt Recovery, which allows you to access 100 per cent of the amount owed and includes the option to charge clients extra for late payment.
The service also features an escalation process, including letters sent out to late-payers by FSB Debt Recovery, a member service provided by Debt Guard Solicitors, and a range of support for further enforcement action if needed, with telephone and face-to-face support. Mohammed Hussain, owner of Cohort Tuition, has already made use of Debt Guard Solicitors, the provider of FSB Debt Recovery. “I have found it very polite and professional,” he says. “They have been very effective and recovered my money. I want to maintain my reputation in the marketplace and do not want a ruthless approach.”
Col Skinner, founder of web marketing company Profoundry, sets his company’s payment terms at 10 days – the Government-prescribed term is 30 days – and charges 50 per cent upfront for certain work. “I’ve always had quite strict terms of business that include 10-day payment terms,” he says. “This doesn’t mean I always get paid on time, but it pushes clients from the offset.”
While some companies are happy to run on a lower cash base, many prefer the security of having a backstop. This is where invoice finance can help, which covers most of the value of your outstanding invoices so you have some working capital. “It takes the guesswork out of waiting for payment, giving greater certainty to cash flow and control over access to working capital,” says Andrew Charnley, National Sales Director for SME invoice finance and trade at Lloyds Bank. However, Lloyds’ research shows that only around a third of small businesses are aware of this option.
The Small Business Commissioner is due to come on board in October this year. Sam Marshall, Director of Clearbox Consulting, an internal communications consultancy, hopes the Government gives the role some teeth. “I would like the power to name and shame,” he says. “If we could log into a website similar to TripAdvisor or Trustpilot so we could research clients, we could build any potential delays into pricing.”
Putting a stop to poor payment could unlock billions for the economy and support growth – plus it makes good business sense. Ms Stevens-Cash sums it up: “As soon as I get a bill, I pay it. I don’t see the point in sitting on it. It’s so disheartening to spend time in a long-winded procurement process.”