Past Due: What to Do When a Client Doesn’t Pay On Time

You never expect clients' invoices to go past due, but unless you take 100% of your payments up front (most bookkeepers don't), then sooner or later you will have a slow paying client.

What's the best way to handle the situation, once you find yourself faced with it?

Money is Emotional

Most bookkeepers perform client services and then expect to be paid afterward. That might be immediately or it may be up to 30 days later. These payment expectations are usually set when the client first hires us. Hopefully, that's in writing. You do use an engagement letter, right?

But humans don't always do what they say they'll do, even when it's legally binding.

While it may seem quite dry and procedural to issue an invoice and get paid, it's really a very emotional transaction. Money works like a point system that runs deeper than dollars and cents. So when we don't get the points we've earned, we often take it personally. Once that happens, client relations can get messy.

So the first step to resolving a payment issue is to try to take the emotions out of the equation. Look at what's going on from a logical and procedural standpoint. Treat it like you would a bank reconciliation. What are the facts of the situation? What is the cause of the problem? Is the client simply short on cash at the moment? Is the client traveling and it slipped her mind? Is there another reasonable explanation that has nothing to do with you?

This simple step can get you grounded so you are able to see what is really going on without causing additional problems for yourself and jeopardizing an otherwise profitable relationship.

What Does it Mean?

Whether there's a logical cause easily remedied, or the issue runs deeper, when a client is not paying you it's a message. And as with all communication, we need to interpret its meaning as accurately as possible.

Initially, our tendency is to play the blame game and assume that the problem lies solely with the client. But there may be something amiss with our own procedures, often related to communication as well. For instance, if you send emailed invoices, are you sure that the client even received it? (QuickBooks Online and other web-based accounting software can track when the client has opened or viewed your invoice.) Email is not 100% reliable. You may be assuming the worst when the solution is simply to re-send the invoice.

How has the communication been between you and your client overall? Is he happy with the work you've been doing? Do you know? Slow payment can be a sign that the client is unhappy, but is not telling you about it. Yep, that's a communication issue too! As Mike Michalowicz of Profit First fame says, clients show their appreciation with their wallet more than their words.

Take Action Quickly

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when you have a slow-paying client is to ignore the situation. Yes, it may feel uncomfortable to speak up. That's the emotional thing again. Resolve not to take it personally just yet. Remember that you are running a service-based business. So be of service to your client and take the initiative to communicate and get to the root of the issue, if there is one.

If you wait, yes, the client may eventually pay and the tension may go away for the moment. But if it becomes a habit, the longer you wait, the worse the problem will become. This makes it easy for resentment to grow. Resentment destroys win-win relationships.

Some simple actions you can take quickly (and with a positive spirit) include…

  • Re-send the invoice and/or issue an account statement. Include a gentle note that the invoice is now past due (this process can be automated, and you can lessen any client embarrassment by noting at the top that it's an automated message)
  • Pick up the phone and call the client to check in and make sure everything is okay. Find out if he has any questions or if something needs to be resolved. The client may be holding back because he just needs clarification on something, but hasn't had the chance to ask you yet.
  • Make it easier for your clients to pay you. Start accepting online bank transfers and/or credit card payments, if you don't already. If you do, mention it to your client as an option. Don't assume that she already knows it's available.

The guiding principle here is to take positive, proactive action to communicate! Assume the best. Think long-term and try to resolve any underlying issues so the problem doesn't return.

Of course, the best way to handle payments is BEFORE you start working with a client. If you have established clear payment policies and procedures, and communicated them, it will be a rare occasion (if ever) that you have slow-paying clients. Many bookkeepers attempt to skip this process when hurrying to sign up new clients. As a result, they have frustration and heartaches to show for it. I've taken my lumps over the years as well. These days, though, due to rock-solid systems and policies, my own clients pay me like clockwork and problems are few and far between.

If you'd like to learn how to update your own payment policies and put profitable, automatic procedures in place, join us inside TFB Premium for, “Pricing Policies for a More Profitable Bookkeeping Practice” (available until April 15)

What have you found works for you to reduce or eliminate chasing clients for past due payments?

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Workflow Obstacles: Are Your Clients The Problem?

Earlier this week I was speaking with a fellow bookkeeper about workflow and how to use online tools to make it more efficient. It seems that whenever us bookkeepers get together to talk about improving efficiency and speeding up how serve our clients, one issue usually surfaces.

Why is it so hard to get the source information we need from clients?

Streamlined (and profitable) bookkeeping workflow requires that needed info is provided timely and consistently and that it…well…flows. Right at the start of the process is where the clients must participate. And that’s where, as it happens, our headaches begin.

My colleague and I lamented how despite giving clients instructions to provide us what we need, it can be like pulling teeth to get them to comply. Most days when they send in their paperwork (if they do), the ways they do it are at best inconvenient for us, and at worst, dangerous. But rarely do they give us all of what we need or on time.

Even though clients hire us to keep their books up to date, they are the biggest obstacles stopping us from giving them what they want!

Has that been your experience too? Are our clients the biggest problem when it comes to getting the bookkeeping work done timely and without hair pulling?

Ask Better Questions

As I pondered this all-too-common issue from our position as bookkeepers, I decided to ask a better question.

How does the situation look from the other side? If I were my clients, what would I see?

That brought to mind comments I’ve heard from successful business owner friends and mentors whom I respect. I pay attention whenever they mention their own encounters with their bookkeepers. I usually hear how they hate it when we ask for missing info! They know they’re not good at keeping track of the details. It’s unpleasant for them, and it doesn’t seem important to them. In fact, they hire us so they don’t have to fuss with such minutia.  They want to escape recordkeeping stress and to know that their bookkeeper uses her expertise to prevent disasters.

Seeing the situation from this perspective makes it much easier to see why giving us small bits of info is something clients tend to avoid. That led me to yet another question.

How can this be turned around where both clients and bookkeepers can get what they want?

The Win-Win Solution

To build a win-win solution, we first need to know the results we’re looking for in our own business. For me, the 20,000-foot view is pretty basic. I want…

  • To know I’m truly helping my clients’ business stability and growth with accurate financial records and more**
  • To support my own business and personal growth and prosperity

** I enjoy business consulting, so I like to work with clients who want services beyond simple compliance.

What do most small business clients want when they hire a bookkeeper?

  • To escape the painful, time-consuming detail tracking involved in bookkeeping to meet tax reporting requirements (so they can sleep at night come tax time)
  • To know if they have enough money to pay the bills and possibly whether they can grow their business and increase profits (so they can provide for their families and possibly leave a legacy)

So the simplest solution to the workflow problem would be a way that is efficient for us, yet as easy and as painless as possible for the client to give us the info we need. We could then produce valuable results for the client. That would make them happy to work with us (instead of dreading our calls & emails) and happy to pay our fees. Win-win!

Two Super Simple Ways to Ease Resistance 

While I don’t know of a silver bullet solution that will be a perfect fit for every bookkeeper and her clients, here are two simple ways I’ve used over the years that can help us to start working with our clients as a team with common goals…

  • If you’re still paper-based and working on-site – provide a designated folder or envelope into which clients can deposit receipts, bills, bank statements and any other documents you need. Give them a checklist of what should go into the envelope and patiently help them build the habit of putting everything in that one place as it comes in.
  • If you’re dealing with paper and/or electronic documents virtually – provide a secure, web-based “inbox” where your clients can easily send electronic documents (not to your email inbox!) and upload scanned paper documents so they’re all in one central location, as soon as they come in. Best if your client can send you documents from their computer or mobile device, so it becomes a 2-second habit they can easily form.

For specific web-based solutions, you have several to pick from (depending on the level of automation you’re up to with your internal workflow), but the one I’ve used for years and love is SmartVault. In fact, it even has a unique inbox feature that is specifically designed for bookkeepers!

If you currently use SmartVault, you may not even realize that you already have this nifty app available! (my fellow bookkeeper mentioned at the start of this post didn’t). Here’s a short clip that gives you a brief look at how it works, from a webinar I did recently.

(Click the screenshot to play demo video – 2 minutes)

These are just a couple ways to make it easier to collaborate with clients. Is there anything you’ve found that has worked well for you?

By the way, if you’d like more tips on how to streamline your workflow and work with clients virtually, you might also like the free ebook SmartVault and I put together to help bookkeepers thrive win-win style. Click Here to Learn More (it's free)

 

5 Quick Tips for Optimizing Your Bookkeeping Business

If you're a freelance bookkeeper, do you feel like your capacity is at its limit and you're struggling to figure out how you can possibly take on more clients without losing your mind? Optimizing your bookkeeping business is one of the few ways you can serve more clients without hiring staff.

But how, exactly?

 

Here are 5 quick tips to help you get more done with less stress.

1. Stop traveling to your client's office

Too many independent bookkeepers I talk to are still physically traveling to their clients' offices to get the work done, or even to just pick up and drop off paperwork. While face-to-face contact is a great way to build relationships, it's terribly inefficient for simply doing the bookkeeping.

Leverage online technology and start working virtually instead. Let your clients know that you are using a new system that brings win-win efficiency to how you'll handle their bookkeeping. I'd recommend moving toward remote services gradually, and laying out a plan that is implemented over a few months' time.

Focus on the convenience to the client of using web-based services. (See the free ebook at the end of this article for more step-by-step info on how to work virtually with your clients)

2. Go paperless

One of the biggest slowdowns to working virtually with clients is trying to figure out how to move from paper-based documents to online documents. While it may mean changing some habits, nowadays it's much easier than ever before. If you need receipts from clients, simply get them in the habit of forwarding you email receipts and snap photos of paper documents with their smart phone.

Of course, if your clients have lots of documents (some of which might be sensitive) this may not be the best way to ‘optimize' – so consider using online secure document management tools instead (personally, I use SmartVault with all of my clients, and love it!)

3. Use cloud-based software

Part of the inefficiencies with desktop software, whether you are doing the bookkeeping at your clients' offices or on your own computer, is that the information is not always easily accessible, either to you or your client.

To solve this issue, especially in our mobile society, some have opted to host desktop software online. But I've found in my own practice the most economical and easiest solution is to simply use web-based bookkeeping software. QuickBooks Online and Xero are the most popular options here in the US, but there are many others too.

The idea is that your efficiency dramatically improves when you use web-accessible software. Your clients become more independent and proactive about getting the info they need in real time, and communication becomes easier for training and answering questions because you're literally on the same page no matter where you are.

4. Use Profit First as cash management for YOUR business, then your clients

This is a low-tech tip that optimizes your bookkeeping business from the inside out.

I've found Profit First to be the most effective yet simple way to get the most from every dollar you earn and optimize your financial stability, no matter how long you've had your practice.

The newest edition of the book has just been released and shows you how to guarantee your profitability from your next deposit forward. Once you see how it works (the real learning is in the doing), you'll dramatically build your financial confidence. Then you'll be in a great position to help your clients in a tangible way that will make them sing your praises. That puts you on a whole new professional level as a bookkeeper and you may want to get certified and join Profit First Professionals.

5. Avoid bright shiny app syndrome

Once you step into the virtual bookkeeping world, it is easy to get overwhelmed with the sheer volume of apps you can use (and pay monthly for) in the hopes of making your bookkeeping services more efficient.

Beware!

Piling on the apps is not only expensive, it will send you down very time-consuming rabbit holes and leave you exhausted. Take a minimalist approach to choosing apps instead. In fact, I've developed a 6-step process that starts with the RESULTS you're trying to get for you and your clients and will save you a ton of headaches. (Yep, you can learn that process in the free ebook at the end of this article too)

For general guidance, above my desk I have a drawing that illustrates the futility of trying to go in multiple directions all at the same time. The caption to that picture is “Less Means More.” It's taken from the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown and is there as a constant reminder that optimizing my business means doing just a few things that work really well.

Did you see a tip here that if you focused on it, it would make a difference and move your bookkeeping business toward a more optimized (and profitable) operation?

If you feel that going virtual is your best path too, but you need more details on HOW put it into practice, then I think you'll like the free new ebook that we've released this month in collaboration with SmartVault called, “The Bookkeeper's Guide to the Virtual Galaxy

Optimize and Prosper…starting now!

What are your tips for optimizing bookkeeping business operations?

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Going Virtual: TFB Spotlight on Cindy Hovig

tfb-star-spotlightAre you thinking about going virtual with your bookkeeping business? Have you been wondering how best to make the transition… and how to get your existing clients to buy into the idea?

This TFB Spotlight interview can help!

Cindy Hovig of Beyond Balanced Books, Inc. starts from the beginning with a home-based, part-time business and shows you how she has grown her bookkeeping practice gradually over the years. But her business really started to take off when she moved toward virtual services.

Here's her story. You'll hear exactly how she did it and how you can grow your bookkeeping business more quickly and take the leap toward going virtual with your bookkeeping business sooner with success the way you want it.

Would you rather listen on the go? Right Click Here to Download the Audio  (40 mins)

Guest Bio:

Cindy Hovig is a Xero bookkeeper in Silicon Valley and was named the “Xero Bookkeeping Partner of the Year 2016.” She runs a 100% paperless and cloud-based bookkeeping business, Beyond Balanced Books, Inc.

Cindy fell in love with accounting when she took her first bookkeeping class in school. She founded her business as a freelancer in 1990 working from home as a part-time bookkeeper with two small children at home. Since then she has traveled the path to building a virtual team and serving small to medium sized service business clients, providing her services using cloud-based technology for personal, collaborative results her clients love.

Interview Highlights

Biggest challenge when starting out: Confidence and getting the first few clients

Cindy wished she knew earlier about how to charge for her services.

Book Recommendation: The E-Myth Bookkeeper – Cindy found this book very helpful when she took the leap, after 20 years, to move from solo to hiring staff.

When first starting out, Cindy traveled to her clients' offices, as many traditional bookkeepers still do. When she switched to hosted QuickBooks, she was able to start transitioning her business to virtual services. Her staff is all virtual now too.

In this interview, Cindy shares her technique for dealing with clients who are resistant to accepting virtual bookkeeping services that has been very successful.

She also shared her journey from QuickBooks to Xero and why she made the switch.

Regarding bookkeeping software, Cindy's philosophy is to pick one, and get really, really good at it, instead of trying to support, and keep up with, several programs simultaneously.

Software tools Cindy uses:

  • Xero
  • QuickBooks Hosting
  • Hubdoc – document fetching (integrates with Xero)
  • Zoom – online meetings
  • Aero Workflow – project / practice management
  • Gmail – shared calendar (with staff)
  • Practice Ignition – onboarding new clients

Her first conference was the first SleeterCon (now Accountex) in Florida about 13 years ago! She found it a big help to find “her people” and share support and resources with colleagues.

If she started again from scratch today, Cindy would definitely work virtually and she'd also offer packaged services. She'd document all her procedures, even if she had no plans to work beyond solo. She'd also track clients' service needs as they changed to make sure pricing stays in line with what is being provided.

Cindy even shared a valuable tip on how to handle clients' annual contracts efficiently so you never fall victim to scope creep and how to assure you're being paid in a win-win way with flat fees.

She sees the future of our profession moving more toward being champions of helping our clients get the real value from their financial records to manage their businesses more effectively.

You can find Cindy at Beyond Balanced Books, Inc.

Can you relate to Cindy's journey? What was your best takeaway from her story?

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Which Accounting Software Should You Use in Your Bookkeeping Business?

Which accounting software is best?

When setting up your practice, and especially when transitioning to a virtual bookkeeping business, you have choices. In fact, it can feel like too many choices! QuickBooks desktop or Online? Xero? Sage? What about Kashoo, Wave, and FreshBooks? Your clients may be using any of these, or others not even mentioned here.

Do you feel like it is a sea of software impossible to navigate?

Here's just one of the many inquiries I received recently on this topic (and why I decided it's time to write a blog post about it)…

Hi Gabrielle,

I love your webinars, and thanks to you I am ready to take the leap into cloud accounting this year. I am trying to figure out value pricing, Hubdoc, and all the other pieces of the puzzle. The part that is really tripping me up though is choosing the accounting platform. I've been trialling Sage One, QBO, and Xero (I'm in Canada).

However coming from desktop software (Sage), I am struggling with them all and am quite concerned about making the right choice…Do you have any advice?

I'm scared to transition only to find I should have gone with another option, as I know I am going to experience a lot of resistance from my clients already and I don't want to aggravate the situation by making them doubt my decision making skills!

-Amie

These questions and emotions all wrapped up together is something all of us face when trying to keep up with technology in our profession. They're especially critical when choosing your core tool – your accounting software. Here's the three issues I see facing us.

  1.  Using a method to determine which is the “right” app to choose – whether your main software or add-on
  2.  Managing the implementation of change, for ourselves and our clients
  3.  Conquering our confidence issues on the path to reaching our goals and serving our clients

For this post, let's dig into the first one, the process. Over the years, this is what I do in my own practice for upgrading systems or revising workflow issues where a new app can (or should) improve the situation.

How to Choose the “Right” App in 6 Steps

Step 1 -Identify what specifically is the problem, where things are “broken,” or just not working the way you feel it should. Write it down.

Step 2 – Come up with a list of the must-have functions / features needed to resolve the issue and accomplish the results you need. If not sure, take a guess and start from where you are right now.

In our example of choosing your primary bookkeeping software when you know you want to move to the cloud, come up with questions to make the process easier. Here's some examples:

  • Who are your best clients, and what does the software need to do for them specifically (reports? functions? access?)
  • What are the specific functions you need to maintain or improve your efficiency? (bank feeds? reconciliation? multiple users? online invoicing & payments?)
  • What integrations are needed, if any? (CRM, bill payment, time tracking, payroll, taxes)
  • What kind of customer support does the software company offer? Do they have any programs / advantages / training specifically for accounting professionals?

Step 3 – Research which apps are available that will handle ALL of your must-have needs. Ask colleagues in online forums what they use for the specific needs you have. Search apps.com (if using QuickBooks), or simply “Google it.”

Step 4 – Narrow down your choices to 2-3 close fits and compare differences for features that may be “nice to have” or provide additional support to you as an accounting professional. Choose just one and sign up for a trial or see if you can get the software for free.

HINT: QuickBooks Online Accountant is provided for free to accounting professionals, and it includes a free QuickBooks Online Plus account for your own use. Xero and FreshBooks do this as well. There may be others, so don't be afraid to reach out to the software company and ask if they have a special program for accountants / bookkeepers. You could also ask for a one-on-one demo where you can barrage them with your questions. (Keep your must-have features list front and center at all times)

Step 5 – Test the app and take any basic training provided by the software company to familiarize yourself with how it works. Then choose just one client who would benefit from switching to the software, if it does everything promised. Run the existing system and the new system in parallel (so choosing a small or simple client to start the process with will make this easier and less painful if it doesn't work out). If all goes well in your tests, you can roll it out to your client and get his / her feedback.

Step 6 – If Step 4 is successful, begin to roll out the new app gradually across your client base, providing assistance where needed to staff (new documented procedures) and clients (training – usually a billable event or a great opportunity to switch to value pricing and include training in your packages)

Yes, following this process takes a bit of time and research, but in the long run, you'll save you time and a lot of heartache compared to the trail and error based on slick shiny-app marketing messages from the software companies.

In future posts we can dig deeper into how to roll out your new online workflow when moving your bookkeeping business online with existing clients, as well as how to build your confidence in the process for a more consultative and premium fee practice.

In the meantime, what methods do you use to find the best apps? What do you think is most important to consider, with technology moving so quickly?

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