The majority of customers are honest hard working people, like you, looking for someone to help them solve their problems. They do not have a problem paying for the value exchange they receive from you. There are however those low life’s out there who will engage with you and have no intention of paying you. I included this in my eBook: 50 ugly truths about starting your own business…and why you should do it anyway, as it often shocks and infuriates new entrepreneurs. Although these low life’s will attempt to stiff you, you don’t have to let them burn you.
I can still remember the first person who failed to pay me. Although it was many years ago, it was one of those tough leadership muscle building lessons during bootstrapping. I was asked by an investor to engage with one of his portfolio companies to figure out what was wrong and turn it around. I have played this role a number of times serving VC’s and Angel investors and I enjoy the assessment and turnaround of entrepreneurial teams.
When I first met the young CEO at the helm of this organization my gut said run away. He was an arrogant young man who was irritated that I was even asked to help fix his team’s poor performance. He was irritated the board and the investors did not seem to buy his explanation that the reason for his shortfall to goals was: a poor economy. He was concerned that I would share what I find with the investor who brought me in to serve his team, and for the first two months he instructed his team to run their answers to all my questions by him prior to answering me. (Another sign I should have run away)
I tried to build trust and I advised this young CEO the issues I discovered and made recommendations. One recommendation was the need to explain the problems he solves for his clients with an aggressive messaging plan targeting his optimum buyer personas. His response was one I have heard by CEO founders before…” we do not need marketing…the market clearly understands what we have…I just need hungrier salespeople.” (So he cut their base pay to make them hungrier) He could not have been more wrong. Since he instructed his team to not openly share information with me I went into his market and interviewed his past, current, and targeted new customers. I found the market was in fact aware of his business, but they consistently did not understand how this business could solve their problems…the market branded his business by default.
After a number of months the retainer payments were paid later and later and eventually they stopped. While he told me and his team the business was really struggling, he personally leased a Hummer, bought himself an expensive laptop and went on a trip internationally with his wife. (But that’s another post)
I was so connected to helping this team and investor; this company properly brand the business in the market I failed to pay attention to his not paying me. What started out as “ I will pay you next week…turned to next month…and after two months I was informed he can not pay, and he was actually shocked I would ask for the payment of my small retainer given the difficulties the business was having as he shared at a recent board meeting I was asked to attend”.
There are two schools of thought with customers who do not pay you. The first says write it off as bad debt and move on. In this case this young CEO went on to say “you don’t want to be known as someone who sues his clients do you?” (I later found he had said many times before, and had I done my homework on him this could have been prevented)
The only thing worst than not having customers is selling customers who do not pay.
The second thought is you have provided a value and you should expect payment. Customers who fail to pay will be sent to collections and or sued. I actually do want to have the reputation of suing clients who do not pay as this will help weed out the low life’s who become time vampires sucking the life out of you with no intent on paying. So I went to the courthouse filled out the proper paperwork and we went to court. The judge provided a judgment in my favor and as we left the courthouse this young CEO went on to say …” good luck collecting you @# hole” Sure enough after multiple attempts to collect he failed to pay . The next phase of this process required an attorney and we won that judgment as well with interest.
This young CEO stiffed me. However where I blew it was I became angry, I allowed it to stick to me.
Anger is an acid that only burns the container that tries to hold it.
I let this young man’s poor ethics personally affect me. Anger left unchecked can turn to depression and leaves us feeling bitter. As I worked with new clients I built processes and procedures for the less than 1% of business owners out there who are the low life’s like this young CEO. That unchecked bitterness stayed with me and became a frequent thought; small business owners will stiff you if you fail to protect yourself. This thought repeated over and over again became a belief, stemming from one unethical young man. It failed to recognize a sea of very prosperous relationships I have enjoyed with past customers over the past 25 years, and it tainted my outlook. My coach eventually brought this bitterness to my attention and explained I needed to forgive this young man and move on… Not for his sake, but for mine.
What should you do if a customer stiffs you?
- Seek first to understand
- determine if this a deadbeat with a history of treating partners like this or someone who needs you to work with them
- cut bait early, with the first missed payment, services must stop
- if they refuse to pay, start collections proceeding immediately
- ask yourself what lesson ( often expensive lesson) can you learn for this experience to insure it does not occur again
- forgive their unethical behavior for your sake, not theirs
- move on, as the Bible says, “dust off your sandals and move on” As 99% of customers are ethical people
- do not allow this bad experience to taint how you treat current and new customers
Anger if left unchecked is like acid, and it only damages the container that tries to keep it contained.
As an Entrepreneur customers will stiff you but they need not burn you. One of the best ways to prevent serving someone that does not pay you occurs at the beginning of the relationship. Just as your customers are qualifying you early on, you too must qualify them.
Is this someone I want to work with?
What does the market say about this company? This person?
Do I trust this person with my money?
If you gut says “no” to any of the above move on to others who would truly value your product or service.
How about you and your organization….
How do you deal with deadbeats who try to stiff you?
Do they just stiff you…or do they also burn you?
Have you established processes and procedures that screams your lack of trust in new clients based on your bitterness?
Do your current processes and procedure cater to the 99% of ethical customers or the 1% who are the low life’s?
If a deadbeat makes it through your pre engagement qualification process, and if they do stiff you I recommend you engage the various collections procedures within the law, and you personally forgive them and move on to serving the 99% of those in the market who will value your product or service.
As an aside I bumped into the investor who asked me to help this young CEO and now the list of vendors he has stiffed is very long and his business continues to suffer missing key performance indicators and has high turnover. I call it “Business Karma”; others say “what comes around goes around.”
Markets. like people, trust or do not trust businesses. When markets hear often enough that someone in their community of service providers is a deadbeat, the market ostracizes that owner, that business, which only further accelerates their death spiral into personal and business bankruptcy.