Over half of SMEs in Wales are waiting on late payments from customers, according to new research from Barclays. Unpaid invoices can cause your business a huge headache, but there are steps you can take to minimise the impact they have on your time and resources. Darwin Gray’s Patrick Murphy explores the key considerations to help make sure your invoices are paid on time and in full.
- Write it down. A contract does not need to be in writing to be binding; as long as there is an agreement between you and the customer for you to supply goods or services in exchange for money or something else of value – even if that agreement was made orally or by virtue of your conduct – you have entered into a binding contract. However, it is much harder to enforce a contract which is not in writing. Having a contract in writing means both parties are aware of its terms, and if any dispute arises there is documentary evidence to show what was agreed.
- Make it clear. If your business supplies goods this is straightforward – you need to set out the goods which you are supplying and how much those goods will cost. If you are providing services, though, this can be more complex, so you should set out in the contract the extent of the work you have agreed to do for the customer and the fee which has been agreed. Importantly, do not let mission-creep set in; clearly state in the contract that the agreed fee only covers the work agreed and nothing more. It is hard to prove that a customer is liable to pay for any work which goes beyond the scope of the contract, which could mean you end up working for free. If the customer wants you to carry out work which the agreed fee does not cover, make sure you update the agreement and agree on an additional fee before you start the new work.
- Set payment terms. At the outset make it clear when you will issue invoices, how long your customer has to pay after you issue them with an invoice, and how much interest will be charged for late payment. Clearly state if you will be issuing more than one invoice, for example for a long-term service contract, and if possible, state how frequently you will issue invoices. You should also consider including a term stating that you will not carry out any further work or supply any more goods to your customer whilst they have outstanding invoices.
- Get it agreed. Contract terms which have not been agreed by both parties are unenforceable. Ask your customer to put something in writing, such as an email or a letter, confirming that they agree to the terms of the contract. Alternatively, do it the traditional way and get your customer to sign a copy of the contract itself.
- Issue an invoice. As soon as you can after supplying the goods or services, or at the intervals set out in the agreement, issue an invoice setting out in detail the goods or services supplied, an itemised breakdown of the costs, and a total figure. Remember to include VAT if it is payable.
- Follow it up. Put the date when the invoice expires in your diary and get in touch with the customer immediately if it is unpaid after that date. Ideally make contact in writing and follow up meetings or phone calls with an email so you have a record of the attempts you made and the response you received. You may need this evidence later on if you end up in Court.
Consider taking money up front. It can help to ask your customers for payment before you carry out any work, even if it is just a percentage of the agreed fee as a deposit. That way you have money in the bank to put towards the invoice as soon as it is issued.
If your customer still isn’t paying up, do not waste time before taking action. Whilst generally you have six years from the date an invoice was payable to issue a claim, practically it may be too late by then: if a customer is not paying it may be because they are having financial issues, and the longer you wait the worse those financial issues might get. If a customer runs out of money after you have issued them with an invoice, the chances of that invoice getting paid even if a Judge finds in your favour are slim, so act quickly.
If yours is one of the many businesses suffering from unpaid invoices and late paying customers, get in touch with Patrick Murphy today on 029 2082 9122 / [email protected] for an initial free, no obligation conversation.