Late payments and unpaid invoices weigh heavily on a company's financial health. To manage your finances, it is essential that you put in place an effective recovery strategy, while maintaining a commercial relationship with your customers.
Take care of your invoicing upstream
The first building block of a successful recovery strategy is implementing effective invoicing. This means before starting to recover your unpaid amounts, your company must implement everything you need in order to be paid on time. Clear invoices that are complete and free of errors are a good start to persuading your customers to settle up before the payment deadline. Also think about creating general terms and conditions that 'protect' your interests, by including (reasonable) deadlines for contesting and sanctions applied in case of default of payment. Finally, your whole invoicing process needs to work together like a well-oiled machine in terms of quality, timing, terms and more.
Adapt your approach
Next, you need to have a clear view of your outstanding receivables (customers, amounts, delays, etc.). An audit will allow you to properly assess the situation. When it comes to recovery, every case is different and varies depending on your sector, your size and your position (strong or otherwise) on the market. Moreover, one customer is not the same as another and you must often adapt your strategy. Your best customer, who always pays on time, cannot be treated in the same way as a chronic late-payer or a new purchaser (and did you think about checking their solvency before starting to do business with them?). Conclusion: separate your clientele using relevant criteria to be able to act in the best way.
Your recovery strategy must include a pre-emptive phase to intervene before the amount is due. How? By sending a simple e-mail, for instance, a few days before the payment deadline. This doesn't cost you anything and it gives a clear signal that you are waiting for payment. You could even add a commercial dimension here by asking your customer if they are satisfied with the product, the sale or the service. This type of diligence will be appreciated by your debtors. Along the same lines, and although it may be more costly in terms of resources, you could add a phone call from your sales team. In this instance (and all the others, in fact), you need to oversee the coordination of your sales and administrative department.
Articulate your recovery strategy
If your customers still don't pay, in spite of these preventive actions, you need to react quickly and send your debtors a reminder. Always follow through with what you have told them so as not to lose credibility. Get there slowly but surely – and attach real significance to the form and timing of your reminder letters. In your first letter use a courteous tone, because everyone forgets at some point. What if your debtor doesn't always react? Follow up with a second and (at most) third payment demand: a registered letter, possibly sent by a lawyer for the final reminder. Be increasingly firm and send a formal notice. Try to call your customer in between each attempt (especially those who are worth the effort). This is a great way of reaching a compromise, such as by suggesting a payment schedule if your debtor has specific problems with financial management. An amicable agreement is often better than a futile (and time-consuming) battle. And what's more, this may help you to continue your commercial relationship!
Follow through... if it's worth it
Are your reminders falling on deaf ears? Have you failed to receive a valid explanation? Have you even tried to negotiate in vain? It may (unfortunately) be time to revert to a higher power and take legal action. You won't be surprised to hear that this is the most complex, costly and time-consuming way to recover your unpaid amounts. This is why not all invoices are worth this amount of effort. Properly assess the situation (the amount of the invoice, the 'position' of the customer in your portfolio, etc.). If you're thinking about taking the matter to court, you should seek the advice of a lawyer. But remember there is no guarantee that things will be simple (from simple non-payment, to dispute of the invoice or even bankruptcy of the customer).
Final words of advice
Whatever the result of your recovery efforts, make sure to keep a record of any 'accidents' in terms of your customers' late and missed payments. This kind of monitoring may prove very useful in future. And last but not least, you could even choose to manage customer risk (completely or partially, upstream or downstream) using external actors (such as a lawyer or bailiff) or companies specialised in recovery (such as BNP Paribas Fortis Factor). This is a more expensive strategy, but guarantees you greater peace of mind, as long as you choose the right provider...
How to automatically get the best exchange rate
Companies working with several currencies often want to avoid exchange rate risks and administrative hassle. That is why the bank has come up with a behind-the-scenes solution: the 'embedded FX' service.
Embedded FX? You don't even need to remember the name, because the system works automatically, without you even having to think about it. FX doesn't stand for Hollywood-style special effects, but for Foreign Exchange, sometimes referred to as Cross Currency. You are guaranteed to come across this at some point if you make international payments, since they are not always executed in the currency of the debit account (referred to as 'mono-currency payments'). Sometimes, the currencies of the accounts the payment is being debited from or credited to may not be the same. These are FX payments. During such payments, an exchange takes place: one currency is sold and another bought, without you having to lift a finger.
The volumes on the FX market might be greater than you'd think. To put it plainly: they are enormous. Every day, more than 5 trillion American dollars are traded. That is 5000 billion American dollars, more than the volume involved in global equities trading...in a single day. The FX market operates day and night, and only closes over the weekend from 10 pm on Friday until 10 pm on Sunday.
Wim Grosemans (Head of Product Management Payments and Receivables at the BNP Paribas Cash Management Competence Center):
'On the FX market, banks essentially play the role of a wholesaler: they buy and sell currencies on the international market, and then sell them on to the customer with a mark-up. BNP Paribas is one of the biggest players, ranking among the global top ten. There is no official market rate in this over-the-counter market. Each bank determines the rate at which it wants to buy and sell currencies itself. Unofficial market rates can be found in publications from a number of public institutions (such as the European Central Bank) and private organisations (Reuters, Bloomberg etc.). These are based on the average rate offered by a number of major banks.'
The rate is always determined per currency pair, for example the euro versus the American dollar: EUR/USD = 1.1119. The most traded pair is EUR/USD, which represents 25% of daily trade. Second on the list is the pair American dollar/Japanese yen
(USD/JPY) with 18%, with British pound/American dollar (GBP/USD) coming in third at 9%.
Alwin Vande Loock (Product Marketing Manager Payments and Receivables at the BNP Paribas Cash Management Competence Center):
'As for the rate, banks offer a number of options. The rate can be a live market rate that is continuously being updated. The EUR/USD rate, for example, is adjusted more than 50 times per second. Another option is a daily rate. In this case, a rate is offered that will apply for a certain period.'
For many companies, all of this hassle with exchange rates is a real headache. Too complex, too expensive in terms of administrative costs and too many exchange rate risks. For those customers, banks have a solution: embedded FX.
Wim Grosemans (Head of Product Management Payments and Receivables at the BNP Paribas Cash Management Competence Center):
'When you make a payment in a currency you do not hold an account in, the bank will immediately retrieve a good exchange rate from its colleagues in the dealing room of the Global Markets department. The rate is usually confirmed within one hour after the customer has sent the payment. Unless large amounts are being transferred, the entire process is automatic. The IT systems used are much more efficient than they were just a few years ago, meaning that the bank is less exposed to volatility and can offer its customers a competitive rate. Embedded FX is an efficient and simple alternative for anyone who doesn't want to hold accounts in different currencies and run the exchange rate risks that entails. For the customer, it no longer matters what currency they use: the process is exactly the same. What's more, it gives them peace of mind, because they know that they'll always get a great rate.'
Working capital: far more than just an accounting term
Working capital, also known as net operating capital, presents a picture of the operational liquidity of a business. But there is more to it than meets the eye.
The success of a business actually depends to a significant extent on how it deals with its working capital needs.
The difference between working capital and working capital needs
Within the financial analysis, working capital is just one of the indicators that present a picture of the operational liquidity of a business. It not only affects general management, but also the access to bank credit or the valuation of the business, for example. This is calculated as follows:
Equity capital and other resources in the long term - fixed assets
This allows you to see whether sufficient long-term funds are available to finance the production chain. Where there is a positive result that is indeed the case, whereas with a negative result it is actually the production chain that must safeguard the long-term financing.
It is therefore useful to calculate the working capital needs as well:
Current assets (excluding cash) - current liabilities (excluding financial liabilities)
The result shows the amount the business needs in order to finance its production chain, and may be both positive and negative:
- where working capital needs are positive, the commercial debts no longer cover the short-term assets (excluding the financial). In that case, a business can rely on its working capital. If this is insufficient, it will need additional financing for its operational cycle in the short term;
- where working capital needs are negative, a business can meet its short-term liabilities without any problem. Nevertheless, it is advisable to reduce working capital needs (further).
In short, working capital presents a picture of the operational liquidity of a business, whereas working capital needs represent the amount the business needs in order to finance its production chain.
In other words, it boils down to limiting working capital needs as far as possible, thus increasing liquidity. This is crucial, especially in times of economic or financial difficulty. After all, customers tend to pay later then, while your stocks are increasing and your suppliers are imposing stricter payment terms. As a result, more and more working capital gets 'frozen' in your operating cycle, precisely when circumstances make it more difficult to attract additional financing.
Optimising working capital is not only a question of long-term considerations. In the short term, too, the business can release cash that is not being used optimally, or is being used unnecessarily, more specifically in the purchasing, production and sales processes within the operating cycle.
The working capital and the working capital needs must, above all, be geared effectively to each other. The working capital needs must be structurally less than the working capital itself, preferably with an extra buffer. However, there is no mathematical truth regarding the amount of working capital and working capital needs. Sector, activity and business model can affect this, for example.
The EU comes to the rescue of the retail sector
In order to support one of Europe's key economic sectors, the European Commission has drafted a series of practical and effective best practices and recommendations to help member states formulate their retail policy.
Nearly one in ten people works in the retail sector, which comprises more than 3.6 million companies. Retail generates 4.5% of the EU economy's added value, and absorbs up to one third of household budgets. It is an important source of economic vitality and a leading employer, but retail is experiencing tough times. Between the power grab by large store brands and the expansion of digitisation (via e-commerce), competition is rampant for small retailers. Yet the potential of the sector remains huge for retailers who manage to embrace change, especially with regard to evolutions in consumer behaviour and the way products are bought (and sold). This is a vital test for the fabric of the EU economy and its labour market.
A guide for national authorities
The EU appears to have grasped this, since the Commission has just published a best practices guide to modernising and revitalising retail. "Facing the future" contains advice and success stories and is designed to be instructive. Its primary function is to provide help and support to local and regional authorities in member states, enabling them to implement measures promoting innovation, productivity and competitiveness in the retail sector. They can then create a favourable climate for their SMEs (often very small, family firms) to continue to grow by seizing the opportunities of today, especially those offered by technology.
Progress needed in a range of areas
The Commission has identified three major aspects of retail where member states can make progress in this regard. Firstly, it wants the creation of retail outlets to be made easier, especially by reducing undue or disproportionate charges and by simplifying the procedures involved. Secondly, EU countries are encouraged to alleviate restrictions associated with the day-to-day operation of stores. These concern the promotion of sales and discounts, own sales channels, opening hours, specific retail taxes, carrying out transactions within the EU, etc. Finally, the Commission is urging member states to adopt innovative solutions to support the vitality of city centres.
One guide, six measures
"Facing the future" highlights six measures that local and regional authorities should put in place to achieve this:
- Improve digital and public infrastructure, in particular in order to encourage retailers to take on board new technologies.
- Share the "right" kind of information with retail outlets, in societies where data is becoming an increasingly essential tool.
- Help to build strong communities based on working together.
- Remove the barriers to working with digital technology, to help retailers remain competitive and adapt to changes in the market. The Commission identified Digital Wallonia's "Commerce Connecté" project as an example.
- Support the development of knowledge and skills, especially with regard to new technologies and improving the customer experience.
- Provide guidance on marketing and communications to help retailers enhance their profile.
It should also be noted that the document highlights the "Shopping in Flanders" strategy put in place by the Flemish government in 2012. As a final point, the guide suggests a method for assessing the current national situation in the sector, and a process for evaluating the impact of measures in place.
To find out more, read the "Facing the future" guide.
Cash continues to charm Europeans
Contrary to widespread belief, on the continent, cash is here to stay. This is according to the findings of an ECB study. Despite significant geographic disparities, euro area consumers still hugely favour using cash to make low-value purchases.
At the end of 2017 the European Central Bank (ECB) published an extensive study on the payment habits of European citizens from the 19 euro area countries. The aim? To shed light on consumers' payment behaviour at points of sale, particularly concerning the use of cash, bank cards and other payment instruments. The main result of the study was that cash continues to reign supreme, as it represents 79% of all transactions carried out and 54% of the total value of exchanges. Bank cards come in second (19% of transactions and 39% of value). However, the report — which is based on data from 2016, segmented by country, but also by other criteria, such as type, age and level of education — highlights significant geographic disparities.
Cash in the south? Not necessarily!
More than 124 billion payments were made in cash, compared to 30 billion by card and 3 billion using other instruments (cheque, bank transfer, smartphone, etc.). Contrary to what you might think, southern European countries are not the only ones favouring cash, particularly in terms of the number of transactions. In fact, Germany, Austria and Slovenia achieve record levels with at least 80% of transactions being made in cash. In terms of value, Greece, Cyprus and Malta come out on top, with more than 70% of amounts settled in cash at points of sale. And at the other end of the spectrum? The Netherlands, Estonia and Finland, where the majority of purchases are made by card. France, Luxembourg and Belgium join these countries, where only the lowest payment amounts are made using cash (33% or less).
No significant profile type
The ECB study also sheds light on the demographic characteristics of European consumers who prefer cash to other payment methods, even though there are not really any significant differences. Nevertheless, men aged over 40 of all levels of education take the crown. In fact, women are more likely to use bank cards; much like the younger generations (under 40), except for 18 to 24-year-olds (probably because there are more students of this age). More surprisingly, a large proportion of consumers say that they prefer bank cards to cash – information that is contradictory to what this analysis has found. The explanation provided by the ECB is that those surveyed tend to forget low-value payments and only think about the larger payments. However, 81% of transactions observed in 2016 involved values below €25 for the purchase of daily consumer goods, while only 8% were above €50.
Access to card payments does not explain everything
According to the report, European consumers have rather high access to card payments on average (almost 72%). However, the level of card support at points of sale does not explain the huge use of cash. Nevertheless, an undeniable correlation can be determined for countries where retail chains are less likely to accept card payments, such as Greece, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Slovakia and Malta – all of which are below the European average. Another interesting element is the low level of contactless payment provision throughout Europe. However, for most European consumers, the speed of the transaction is one of the most decisive criteria when deciding on a payment method. No doubt the increase of cards equipped with contactless technology — which will certainly speed up transactions — will compete with the use of cash...