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Late payments: A cultural issue for SMEs?

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has claimed SMEs account for 99 per cent of all private sector businesses in the UK. Although a large number of these businesses thrive, many SMEs struggle with basic cash flow issues as a result of late payments.
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It is clear that action is required to raise awareness and help eliminate the widespread problem. In a recent study, BACS found that SMEs in the UK are owed a staggering £26.3bn in overdue payments, with over half of those SMEs experiencing issues with late payment.

Despite small business minister Margot James calling for a “culture change”, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been at the centre of a late payment row, following its failure to pay some of its suppliers for up to three months, as a result of the implementation of a new digital purchasing system.

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Notwithstanding the recent situation at the MoD, the government is taking active steps to address the issue of late payment, such as the implementation of a new statutory reporting duty for payment practices and performance, and the appointment of a small business commissioner.

However, it appears that the UK has developed a culture of late payments, and it is clear that immediate action is required to address this situation. In particular, many SMEs are still using traditional accounting models which can slow down the invoicing and collection process. This, coupled with the fact that it has become the norm to offer credit to customers, is having a serious impact on how SMEs financially operate.

There are steps SMEs can take to minimise cash flow problems, and avoid late payment becoming a major commercial issue. A large number of businesses have already taken steps to streamline the invoicing process. For example by implementing digital accounting software, enabling them to produce invoices quickly, and keep track of accounts which remain outstanding.

Other businesses are taking a bolder approach and challenging the traditional models which dominate the supply chain finance market. The emergence of FinTech, which combines credit expertise with technological innovation, has played an active role in promoting growth among businesses previously struggling to maintain cash flow.

In addition to embracing modern technologies, there are many simple steps that SMEs can take to ensure that they get paid on time. In particular, it is crucial to have a robust commercial contract or set of trading terms and conditions (T&Cs), which are signed, or accepted electronically, before any goods or services are provided. This is key to combatting the late payment culture, as it provides certainty to all parties as to the agreed payment terms.

Business should ensure that customers are presented with T&Cs at the earliest opportunity, which should cover key terms such as payment and penalties for late payments. The agreed T&Cs should also be presented for the customer’s agreement immediately before the contract is made, to ensure that there is minimal risk for ambiguity as to the final terms.

In addition to ensuring that there is a clear commercial contract, businesses should ensure that they adequately assess the nature and risk before entering into contracts with their customers. Tips for doing so include carrying out credit checks on customers, purchasing credit insurance, reducing, or removing credit limits, and ensuring that there are sufficient penalties on late payments. Businesses should also have efficient and cost effective internal procedures in place to chase late payments.

These simple steps, coupled with the security of a clear commercial contract can help minimise the risk of SMEs getting trapped in the late payment culture.

Faye Cook is a solicitor in the corporate and commercial team at Thomson Snell & Passmore

Image: Shutterstock

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