Granting your client a trade credit consists in agreeing to defer a flow of cash into your treasury, even though the invoice has been signed and the turnover recorded. You must therefore ensure that your cash flow position allows you to do so.
This is why a good analysis of your working capital is essential before negotiating credit terms. The accumulation of trade receivables could reduce your free cash flow and handicap your current operations and investments.
It is also useful to check if your company has sufficient solid financial reserves in case of complications with a bad payer.
Similarly, it is advisable to study your client's financial situation – for example by running customer credit checks ‒ before negotiating invoice payment terms, in order to assess their ability to pay on time.
The company's financial statements can be used to estimate their solvency in the short and medium term. In particular, you should look at their operating cash flow – the cash generated by current operations – as well as their debt-to-income ratio, compared to their industry’s average.
You can also request a credit report, detailing the payment history of your client with other companies. The credit score is a measure of a company’s financial stability and how likely they are to pay on time: the score usually ranges from 1 to 100, 75 being an excellent score.
Some banks and companies offer to produce such credit reports or credit scores.
Beyond financial aspects, it is useful to find out about your client's reputation, the reputation of their bank, their business practices and the background of the company's top managers before setting the payment terms: a commercial credit is also based on a relationship of trust. Read our article on: How to steer clear of fraud.
Other more objective and non-financial elements can be taken into account to evaluate your client’s creditworthiness and negotiate appropriate payment terms:
- The client's size: a small client is often more risky and costly to manage in relation to the volume of business it represents and its financial resources.
- The lifespan of the goods: if the product supplied is perishable or has a short shelf-life, its collateral value – which can ultimately serve as a guarantee in the event of non-payment – will decrease rapidly. In which case, short payment terms are preferable.
- The location of your foreign customers: you might want to assess the local country risks, you can check our country risk maps and our tips to export.
“Terms of sale” are the basic and most important payment terms of your contract: cost, volume, delivery, payment method and date. They have to be crystal clear.
In your contact, trade credit materialises in a “line of credit”, which details how payment is scheduled over time. It differs from “payment in advance” (PIA) which involves payment before delivery, or from “cash on delivery” (COD) which means immediate payment upon delivery.
In the case of a line of credit, a client may negotiate a discount for early payment of the invoice, or a rebate if payment is made on time. This kind of mechanism can be highly virtuous: it encourages your client to pay quickly, and builds greater loyalty in the long run.
Example. A client is granted a trade credit with terms of “5/10 net 30”: if payment is made within 10 days, the client is offered a 5% discount. If not, the full amount is due within 30 days.
You can also negotiate a partial upfront payment or a deposit as a counterpart to longer payment terms.
There are several levers you can activate to ensure timely payment:
- Always make sure you invoice as soon as possible and ask your client to acknowledge receipt. Make a note of the invoice details and follow-up with your client as the due date approaches, rather than waiting until it’s overdue, particularly with invoices for large amounts. If they miss the payment deadline, keep up the dialogue and ensure they understand that you won’t accept non-payment.
- Chase late payment quickly and firmly. You can for example establish an automated reminder process to remind clients of their payment obligation.
- Should the client fail to meet payment deadlines, you may require the payment of penalties and interests on outstanding debt. However, if the client's financial situation has already deteriorated, the penalties will be just as difficult to recover.
- As a last resort, the client's assets may serve as a backstop guarantee. This guarantee can only be obtained at the end of often long and costly legal proceedings.
The last two compensations are often difficult to obtain in case of a customer insolvency. This is why the subscription of a trade credit insurance policy allows you to efficiently cover your trade credit risk.
Behind the technical and financial aspects of negotiating payment terms lies a more comprehensive business strategy. You must ask yourself what kind of relationship you want to build with your customer for the long term.
A loyal and regular client must be rewarded: these accounts make up the basis of what sustains your business, ensure the recurrence of orders and ultimately the solidity of your operational cash flow.
Similarly, in case of unpaid invoices, you need to maintain a good customer relationship and appease the tensions to prevent late payment turning into non-payment.
In conclusion, there is no magic formula to negotiate the perfect payment terms. But a thorough understanding of your financial situation and that of your client, as well as the definition of a clear business strategy, can help you to lay a sound basis for negotiations. Coupled with a good trade credit insurance policy, you will be able to control the financial situation of your company and the long-term management of your client portfolio.