A Publication of WTVP

If there is one lesson this recession has taught even historically strong businesses, it’s that their biggest threat often is not a lack of profit. It’s a lack of cash flow.

Slow-paying customers are frequently the culprit.

In fact, 32 percent of 700-plus entrepreneurs surveyed recently by American Express said that customers are taking more time to pay their bills, up from 27 percent in 2008. Cash-strapped business owners, who are seeing their own reserves dry up, are left to wonder, “Now what?”

There is no one-size-fits-all answer. The good news is that there are many ways to help keep cash flowing as the economy chugs forward in its recovery.

1. Scrutinize your cash flow statement. Managing cash flow means more than just having enough cash on hand to pay the bills. By always knowing where you stand and projecting your income and expenses at least three months ahead, you will be better able to make decisions that help stave off potential shortfalls.

How? Consider your payment policy. Let’s say a customer hires you to complete a project, ensuring you a nice profit after you’ve finished. But if it will require large, upfront expenditures, rather than helping your bottom line, the job could create a cash crunch. Likewise, if your customer runs into cash problems, you could be left holding finished goods you have no use or market for.

If you consider the project’s cash flow implications before you sign on the dotted line, you can enter an agreement that requires a down payment at contract signing or after certain milestones are complete. That way, you won’t leave money on the table when it could be in your bank account.

And don’t just focus on your receivables. You should also seek to negotiate more advantageous terms with your suppliers or delay unnecessary purchases.

The bottom line: use what you know to look into the future—and plan accordingly.

2. Use technology to your advantage. At many businesses, money is coming in. It’s just not coming in fast enough. In this case, it’s up to the business to help itself. Technology can help speed up the collection process. By automating your lockbox, for example, customer payments can be sent directly to your bank. Funds may be deposited on the same day they’re received, instead of on the two- or three-day lag you might otherwise experience.

Businesses that receive paper checks can gain access to their funds faster by depositing them in the bank electronically from an office computer using remote deposit. Businesses whose employees visit customers’ homes or offices can use mobile technology to take electronic payment right at a customer’s site. This approach not only streamlines the payment process, it may reduce the number of bad checks that must be collected.

And if you haven’t automated your payments and receivables process, now is a good time to consider it. You’ll be able to process payments more methodically if your accounts payable procedures are formalized and your customers arrange for automatic monthly payments.

3. Talk to your banker. Given the ongoing tightness in the credit market, businesses seeking a credit card, loan or line of credit to bolster cash flow will likely face stiffer underwriting standards than they might expect. They may be better served by working with a banker to restructure a loan or consolidate debts to reduce current payments. Well-established businesses that have handled their accounts responsibly over time may be able to negotiate interest-only payments for a defined period.

The point is, banks—like most businesses—like to do business with people they know. The best time to talk to your banker is before cash flow begins to slow. The better your banker knows your business, the better able he or she will be able to recommend solutions that keep it from grinding to a halt. iBi