When you have an unpaid invoice, it can be difficult to know how to handle it especially if you are a small or micro business. Profitable business relationships are built on personal relationships so it can feel tricky to pursue what is owed without damaging the relationship.

But business is business and you are doing nothing wrong in expecting prompt payment from your customers and by chasing your money if they fail to pay as agreed. So what is the process for chasing up an unpaid invoice?

Although many small and medium-sized businesses know the importance of background credit checks on new customers, a lack of familiarity with the process of actually carrying out a credit check can lead many to overlook this crucial step in their risk management.

Safe Collections have teamed up with credit check specialists Experian to make it easy and affordable for freelancers and fledgling businesses to begin credit checking new customers.

Late payment is a constant problem for businesses in the UK and overseas. Credit terms are ignored and following up can be difficult for some companies, especially if you are a very small or micro business.

This is not how it should be. Every business, irrespective of size, should expect their customers to honour the agreed credit terms and pay in full and on time.

It doesn't seem like rocket science to suggest that if a customer goes bust, you might want to stop supplying them; in fact, if you're doing your credit control properly, you'll probably want to restrict their account long before they publicly declare insolvency.

Under new government plans, due to come into force this October, you might find you are banned from taking such action, once your customer's financial woes are made public knowledge.

The payment practices of the UK's biggest companies have been under scrutiny for a while now, with voluntary efforts such as the Prompt Payment Code attracting criticism for being 'toothless' in terms of enforcement action.

Meanwhile though, nobody really wants to see a situation where it is mandatory to take late payers to court, or to enforce penalties and interest - after all, sometimes you might simply want to extend the deadline as a gesture of good faith to a valued customer.

When it comes to avoiding bad debt the old adage "prevention is better than cure" is a very useful rule to follow. As we tell any business owner that will listen, it is absolutely imperative that before you extend a customer credit you answer the following questions:

  • Does this customer have the financial means to pay?
  • Are they prepared to pay promptly or at all?

The UK's small businesses are facing even longer overdue invoices than at the worst point of the recession, according to figures from ABFA.

In a report published earlier this month, the Asset Based Finance Association revealed that, in 2009 when the recession peaked, firms with turnover of less than £1 million per year were waiting on average 61 days for invoices to be paid.

Hardly a month goes by without a new government or industry scheme aimed at preventing late payment - since the EU Late Payment Directive was introduced, we've seen the voluntary Prompt Payment Code, proposals to name and shame poor performers on a public database, the Supply Chain Finance Scheme to raise funds against outstanding invoices, and several suggestions of new conciliation schemes.

Formula 1 tyre supplier Pirelli took a hard line in Hungary by invoking a prompt payment policy that left Lotus with no tyres as the first practice session approached on the Friday.

Payments are due on a quarterly basis and, according to reports in the Telegraph and other national newspapers, Lotus owed about £350,000 for three months' worth of wheels.

A whole raft of new ideas have been announced in the past few months, from a 'conciliation service' for small businesses that are owed money, to forcing big brands to publicise their payment terms, to trade associations going to war (figuratively speaking) on behalf of their members.

It might all feel a little bit like Groundhog Day - again. Publicising payment terms is already a principle of the totally voluntary and largely toothless Prompt Payment Code, we already have mediation, and unless you're actually a member of a very active and involved trade association, that part's likely to leave you feeling cold.

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