Problems with payments
Sales aren’t everything when it comes to exporting. In fact, exporters often live or die by the ways in which they get paid—or not. There are three main ways a debtor can negatively affect a business: paying late, which compromises cash flow, choosing an inefficient payment system, which eats margins, or not paying at all, from which many small exporters may not recover.
Cash flow stumbles
Christian Vollbehr, member of the management board at global credit insurance agency Coface Deutschland, says that a client may delay payment for a number of reasons, all of which will affect a business’ cash flow: “Sometimes they ask for an extension of payment and come up with reasons to delay payment, or they start a commercial dispute used as a delaying tactic.”
Recent political instability in certain countries will affect payments; even if your customer wants to pay you, they may not have access to their bank because of civil unrest. Whatever the delay, it means export payment terms of 90 days can blow out to months, even years, which severely affects your ability to pay your suppliers and run your business.
One remedy, if you’ve already sent goods overseas and your customer has decided not to accept it at the last minute, is to minimise your losses by selling the goods to another customer nearby. “You need to know at any time where your product is sitting. Is it still on the ship, is it in port? Is it somewhere in transition? Can you redirect it? It’s good to know people in-country who can help you on the ground,” says Vollbehr. “You could make some losses but you don’t lose the ability to trade.”
For service exports, or if your goods have already been accepted, you can enlist the help of a debt collection agency. Choose one in-country because they will be better equipped to deal with the local laws concerning debt collection. Having a local representative working on your behalf also makes the threat more real for your debtor.
Next time, try obtaining payment in advance. “That’s the safest way–but you can’t usually ask for that for competitive reasons,” Vollbehr admits. Also look into secure terms “where you have either documentary credit or any other type of secure terms, like letters of credit that are considered reasonably safe”. This depends on the stability of the banking infrastructure in the market, however. “If you have guaranteed payments and the banks shut down, what’s the value of that guarantee? There’s no 100 percent payment guarantee unless you get money up front.”
Also check the risk profile of your buyer and the market in case there are environmental conditions that point to future payment problems. “Watch the media to see what’s happening. Risk changes every day. If you’re setting terms, set them realistically in terms of that market and the industry you’re part of,” says Vollbehr, adding that competitors may be a good source of this information.
He also recommends being strict with your payment terms and keeping track of your debtors. “Keep it alive, update whatever you have.”