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Collections Best Practices – Getting Paid

I am very happy to welcome Loretta Ruppert, from LexisNexis Practice Management, as a guest writer.  As Senior Director of Community Management, Loretta works to bring together the community of product users, consultants and technology leaders and to create a resource to facilitate better communication and cooperation between these groups.  I have extended an open invitation to Loretta to guest post on this blog on any topic related to Law Firm Practice Management.  Today, she writes a follow-up post to her two part series on Collections Best Practices.  This post focuses on getting paid.  Jeff Krause

This post will complement the three previous posts regarding Collection Best practices – (1) the Problem, (2) the Solution and (3) the multi-touch collection process and is on the subject of asking clients for payment.

Do you remember when you were in law school and you took that class on how to ask clients for payments?  Did your law school offer a workshop on how to train your staff to be collection agents? Do you worry and lose sleep trying to figure out what you are going to say to your client?  Asking for money is often times uncomfortable for you and your staff and one way to make it a little less painful is to create a set of collection scripts and common rebuttals from clients with answers for yourself or your employees to use for the phone calls, email or other communications.  Creating the scripts and common rebuttals and answers will ensure the message is communicated consistently and prepares you and your staff for handling the questions or comments that you may be presented with when asking for payment from a client who owes you money.

On September 9th, the ABA’s listserv Solosez, featured a thread among members discussing what the perfect wording was for “You haven’t paid your bill” calls.  There were some great points brought up, for instance, be friendly, firm, and direct. Some mentioned talking to your client’s in your business owner shoes, not as a lawyer, which many of your clients are as well. Others revert to empathy with the clients with an approach of: this behavior is not like you, what can I do to help you?

All of these are good approaches and in the end you have to feel at ease with what you adopt as your firm protocol.

Let’s start with listing some common rebuttals or comments you may hear from your clients – with some recommended responses. Some responses are written from the lawyer perspective while others can be used by an employee in your firm.

Common rebuttals or reasons for non-payment Recommended actions/responses
 I didn’t get the bill Thank you for letting us know, can you confirm your address for us to make sure this doesn’t happen again? While I am taking that information, let me fax or email you a copy to ensure you get the bill. [be sure to ask when you can expect payment, reiterating the due date, the early payment discount or that they can pay by credit card]
The check is in the mail Thank you, can you provide the check number and the date you sent it so I can make a note in your file?
 I’m behind in my bills but will get a check cut today or this week Thank you, time gets to the best of us at some point. Can I sent send a courier or employee by to pick up the check? I can save you a trip if you would like to put it on your credit card instead of cutting a check.
I don’t have the money to pay you right now [Probe to find out more information – the question may surface additional information that can help you understand what the client is experiencing and help you determine the next step.] Thank you for being honest, I can relate to your situation, I am not only a lawyer but a business owner and have bills to pay as well. I value our relationship and would like to work with you. How about we set up a payment plan for the remaining balance. What do you think about paying [pick an amount as an offer for the initial payment, like 20% of the bill] this week and we’ll spread the remaining payments over the next few weeks? [Do not lapse payments more than a month at a time.] I will send an email with the new terms and payment plan and would appreciate a signed copy with the first payment.
I have a problem or dispute with an item on the bill Thank you for the opportunity to clarify or modify the bill. Help me understand your concerns? [depending on the size of the dispute, you may want to set up a face-to-face meeting with the client to discuss, be sure to refer to the fee agreement which is clear on what services you have mutually agreed upon]
You cannot get the client on the phone or are getting no response from the client This could be one of the worse case scenarios as it is difficult to even negotiate an option with the client. This situation may require a certified letter saying you have been trying to contact them regarding a past due payment. You may want to include language saying that you would rather not pursue this through means that may further hurt your relationship or the client’s credit. Ask the customer to call as you are willing to work with them for an amicable solution.

Some tips when writing scripts:

  • Use an active voice
  • Be polite, professional but firm
  • Use short clear sentences (limit the legal speak)
  • Be specific about due dates and amount due
  • Provide payment options for the client
  • Provide a way to contact you to discuss the situation in person or on the phone

Useful Phrases:

  • Are you aware that your account is past due?
  • I wanted to make sure you received the previous bills and reminder statements sent to you…
  • I would like to touch base to discuss the past due balance of your account for the legal services we/I have provided you?
  • I am following up with you regarding the balance due on your account
  • I appreciate our relationship and believe you have received quality legal services from me/us/[lawyer name]…
  • I was surprised when it has come to my attention that your account is past due. Was the payment accidently overlooked?
  • Is there a reason the bill we sent you has not been paid?
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