The bugbears of business

Published:  08 September, 2015

Adam Bernstein suggests solutions to some of the common problems that small businesses can encounter.

Running your own business can be very rewarding, yet, at times, it can also bring real difficulties. After all, while you benefit from the profits of your labours, there’s no one else to take care of the minor irritants that can soon become full-blown issues.

So, what are some of these potential problems and what can you do about them?

Banking complaints

As private individuals we can approach the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) to seek redress against banks and other financial organisations. However, less well known is that the FOS can also help small businesses with under 10 employees and a turnover of less than €2m.

In essence, whether it’s a complaint with a bank, credit card, insurance or mortgage company, for example, the FOS can investigate without charge to the complainant. If a case is proven it can award up to £150,000 in compensation – or more in exceptional circumstances.

For more information, see http://bit.ly/1gfeHII.

A better insurance deal

Insurance is a necessity for business, but you do have a choice as to where you buy from, what you buy and how much you pay. With some proactive steps you can cut your bills, however, there’s always a trade off between the premium cost and exactly what is covered.

Buying direct from an insurer is one option, but another worth serious consideration is going via a broker – and it needn’t cost any more. The broker will take your details once and then scour the market on your behalf. Even better, you’ll have a single point of contact going forward, whereas going direct will be a lottery as to whom you’ll speak with.

Savings can be made by lowering the risks (better security and fire protection), changing insurer (it does seem unfair that loyalty is rewarded with higher premiums), choosing cover correctly (there’s no point paying for elements you don’t need) and even haggling.

Never be underinsured and always answer questions truthfully at the quotation stage. You may save in the short term, but you’ll risk having claims cut if you’re underinsured or your cover voided entirely.

Dealing with government

Government decisions, both local and national, can have a severe impact on your business. Proposals to increase taxation or the arbitrary use of local authority powers can sting. The solution is to complain.

When it comes to local authorities, it’s a question of following their procedures. If you get no satisfaction, another avenue to explore is the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO), which can be found at www.lgo.org.uk.

Whether it’s a complaint about business rates, planning or waste collections, for example, they may be able to help. If the LGO rules in your favour it can order an apology, a service to be provided, the reconsideration of a decision or a payment to be made.

For central government, your best bet is via your local MP, who can be located on the Parliament website at http://findyourmp.parliament.uk.

MP’s may also be able to help with local authority issues.

Debtors and cashflow

Having monies outstanding can leave a nasty taste in the mouth as well as causing difficulties. However, there are steps you can take to minimise the damage debtors can cause.

Firstly, draw up an aged debtors list. This will tell you who owes what and for how long it’s been outstanding. You need to include the customer, invoice details, debt age and the amount owed. There’s guidance for this at http://bit.ly/1HjHJTu.

Next, use a traffic light system with green for ‘pays on time’, amber for ‘sometimes late’ and red for ‘often late’. This will help you identify those clients worth keeping and those who have questionable value. It’ll also help you decide whether to offer longer credit terms should they ask.

Part of the process of maintaining good cashflow and keeping debt to the minimum means sending regular reminders. Sadly, some clients won’t send payment until a statement (or two) have been sent as a reminder to pay. If nothing else, it’ll get the conversation going and help show later on that you did your best to resolve the dispute should the matter go to court.

You may find that offering the carrot of a discount on an invoice if they settle early may pay dividends. For example, you could offer 5% as an incentive to pay within 14 days rather than the usual 70. You may be giving money away but then you’ll not be financing an overdraft for 56 days and could reinvest the money elsewhere. Before offering this, work out the maths and take into account payment patterns to check you won’t be worse off.

If none of this works, you’ll either have to start legal proceedings or use alternative dispute resolution (ADR) as a method of negotiating your way to payment. Going down the legal route doesn’t have to cost the earth if it’s a small claim and is quite easy to do via the government’s MoneyClaim Online service at http://bit.ly/1gilIIe. You’ll have register and pay a fee but this can be added to the claim.

Starting legal proceedings may mean losing the client for good, which is why ADR might be a better, faster and cheaper alternative. You can find out more about ADR at http://bit.ly/1qr67eZ.

When all’s said and done, the onus is on you, the business owner, to sort out any problems. However, as we’ve seen, help is at hand if you need it – you just need to know where to look.

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