Bringing Your Creditors Down Gently

In a prior incarnation, so long ago that it really does seem like a different life, I was an air intercept controller for the U.S. Navy. From the radar room of the U.S.S. Harry E. Hubbard (DD-748), we sat in the Tonkin Gulf controlling carrier-based fighter planes on “picket” duty above North Vietnam. They were poised to intercept, under our direction, any unidentified incoming aircraft that might be a threat to the fleet.

Those were still fairly early days of radar, at least as installed on the Hubbard, a WWII vintage destroyer, and the images of both friend and foe were not all that reliable. Compounding the challenge, the Navy pilots on the other end of the radio link were always suspicious of us two-dimensional types floating around on the South China Sea. Based on the very limited information that we were able to develop from our cloudy crystal ball of a radar scope, we could send these guys chasing after a mirage or misread a low-flying intruder as a large flock of birds.

The “airdales” didn’t like it when we did either of those things.

I thought of that last month as I tried to polish the crystal ball of a financially-challenged new client, a former high-flyer now burdened by a heavy debt load in the wake of declining sales. The line of creditors is forming like a black cloud on the horizon, led by once-friendly bankers and followed immediately by impatient vendors. They want me to clear away the fog, to give them some assurance that their credits are good, that there are some hard assets in what’s left of the blue-sky forecast that they received just a while ago. Like air controlling, it’s a situation that demands…

  • Confidence: For starters, you have to talk their language: “Roger, Eagle One. We’re painting that bogey five-by. S-I-F shows friendly. Break off.” The creditor analog: “I’m returning your call, Maureen. I agree that we owe you $8,569, but we just can’t get it to you all at once. Let me start with $1,000 next week and see what happens if sales pick up next month as we hope.”
  • Commitment: The pilots are reassured to know that even in the middle of the night, there are four guys in the control room keeping an eye on the radar. For the creditors, the message is “We’ve let go 10% of the staff, and everyone who’s left on the management team is taking a 15% pay cut until we turn this thing around. No one is jumping ship. We all know that we can do it.”
  • Communication: Like the pilots, the creditors are at 30,000 feet, going in and out of clouds. They want to know that someone is on the ground, protecting their butts. Reassurance is good: “Eagle One – this is Plymouth Rock, just checking in…” Obfuscation is not: “I don’t seem to recall that invoice – could you send it to me again?”
  • Content: The pilots have to be kept informed about fast-moving targets – direction, range, speed, altitude. Similarly, the vendors want to know that “This is not B.S. The bank has all of our assets pledged and your invoices are part of about $250,000 in overdue payables. But receivables are three times that number, and as we collect them, you’re going to get paid down.”
  • Constancy: The goal is to get everyone back on board safely – the fighter pilots to a smooth landing on the flight deck, the creditors as vendors continuing to contribute to the Company’s economic goals. “Remember what I told you last week – we’re not going to turn this around in a month. We need your patience, and I’ll try to get you something every two weeks.”

Good use of your “air” time will help keep your ship afloat.