Investing in Trust

“Pay the bank loan, meet your payroll, and pay me,” I say to new clients who occasionally inquire about my terms of payment. “You come up with the first month’s payment in advance, then it’s up to me as your financial manager to make sure that cash is available to pay everyone, including me, in the following months.”

I’ve seldom deviated from that policy, and with good reason – exceptions always create an issue, and the issue relates to my place in the pecking order. I think of myself as the senior financial manager of my client companies. Though I provide my services on a part-time basis, I’m available whenever and wherever I’m needed, just a text, phone call, or email message away.

But I’m not on the payroll – nor do I want to be – and there-in lies the rub: potentially, my monthly invoice gets batched for payment with all of the other accounts payable. Taking its own course, this means payment in 30 days or more; I’m in the queue.

I’m reminded this month how much I dislike being in the queue. Six weeks ago, I made an exception to my usual M.O. by quoting a finite project for a new client at a fixed price payable in thirds, in advance, over the estimated three months to completion. I’m working out of a district office, I likely won’t get to the main office during the engagement, and I haven’t really met the president. So I submit my invoice and wait.

What does that make me? Like every other creditor, I’m a supplicant. Yes, I have a signed agreement, and I have no doubt that I’ll ultimately be paid in full, but instead of routinely being paid in advance as with my other clients, I have to ask for my check. By any other name, that’s still a collection call.

“So, Brad, what’s the big deal?” you ask. “Everyone in business deals with credit and collection. Why is it any different for you? Why should you be paid in advance?”

Let me count the reasons:

  • Supplication is off the table. By being paid in advance, I have equal standing with every employee in the client company. Their pay is guaranteed on a date certain and, within the 30-day notice clause in my Agreement, so is mine. It’s in my pocket.
  • Candor is the order of the day. I can call it like I see it. Obviously, even with the termination clause, I want to be respectful and constructive, but I won’t hesitate to let my clients know when my experience, and thus my recommendations, differs from theirs in a given situation.
  • No cumulating balance. If the check’s not forthcoming in the first week of the month, I address the issue, which invariably is resolved within a few days. (It helps to be intimately involved with the client’s finances.)
  • I’m not a risk-taker. My clients are the entrepreneurs. They have taken the risk. Part of my job is to help them to maximize their return. But I’m not an investor; I’m not going to speculate on whether they can pay me down the road. Pay me today, you get commitment for the long term and my best efforts for the next 30 days-plus. Stretch me out and I’m inclined to seek more certain returns elsewhere.
  • A clean break leaves no regrets. In the natural course of events (a full-time successor; a merger or acquisition; a wind-down) my client relationships have come to an end more than two hundred times during the past thirty years. In only a mere handful, have I left while still being owed money, which has always ultimately been fully paid. No surprise: former clients are my best sources of referrals.

What’s the lesson here? It all starts with trust. In order for me to be effective with clients, they need to trust my judgment, my motivation, my experience, my ability, and my commitment to do excellent work for them. It’s no different for any manager or for any other member of a work group: the sooner you demonstrate trustworthiness, the more effective and influential (in the best sense) you’re likely to be. My clients’ willingness to pay me in advance, and to continue paying on that basis, manifests that mutual trust.

Trust gets built from the very first meeting. I will reconnect next week with a prospective client couple to follow up our initial meeting just before Christmas. We met on a Saturday afternoon and relaxed over a pot of tea for a couple of hours while we got acquainted. My only knowledge of their company had come from their web site which, fortunately, provided a number of cues about their professional service business.

Based on their web site’s extensive and diverse display of creative projects, it was evident that the principal had built a dazzling portfolio of one-off work. But few of these connected to any of the others in a way that would create economies of scale. The site provided, as well, a bio sketch and picture of each of the twenty professionals and staff members. It was notable for its preponderance of young people, with only two employees beyond the principal seeming to represent the wisdom of a knowledge-based business. And given that the principal continued to devote chunks of his career in academe, it was no surprise that a significant portion of his staff shared his academic pedigree.

In our conversation, I probed gently but directly, and it became clear before too long that this is a sideline masquerading as a business. The passion is for creativity, and the business provides ample opportunity. Formal teaching comes in the classroom, but the office environment is replete with teachable moments. Design enhancements are frequent, and frequently under-billed, and the absence of a full-time accounting person signals that the finances are out of control.

All of these observations and many others I offered candidly in the process of establishing the level of trust that is critical to sharing confidential information. Their responses were equally open: we agreed that the question for our follow-up is whether or not there’s an economic model for business success here and, if so, how to implement it. The more important agreement, however, was the one that underlies any effective working relationship: we will trust each other to get the job done.

So what am I going to do next week? Continue to ask probing questions, make candid observations, and build trust. How will I know that I’ve been successful in the last? When they retain me, trust my judgment, and pay me…

…up front.