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How-to handle tough calls

February 23, 2015

Effective communication can be the single most important key to the success of your business. Being prepared for each type of communication is the foundation for being effective.

Whether you are asking a client to pay their bill, or justifying a fee increase, it is the preparation before the call that can secure your success. There are techniques available to assist you. “Lifescripts” authors Stephen M. Pollan and Mark Levine offer guidance on “What to say to get what you want in life’s toughest situations.”

The authors divide the process into three parts: strategy of the situation, tactics and a flow chart of probable conversations.

Let’s explore the guidance the authors offer when asking a client to pay their bill. The strategy is that frequently there has been a clerical mistake, whether actual or pretend. Allow the client to check on it but schedule the second call. “Lifescripts” authors suggest:

“The attitude to take in the first call is that, since you are in effect partners, the client’s failure to pay promptly is probably an oversight that can be swiftly corrected.” If not corrected, the second call will be a “push for performance.” The authors caution on allowing the situation to become confrontational unless you are willing to jeopardize your relationship with the client.

The tactics of this particular scenario include the attitude, preparation and timing of the call. As the business owner, you are in charge of the attitude. You provided the service or delivered the product and you should be paid. It is your responsibility, using normal business practices, to check on the payment.

Be prepared by having invoices, job delivery invoice and any additional notes about the situation. Make the call the day after you expect the payment. Also make the call during business hours. This will enable the client to immediately contact the accounting personnel.

Strategically map out the possible flow of the call. Make the phone call directly to your client. Pollan and Levine suggest beginning each phone call with an icebreaker. In this situation introduce yourself; state the purpose of the call, state the invoice number, what the invoice is for and that it was due yesterday.

The client will have one of three responses:



The client will offer a mild apology, such as “It got hung up on my desk for a few days. I’ll check on it.” Your reply should stress urgency, as in “I’d appreciate your giving it immediate attention. As you know, cash flow is the lifeblood of an operation like ours. I will be by your office on Friday after lunch. Will it be possible for me to pick up the check then?” The client then agrees to pay, “I found a way to get the check cut on Thursday. I will see you Friday.” Express your thanks, “I really appreciate this.” Transaction concluded.



The client will attempt to pass off, “You’ll have to call accounting about that.” You should reject pass off. “Accounting departments aren’t generally responsive to outside suppliers. It is better if you follow up with them. I will call you again at the end of the day to see what you’ve found out. I will be by your office on Friday after lunch and I would like to be able to pick up the check if at all possible.” At the end of the day make the call to verify that the check will be ready Friday.

At this point the client will do one of two things. He will agree to pay or he will “plead policy.” He may state that the new company policy “requires three approvals and to hold onto everything for 120 days.”

The authors Pollan and Levine offer this as your reply:

“I understand that some companies are going in that direction, and I can adjust my future pricing to reflect the change. But those are not the terms under which we have been doing business or under which we agreed to this project.”

He may again cite that he cannot change the policy. It will be your responsibility to ask, “I need to get at least some payment from you so I can avoid turning the account over to collection. Is there some way to pay half now and the rest later?”



The client may now plead poverty and that the company is in a real crunch. You then negotiate a definite date. “It is not going to do either of us any good if I have to turn the account over to collections. I can stall for two weeks if you fax me a commitment, in writing, to pay in full within two weeks. Can you do that?”

Finally the client will agree to pay or he won’t and you send him into collections. Transaction concluded.

Preparation has been the key component to getting a response from your client. If you find it uncomfortable to make these phone calls, practice with a peer and use language suited to your industry.

Whether you are planning to increase your fees, revisit a former client, get past the gatekeeper, or ask a creditor for more time, the Angelo State University Small Business Development Center can assist.

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