This is an unusual question for anyone to ask, after all we are all grateful when a potential new customer approaches us. So why am I asking this question now?
Many businesses are going through a period of massive change… old style business models are being replaced by what appear to be leaner, faster moving, sometimes digitised models that involve using the services of people and companies you’ve not used before. Companies are outsourcing more, they are sending goods and services out for external processing by specialists, before sometimes getting them back for further processing – in the past companies often tried to do everything in-house, now it is generally recognised that doing so is a massive mistake, no company whatever its size can hope to have all the skills and resources to keep all aspects of their operations at the cutting edge in an increasingly complex and fast moving world. We are all being asked to do more work by companies we have never heard of before. So what’s the problem?
The problem there is no past history of working with that company, and increasingly I’m seeing companies – particularly engineering companies – who are outsourcing to specialists, closing down some or all of their own departments. And that brings massive risk to the company that accept such work… especially as I have seen several times in recent weeks those companies looking to outsource appear to be very close to insolvency and are merely supplier hopping, leaving a trail of unpaid debts behind them which, if you accept such work, would put the very existence of your business at risk.
So here are a few questions for you to ask / things for you to do before you take on a new customer / client:
- Why is the customer looking to use your services / outsource? Really dig down deep on this…is it for valid reasons that should stand the test of time or is it merely an effort to stave off cash flow problems, to get you to do work for which you will struggle to get paid?
- Why you? Why not someone else? What’s so special about you? Is it merely because they see you as a easy touch because you need more work? Or is it because you and you alone have the skills they really need?
- Why have they closed down their own department who used to do the work you are being asked to do? Was it because they lost or made redundant the staff in that department (if so, why?), was it because they couldn’t properly manage the department or manage or control the work flowing through it? (in small industries or in a small area like the Black Country it may be possible to ask former staff for the real reasons, don’t be afraid to seek them out, either using your contacts or even social media). Same for any previous supplier of such services, do you know who they are, can you speak to them?
- What do you know about the prospective new customer’s contract with its customer? Does it enable such outsourcing? (I’m seeing instances where work is being passed out where the contract specifically prohibits doing so – this is a very real warning not to get involved because the ultimate customer as and when they find out will not pay, and that means you will probably not be paid either, they will argue that the reason they are not getting paid is your fault).
- What do you know about the customer’s history and its finances and its directors’ / senior management’s history? Do in-depth searches on them. Not just cursory credit searches. Do they habitually leave a trail of subcontractor destruction, liquidations or administrations behind them? Are their finances strong, or not? – And actually look behind the figures, don’t take them on face value – I’m seeing groups who have recently liquidated subsidiary or associated companies in order to jettison large levels of external debts (this could be you next time they do this!), where their failures will have a massive knock on effect on the remaining group companies which are not reflected in the accounts or credit ratings – they have delayed filing their current accounts to hide their true financial position. Who are the customer’s external accountants / auditors – are they reputable or could they be working closely with their client to orchestrate the eventual failure and rebirth of the business (after writing your debt off)? – again, I’m seeing evidence of this…
- What’s the rumour mill saying about them? Are there any murmurs of under-pricing, suppliers not being paid on time, fabrication of reasons not to pay, non-deliveries, resignations, sudden changes in staff/suppliers, etc?
- Who can you talk to whom you can trust, if anyone, to satisfy yourself as to the customer’s motives and reliability? If they have been involved in any recent failures, pull down the statement of affairs, talk to the suppliers you know who have been left behind. Think about others – customers, employees, advisers. If there is no one you can talk to, then you might think about not accepting the work.
- Think about what’s the worst that can happen? Then budget for it because there is a good chance it will happen… would it take down your business or be something that you can simply put down to experience? What ‘hold’ if any do you have over the customer os its directors once you have started to do your work? Should you be asking for a personal guarantee from the customer’s directors?
Right now I am seeing good businesses being put at massive risk by unscrupulous companies – yes, as much as it hurts me to say it, by Black Country businesses – who appear to be following the Carillion example of massive subcontractor abuse. Make sure it’s not you who suffers as a result… and if you are an accountant or lawyer whose client has been asked to take on a big contract which might hurt them if they’re not paid, why not ask me for my thoughts? – it might just be the difference between you losing a client or your client going under themselves, or not.