Business Writing Tip #111—Collection Letters

Reminder letters are tough, aren’t they? We have to be sensitive, but firm. There may be a legitimate reason why the customer couldn’t pay on time and we have to take this into account. We also, usually, want to maintain a positive relationship with the client—it’s likely that their failure to pay is a one-off situation and you may want to do business with them in the future. They may simply have had a busy time and overlooked your payment …

Cristina from Italy asked me on LinkedIn if I could provide some tips on writing reminder letters for late payments, so I’ve been doing some research and come up with some guidelines and phrases you may find useful if you have to write such letters.

The other thing to keep in mind is that sometimes you need to write a series of collection letters. The first will be gentle, but the tone will become progressively stronger, culminating with the threat of legal action. I hope you never have to go this far, but you may have to.

What needs to be in a collection letter?

Here is a list of things to include that you can use as a template when you’re writing your own letters.

  1. Start by providing all your details so that your client can see, at a glance, who the letter is from. Ideally you will use your company letterhead for this.
  2. Include a subject line with a short description of what the letter is about.
  3. First paragraph—state that the letter is to remind them to pay. Specify the amount, and the due date. If it’s not the first letter in the series, mention the previous reminders you have sent.
  4. Second paragraph—you may include your understanding of the reason for the delayed payment, but it’s not essential.
  5. Include a sentence that they should ignore this letter if they have already paid the account, that is, if your letters crossed in the mail.
  6. Final paragraph—mention what specific action you want them to take and the last possible date for that action. Also give them the opportunity to contact you to discuss payment options.
  7. Sign off with your signature, name and designation.

Things to remember when writing a collection letterpast due

  • Use your company letterhead.
  • Use a polite tone, but be firm.
  • Remain aware that there may be a legitimate reason why they haven’t been able to pay, and consider any problems they might be facing. In most cases the long-term relationship is valuable and important.
  • Emphasise that it is in the client’s best interest to pay the amount, or to make an arrangement to pay the balance over time. If they don’t pay it will affect their credit rating.
  • Always include a subject line and mention the number of reminders (i.e. First reminder, second reminder, third reminder, final reminder.)
  • In most cases you would treat the third reminder as the final reminder.
  • The intensity of your warning, and your firmness, increase with each reminder letter.
  • Include the date the payment was expected, and the final date that they can pay.
  • Include details of any penalties you propose—including a reference to your original agreement.
  • Give the person the opportunity to pay you in instalments.
  • Always include a sentence asking them to ignore the letter if they have already taken action.
  • When a customer responds to your collection letter, even if they haven’t paid in full, stop the series.

Sample Sentences

Which sentences you use, and how you write the letters, depends on your relationship with your customers, and possibly also the size of the debt. These sentences are just suggestions.

Gentle Reminder

This letter is to remind you that invoice number nn is overdue for payment. The payment should have been made by [date].

Just a reminder that you have an outstanding invoice with a past due balance of [amount]. We would be happy to discuss any questions you have about this account.

This is just a friendly reminder that your account with us appears as past due. Our records show that you have a total outstanding balance of [amount]. We would appreciate it if you could let us know the status of this payment. Please call us if you have any questions about the balance due on your account.

Our records indicate that we have not received your payment of [amount], which was due on [date].

I am writing to inform you that we have not received your payment of [amount], which was due on [date].

Since you are our regular client, we are offering you nn additional days to make the payment. Please make the full payment of [amount] by [date].

We understand that payments are sometimes overlooked and we would like to remind you that we have not received your payment of [amount] which was due on [date].

Thank you very much for your attention to this matter and your continued business.

Getting firmer now …

I would like to draw your attention to our terms and conditions, which provide for an interest charge of n% per month on late payments.

As we have a long term association with you, we have not levied any interest charges on the outstanding amount at this stage. However, as the account is now [time period] past due, the terms of our agreement allow for us to charge interest at the rate of n% per month on the outstanding payment. If we receive your payment in full by [date] we will waive these charges. However, if the account is not settled, we will be forced to review this decision.

We cannot understand why you still have not cleared your balance of [amount] which is now [amount of time] overdue.

Although you have been a reliable customer for nn years, we are afraid you are jeopardising your credit standing. By sending us your payment immediately, you can ensure your reputation and secure the convenience of being able to make future purchases on credit.

Based on your credit history, we provided you with credit terms on your purchase of [product or service]. The terms of the agreement provide for a payment within the specified period, by [date]. A payment of [amount] will protect your credit rating, and allow us to update your account.

I am writing regarding your payment. We have not received payment on your account for [n months]. I am sure you understand that it is not possible for us to continue to carry this debt. Please contact me as soon as possible so that we may remedy this situation. Perhaps we could discuss an alternative payment plan.

They still haven’t paid. It’s time to be tougher …

Despite a number of phone calls to your office and your assurance that the invoice would be paid immediately, we still have not received your payment of [amount], which was due on [date].

If we do not receive your payment by [date] we will reluctantly be forced to seek the intervention of our debt recovery agency, [name of debt recover firm here].

In line with our credit policies, we will now impose of a fee of n% for late payment.

To avoid additional charges, and legal action, please forward your payment as soon as possible.

As n months have passed since the due date, we are forced to take action to repossess the [product]. If we do not receive your payment, or hear from you, within the next n business days, we will contact you to arrange an appointment for repossession of the [product].

If we do not hear from you before close of business on [date], we will be forced to take legal action.

After repeated reminders unfortunately we still have not received your payment and you have not contacted us to make alternative payment arrangements. Our representatives will arrive at [address] on [date] at [time] to reclaim the [product]. If this time is not possible, please contact me to arrange an alternative time and date.

If we do not hear from you, and if we are unable to reclaim the [product] on that date, we will immediately take legal action.

I would be grateful if you would contact me when you receive this letter so that we do not need to take the matter further.

Our collection department has informed me of their intention to take legal action as you have failed to answer any of our requests for payment of the [amount] which is now [time period] overdue.

Before taking this action i would like to make a personal appeal to your sound judgement. I feel certain that we can find some way to settle this matter out of court if you phone or meet me. Therefore, please contact me by [date] so that we can avoid taking legal action.

Business Writing Tip #110—Language to Use in Emails

In emails we use less formal language than we use in business letters. We know that we are busy, and we are fairly certain the business people we are writing to are busy too. So we keep our language clear, simple, direct. In emails it is fine to use contractions (I’m for I am, etc.) and we use more personal language.

When we are emailing friends our language is even more informal. We write in a way that is close to how we would talk to them.

Here is a list of different ways that you can say things in emails, both formal and neutral/formal (adapted from Email English by Paul Emmerson).

InformalNeutral/Formal
What do you need?Please let us know your requirements.
Thanks for the email of 12 Feb.Thank you for your email received 12 February.
Sorry, I can't make it.I am afraid I will not be able to attend.
I'm sorry to tell you that ...We regret to advise you that ...
I promise ...I can assure you that ...
Could you ...?I was wondering if you could ...
You haven't ...We note from our records that you have not ....
Don't forget ...We would like to remind you that ...
I need to ...It is necessary for me to ...
Shall I ...? Would you like me to ...?
But.../Also.../So...However .../In addition .../Therefore ...
Please could you ...I would be grateful if you could ...
I'm sorry for ...Please accept our apologies for ...
Re ...With regard to ... (With reference to ...)
See you next week.I look forward to meeting you next week.

Now you have some words to use; but what about how to structure the email? I was at a conference yesterday where one of the speakers, Rachel Appleby, recited a poem that she uses to help people:

Something old,

Something new,

What to do,

I love you.

Now of course we don’t write ‘I love you’ in our business emails, but this serves to remind us to include a warm closing greeting, such as ‘Kind regards’.

So we might write to a colleague (informal style):

Chris,

Thanks for the email you sent me yesterday about the missing stock. (Something old.) I’ve looked into it and am happy to tell you that we’ve found it and will forward it to you. You should get it tomorrow. (Something new.)

Please let me know if it doesn’t arrive. (What to do.)

Sorry about the hassle.

Kind regards, (I love you)

David

 

If we’re writing to a customer it might be:

Dear Ms Johnson,

Thank you for your email of 14 March about your order not having arrived. (Old.) We have checked our records and have discovered that, unfortunately, it missed the cut-off for that day’s delivery. We immediately dispatched the package and it should arrive by tomorrow. (New.)

Please contact me if it does not arrive (What to do.) and I will arrange for a replacement to be sent to you by courier.

I apologise for the inconvenience.

Best regards, (I love you.)

David Ambrose

Delivery Executive, XYZ Company.

Ph: 555 237 8054

 

Business Writing Tip #109—The Memo

A memo is a document that is either used to:

  • Communicate policies, procedures or some other official business within an organisation, or
  • Persuade or ask someone to do something.

Memo Contents

Header:

TO: (readers’ names and job titles)

FROM: (your name and job title)

DATE: (complete and current date)

SUBJECT: (a brief, meaningful description of what the memo is about)

Message:

  1. Introduction—the purpose of the memo, the context and problems, and a specific assignment or task if there is one. Gives the reader a brief overview of what the memo will be about. Usually the length of a short paragraph (a few lines).
  2. Body—includes the major information points. Start with the context; that is the background to the problem you are solving. State the problem.
  3. Task—describe what you are doing to address the problems. If you have been asked to look into something you could start with, “You asked that I look at …”, or if you want to explain something, “To determine the best way ahead, I will …” This information focuses on the information the decision-maker needs, or the information that your staff need to know.
  4. Discussion—this is the longest part of the memo and includes all the details to support your ideas, for example the supporting ideas, facts and research that back up your argument. Begin with the most important information (this might be your key findings or recommendations).

Closing:

Close the memo by stating what action you want the reader to take. If it is a longish memo (more than one page) you might include a brief summary.

Memo Layout

As with any other business writing you want to make your memo easy for your reader to read, so use headings, lists and white space. Make your headings specific. For example if you are making recommendations about marketing, use “New Marketing Recommendations” rather than “Summary”.

sample memo

*Sample Business Memo taken from:

Brown, K. G., and Barton, D.J.  (n.d.).  Brief guide to business writing.  Retrieved March, 2014, from http://www.biz.uiowa.edu/faculty/kbrown/writing.html

Business Writing Tip #108—A Bit More … about Active or Passive

Use the active voice rather than the passive whenever you can. The sentence structure—subject, verb, object—is more familiar to people and they can read it quickly.

In the active voice the subject performs the action.

Compare, I wrote the report, and, The report was written by me. Both sentences mean the same thing but the second one is clumsy.

So When Can You Use the Passive?

Both the active and passive voices have their place in good, clear business writing.Thinking Girl on phone

The passive voice is often used when the writer doesn’t want to say who was responsible. Think of politicians saying, Mistakes were made. The passive version saying who was responsible sounds clumsy. Mistakes were made by this government. We made mistakes is much cleaner, easier to understand (but politicians may not want to take responsibility for the mistakes).

So write, Barbara chaired the meeting rather than, The meeting was chaired by Barbara.

There are times when we don’t care who did the action. The bridge was finished in 2012.

In this case it is not important who built the bridge. The information we want to convey is when the bridge was finished. So the passive is useful here.

Remember, if you use the passive voice, make sure you know why you are using it. Use it carefully and deliberately.

The economy was a mess. We’re going to fix it. The implication here is someone else messed up the economy. The speaker is distancing themselves from the mess and identifying themselves with fixing it.

This is different from, We messed up the economy. We’re going to fix it.

There are two other times you might use the passive.

  • To make something less hostile: This bill has not been paid is softer than You have not paid this bill.
  • When you don’t know who or what the doer is: The Winter Olympics team has been selected.

In summary, there are two main things to consider when deciding which voice to use.

  1. Most readers find the active voice easier to read and understand, so aim to use it at least 80 percent of the time
  2. Think about what you want to emphasise and whether you want to identify who or what is responsible

(The image in the photo is ‘Sad Girl’ by Noukka Signe via Flickr under Creative Commons licence)

 

Business Writing Tip#107—Balance

A couple of posts ago when I was talking about style when writing reports I mentioned the word balance. Your writing style when you are writing a report will be less passionate than it would be if you were trying to persuade someone to do something.scales

You don’t want to sound too certain, or too inflexible, in your thinking. There’s not much in this life that is black and white!

Here are some words and expressions you might like to use to produce a balanced, careful, measured style.

  • In general, … however …
  • On the whole,
  • It is possible that …
  • It seems that …
  • Many/Some/Several/A majority of …
  • usually/typically/often …
  • but …
  • … tend to …
  • would/could/may/might
  • … is expected to …
  • … is likely to …
  • substantially
  • considerably
  • significantly
  • relatively
  • marginally
  • slightly

The image on this page, “Unbalance Of Golden Scales”, is courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Business Writing Tip#106—Report Structure

In the last post I promised you some information about common structural elements of reports. There are no hard and fast rules, and the information here is to guide you. I’ve divided it into two sections based on relative report length. Again you need to use your judgement to decide what you need to include.

Longer Reports: usually include the following elements:

Cover pageUsually includes some, or all, of the following:
Title.
Name of person who commissioned the report.
Name and job title of report writer.
Organisation name.
Issue date of report.
Reference number.
Degree of confidentiality.
Distribution list.
AcknowledgementsOne or two paragraphs where you thank the people and organisations who helped you prepare the report.
(Table of) ContentsA list of all of the headings and subheadings included in the report with the appropriate page numbers.
(Executive) SummaryA short, overall view of the report together with the conclusions and recommendations. This section helps people decide if they need to read the full report.
Terms of ReferenceThe exact subject of the report.
Its scope (what it is dealing with, the range) and limitations.
Why it was written.
Who asked for it.
Who wrote it.
When it was completed.
ProcedureThe methods of investigation used to find the information. Could include meetings and visits, interviews, published sources, personal observation, questionnaires and surveys.
FindingsThe main body of the report. This section contains all the information that has been collected, presented in a logical sequence, and arranged using headings and subheadings. Note: in a business report this section will probably be replaced by sections related to the content of the report such as advantages, disadvantages, option A, option B, etc.
ConclusionsThe significant results of the findings. This section flows logically from the facts.
RecommendationsThe writer makes personal judgements about specific actions that should be taken to respond to the issues raised in the report. The recommendations should be based directly on the results of the investigation.
AppendixSupporting material that provides useful background information but is not essential. It might be material that you consider too long, too detailed or too technical. Might also include tables, diagrams, graphs, excerpts from other publications, etc.

Shorter Reports: usually don’t need as many sections as long reports. Analyse the material and type of report and make an appropriate judgement about what to include. Generally a shorter report includes:

Cover pageTo/From/Date/Subject
IntroductionWhy the report is being written and a brief description of how the information was collected.
FindingsThe main body of the report. This section contains the information that has been collected, presented in a logical sequence.
Note: in a business report this section will probably be replaced by sections related to the content of the report such as advantages, disadvantages, option A, option B, etc.
ConclusionsThe significant results of the findings. This section flows logically from the facts.
RecommendationsThe writer makes personal judgements about specific actions that should be taken to respond to the issues raised in the report. The recommendations should be based directly on the results of the investigation.

 

Business Writing Tip#105—Some Common Types of Reports and Common Elements

We use the word report to refer to many different kinds of documents. I’m sure there are many more than I’ve included in this list but just some of the most common business reports are:Report writing 101

  • Sales reports (sales figures for different products in different regions over specified time periods)
  • Market research analyses (analyses a company’s competitive position in the industry, identifying such things as potential new markets and product areas)
  • Financial reports (might discuss budgets, or be the text that accompanies company accounts)
  • Progress reports (about progress on an ongoing project)
  • Appraisal reports (about an employee’s performance, training needs and goals)
  • Feasibility studies (investigations into the viability of a system, project or product line)
  • Business plans (describe an organisation’s medium to long-term strategy)
  • Inquiry reports (report on an investigation into an ongoing issue, identifying causes and recommending action)
  • Case studies (analysis of a particular project or situation that communicates the lessons learned during the implementation)
  • Quality reports (monitor standards, identifies failings, suggests actions)

Now while there are many kinds of reports, there are some commonalities. Some of these are in style, some in layout and some in the structure of reports.

Style

When it comes to style we usually want reports to be:

  • Clear
  • Concise
  • Factual
  • Careful
  • Balanced
  • Measured
  • Written with a high level of grammatical accuracy

Layout

When you’re working out the layout think about your audience and how you want to make it easy for the reader to find the information they need. Consider using:

  • Systematic numbering of sections and subsections
  • Bullet points and lists
  • Visuals such as charts, tables and diagrams
  • Areas of blank space at the margins for readers to make notes

In the next post we will look at the structural elements of reports.