Elaine Pofeldt is a journalist whose articles on entrepreneurship and careers have appeared in Fortune, Working Mother, Money and many other publications. She is a former senior editor at Fortune Small Business magazine and an entrepreneur herself, as co-founder of 200kfreelancer.com. Her book, “The Million-Dollar, One-Person Business,” was released in 2018. She writes “Your Business Credit,” a weekly column about small business and credit, for CreditCards.com.
I ran a customer’s card after I left their home and it was declined. What can I do?
Before jumping to conclusions, you should try contacting the customer and let him or her know of the problem. If that doesn’t work, you can:
Dear Your Business Credit,
I run a tree service. I had a customer give me a credit card but couldn’t run the card – no one was at my office – so I ran it two hours later and the card was declined. What can I do? – Alan
That’s really frustrating. I assume you have already performed your services and were not simply processing a deposit or you would not be writing to me.
I ran your question past Leslie Tayne, an attorney in Melville, New York, who advises small-business owners on credit and debt and is the author of “Life & Debt.”
Send a certified letter
If you can’t get in touch with the client, either phone or by mail, says Tayne, you might send a certified letter to the client stating that you have been trying to contact him or her but cannot get in touch. Request that the client call to resolve the matter and be sure to make clear what’s owed.
Contact an attorney
Whether you sue or take the matter to an attorney depends on a number of factors. For instance, if you have worked with this client before and the customer has always paid you, then the client may have simply given you the number of a credit card he or she didn’t mean to use, or one that had been turned off because fraudsters had stolen the card numbers. In that case, repeated follow-ups might be enough to resolve things.
However, if you have never worked with the customer before, you have less information to go on. You might still try simply contacting them, but if there is no response, I’d suggest you give more consideration to the options Tayne suggests.
Charge a deposit in the future
Where I live in New Jersey, hiring a tree service can be a costly endeavor, so I imagine you may be talking about a substantial invoice. To avoid similar scenarios happening in the future, I would suggest asking for a deposit before you take on a project. It’ll help your cash flow, too.
Tip: By charging a deposit, you can protect yourself from future scams and help your cash flow, too.
If, say, you’re charging $1,000 to take down a tree, you’ll be better off asking for $500 upfront than if you wait until the end to invoice for the full $1,000. And if a dishonest customer tries to cheat you out of your payment, you’ll be out $500 rather than $1,000. That’s not great, but it’s better than losing the whole amount.
In a business like a tree service that serves the local community, it can be very disappointing when someone in town takes advantage of your trust. I’ve seen how hard tree services in my area worked after the recent nor’easters on the East Coast and how important they are to creating a safe environment after a storm.
Unfortunately, even when you perform a vital service, you have to prepare for people who try to get away with not paying you. By putting a system in place to protect yourself, you’ll build a stronger, more sustainable business.