I am not sure how much we are owed in total. This is ‘we’ as in my consulting practice. A figure of R1 030 000 springs to mind.
Certain debtors do stand out. There is the dear old North West provincial health service which, with our acoustics and noise control design built into the new Bophelong psychiatric hospital, has forgotten to pay most of our fee. I think that is about R200 000. Then there are at least eight other nonpayers. But here is the thing: I cannot say who the other nonpayers are – in case they read this column and decide, hey, if Machoy wants to criticise us for not paying his confounded invoice, then no more work for him.
But I can tell you this: many organisations which are large, private or parastatal employ ruthless ignorant persons in high places whose sole aim, it seems, is to avoid paying professionals. Many do not fall into this category, for example, the University of Cape Town, all the municipalities in the Western Cape and the Western Cape provincial administration. They pay. It is the quasigovernment organisations and large private organisations that do not pay.
Let’s say we do a fee proposal for an organisation called The Large Manufacturing Co (LMFC). Then, in anticipation of a cash flow issue, we ask for a fee deposit of 50%. The organisation will email back a ringing statement to the effect that LMFC does not pay deposits. We have now learned to say, “Oh, well, tough takkie; go and find another consulting practice.”
If a house painter or plumber can ask for a deposit, then so can we. The refusal to pay the deposit is usually due to the influence of the accountant and the power drunkenness of one of the bosses. We can supply many letters of recommendation but a deposit? Nope.
The refusal to pay a deposit is followed by nonpayment of invoices. Queries for payment are deflected by a junior employee who says that the invoice has to be signed off by a boss, who is on leave for two weeks; the payment will be loaded but will only run next month; and the bald advice that the organisation only pays 30 days from statement, being, in effect, 60 days.
There is a huge down side to all this. There are many consulting practices, including architects, planners and engineers, in Cape Town (and it must be in many parts of South Africa) where the owner or owners cannot afford to wait 60 days to be paid a R200 000 account. Their staff, rental, electricity, information technology services, water, and so on, are not on a 60-day payment cycle. Thus, month after month, they scrape, borrow, slip into overdraft, sell vehicles . . . and if you are a boss, you get your salary last. If. We have found it is far more profitable to send the nonpayers to our competition who are not sure of a few bob. Soort soek soort.
I end up in pubs, sometimes (No! ‘Stru). I meet fellow owners of small consulting practices. I tell them two things: if they do not pay, never work for them again, and spread the word. I am quite good at the latter. I do not think it is right to play puppets with the purse strings. Rather try to ruin their business than let them ruin yours.
Sometimes (not often), when we get a query from a known nonpayer, I call up the other players in my business and I say, hey, these guys do not pay. They listen and price accordingly. Is this being childish? A good business pays its bills on time and pays a deposit, if needed. Finally, we were owed about 120 000 pula by Botswana’s Department of Information and Broadcasting. Six months passed. All queries were fruitless. Finally, I wrote a letter to the Botswana President, which began: “Dear President Khama, I wish to bring to your notice a matter of our unpaid fees . . .” We received the full amount a week later. Tears.