How To Collect Money From Your Advertisers
So you’ve found an advertiser, created their ad, installed the ad, and sent out the invoice. But what do you do when the check doesn’t arrive? Collecting money on billboards is an art form, and you can’t be in the billboard business without learning this important skill.
Rule #1: Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish
If the billboards works, that advertiser might stay on it for years – maybe a lifetime. But you are going to screw up that concept if you offend the advertiser in your collections process. You, at all times, want to be amiable and non-confrontational in your collections efforts (until all attempts fail). It’s very similar to collecting money owed from a family member. You are going to be more of a good-natured pest than anything else.
Rule #2: You can’t collect money if you don’t ask for it
If the advertiser does not pay their bill, and you never follow-up to see why, they will never pay. So to do nothing is clearly the wrong course of action. It takes a lot of guts initially to collect money. But it is imperative to gain that skill or you will go bankrupt. Asking a customer to pay their bill is nothing to be ashamed of – they are the one who should be ashamed, not you! Collecting money is a big part of any business, from Exxon to Coca-Cola. There are whole departments in those companies devoted to collections.
Rule #3: All you are really doing is training a new behavior
If an advertiser pays late, and you bug them, they are more likely to pay on time next time. So the goal is to re-train the advertiser away from its bad behavior (not paying their rent) and to adopt a good behavior (to pay on time). It’s very similar to dog training. You correct the dog and, if you are consistent, the dog eventually follows the behavior pattern you endorse. I have had many advertisers who required constant bugging by me to pay – including dropping by to pick up a check in person – who later became as punctual as a train conductor.
Rule #4: When all else fails, change course
Here’s what separates the pros form the amateurs. When the advertiser just won’t pay, many smaller billboard companies just throw in the towel and write it off. But the good companies don’t stop there, they file suit in court, normally in small claims court. If an advertiser simply won’t pay you, and there is no chance of repeat business obviously, then you are making a horrible decision to just ignore the debt. Do you think that, if the roles were reversed, the advertiser would let you off the hook that easy? Filing in small claims court is very cheap (around $100) and very effective (I’ve had many a deadbeat call and pay me as soon as the constable serves him).
So how do you “bug” an advertiser without offending them?
Well, that’s where the art form comes in. First of all, let them know that it’s not your idea. Say, for example “the lady in bookkeeping asked me to call you and touch base to see if you’ve had a chance to send the check out yet”. That makes it look like it’s not your idea, and you are just following orders. Plus, you are not pinning down the advertiser too sharply, so it’s more of a courtesy reminder than a collections call. If this is the second or third time you’ve called to “touch base” – and they have still not paid – you might say “I’m going to be at a meeting later today, nearby your location. Would it be O.K. if I just dropped by to pick up a check? I’d sure like to get the bookkeeper off my back”. Again, you’ve now set the advertiser up for more immediate action, without appearing too threatening and making it look like it’s not your idea in the first place.
There’s an unusual rule on customer loyalty
A study done a few years ago found an unusual quirk in customer loyalty. If a customer has a problem with a company – and the company fixes it – then the customer is more loyal than if there had never been a problem. What this means is that if you have a collections problem, and you solve it nicely and with respect and dignity, the customer will hold no ill will against you when it comes time to renew the ad. I’ve had many life-long advertisers who had serious collections problems at one time. Collecting the rent does not equal killing the relationship.
There’s no point to renting billboards if you do not collect the rent. Cash is king when it comes to paying your bills. Don’t be afraid to be a good collector. If you do it right, then you will have no push back from your advertisers, and you’ll be able to slide through even the worst recession.
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Memo From Frank
The Fourth of July is a good time to reflect on all things American – and there is nothing more American than outdoor advertising. The modern billboard industry was founded in the U.S., and there is a unique connection between our country and the billboard medium. One reason for U.S. dominance may be the early American obsession with the automobile. From Henry Ford’s Model T to the modern day, Americans love to drive. And that interest was supported by Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, which was the largest road construction project in world history. As the government provided the highways, the billboard industry provided the billboards. Billboards are a part of the American landscape and there are many billboards in the U.S. which have been designated as historic landmarks, most notably the Hollywood sign, which was originally a billboard for Hollywoodland residential subdivision. So as you’re eating those hotdogs and watching fireworks, be assured that the billboard industry is a big part of America and will stay that way into the future.
A Billboard Story
I once had a billboard salesman who seemed to be doing great. He was renting lots of signs really fast, and many of them were signs that were pretty hard to rent. Suddenly, in the middle of his incredible sales production, he came to me and said that he had to move to Houston because his sick relatives needed him to help out with. So I advanced him the commissions from the pile of ad contracts he had just rented. A short time later, I got a call from an advertiser that wanted to know why we had billed them for a billboard. It turned out he had made up all the sales, by forging a signature on the ad contract and then making up the artwork, pretending it was approved, and having it installed. In all, I had installed about 5 billboards that were complete frauds – no advertiser actually existed. They were all real businesses (McDonald’s, Motel 6, etc.) but the businesses had never agreed to advertise on the billboards. I probably should have filed suit on the salesman, but I figured he was never going to be seen again (I assumed Houston was not where he really moved, either). About 20 years later, I was seated in a restaurant and, when I got up, there was the salesman seated directly behind me. When I turned around, this guy had the most shocked and scared look I’ve ever seen. I told him “great to see you again – I’ve never forgotten your amazing prowess at renting billboards”. He had a wife and kids, and hopefully he learned along the way that ripping people off is a bad business model.
Powerful Advertising Words
Studies have shown that the two most powerful words that can be used in an advertisement are “Free” and “Warning”. Those are apparently the two words that most make people want to read the advertisement – basically an offer for something for nothing, and a tip to keep you from getting in trouble. There are two words, however, that need to be added to that list, if the list concerns billboards. And those are “Exit Now”. In fact, a Harvard Business School textbook at one time said something like “if you cannot use the words “Exit Now” on a billboard, then find a billboard that you can”. The ability to direct customers to your business – effectively making billboard point-of-purchase – is the most unique feature of billboards over all other forms of media.
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