“Cynthia, you have some phone messages. They look important.”
I had been out of the store for a day or two, helping one of the 4 kids (see my store name) move from one city to another for her new job, and expected to have a stack of pink message slips upon my desk, but most would be of the “We’ll have a manager in your area on Tuesday, and we’d like to discuss the wholesale credit card rates your business qualifies for” variety. Oh, there might be a couple of “will your store provide books for our author luncheon event?” queries and some “United Church of Very-Well-Meaning-Ladies-in-Cardigans-Making-Baked-Goods Holiday Bazaar booth opportunities,” but typically if my staff feels that something is critical when I’m not on-site, they judiciously offer my cell phone number, or text an S.O.S: CYNTHIA!!!! We got double-shipped the sticky unicorn poop… do we keep it or ask for a call tag?
These messages were all much more terse, and I could tell from the first-names-only and the 1-800 phone numbers that these were credit rep calls, and they needed immediate attention. I filled my coffee cup and plugged in my laptop as I settled into my desk chair — well, first I moved the stack of damaged books awaiting return instructions and the crayon picture of a dinosaur (?) that a young customer dropped off for me — and began to dial.
“Cynthia, your account is on credit hold.”
“Really? It’s the 21st of the month, and we made a payment on the 1st. I don’t think we’re over our credit limit.”
“Well, the check we received has not been applied, so your balance is now overdue.”
“Oh, I’m sorry! Did I make an error?”
“You did not indicate which invoices this check is to be applied to.”
“Ummmm….. all of them. It looks like I wrote a check for $2406.35. Our balance due is $2406.35.”
“You need to include the summary form with each individual invoice checked that you are paying, otherwise we can’t apply the payment.”
“Ummmm…. OK. But just to be clear, we are paying the entire invoice.”
“Yes, and you’re now overdue.”
The next phone call was just as perplexing.
“You have several invoices that are now at 60 days, so we need have those paid before we release these new orders.”
“Wow! Really? I’m sorry. Let’s clear that up. What do you show is due?”
“There are a number of invoices here. Wait a moment, I’ll have to total them.” There was a long pause, while I frantically searched purchase orders in my POS system. “It looks like you have $589.96 due.”
“Let me get the credit card, and let’s clear that right away.”
“You have several credits on the account, which ones would you like to apply?”
“How about all of them?” Side question, to all fellow booksellers: Is there ever a reason to NOT apply credits?
“There are quite a few. I’ll have to total them.” We don’t actually have a way to log damages into our POS system, but we do keep a paper file of those returned or donated books by publisher, and as I waited, I texted my staffer up at the register to run the file back to me when she had a minute…. “OK, we have total credits of $584.13. How many of those should I apply?”
I am not, by any stretch, complaining about credit reps with these two examples, for the work they do in tracking the multiple invoices and ship-to locations for our zillions of small orders; applying every alphabet soup regional trade show special and backlist promo and mythical co-op claim is demanding and herculean in scope. Some of my very best business coaches over the years have been folks in the credit departments of my vendors, who call when they know cash flow is good to help me strategize for the lean seasons. The credit manager of a large toy vendor (that we typically write lots of business with) calls me each August 1st, and we look at last year’s 4th quarter sales, the sales growth rate of the current year, and estimates our orders through December 24th. (Yes, I order new product on Christmas Eve, but that’s another post.) Then she breaks that total down, divides it into weekly payments, and we strategize how to best keep cash in my accounts for the holiday season while not leaving me with a horrible bill on January 1. I love her for that commitment, and her company’s approach keeps us both successful and solvent. I also have credit reps who call me on a regular monthly phone appointment time, when we cover outstanding invoices, damages claimed and approved, and where we stand with payments due. Their recognition of my schedule (booksellers don’t have the luxury of desk time very often) and willingness to support me is a valuable commodity, and especially since I’m not a star-bellied-Sneetch with a a big store (or stores) in a big city — this is just a regular tiny indie business in flyover territory — hardly worth noticing (unless we are at 29 days, which evidently sets off a series of small electric shocks in the seats of the credit department of our major publishers).
Here’s my not-so-smart suggestion: let’s adopt BATCH, or some integrated online account management. Let’s log in to our publisher accounts and make payments electronically. Let’s get email alerts, have the ability to check status of damage claims and credits in real time, and let’s free up the smart folks in the credit departments to have really meaningful conversations. I want to talk to all of them… but use them as coaches, as partners, and as advisors. I want them to be able to look with me at last year’s sales performance, both orders and returns, to help me analyze data, and to work together so that I can give their company more of my customers’ money. All of those conversations would be valuable to me, and perhaps collectively, all of those kind of conversations with indie booksellers would be infinitely more valuable to our publisher partners.
And none of those conversations, by the way, needs for me to check 92 boxes on a form indicating that I’m paying each and every one of this month’s invoices due.