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“Mr. Beaver, while I know you are a lawyer, I need the kind of advice that Dear Abby or Ann Landers might dispense,” “Laura’s” email began.

“Mike” runs his own mobile computer repair business,” she explained, adding, “he is an excellent tech as well as a very nice guy, and that’s the problem. He doesn’t seem to know when not to be nice. The more I learned about his business these past few months, I am embarrassed by how weak he is when faced with customers who don’t pay their bills on time and make one excuse after another.

“He seems unable to make it clear that payment is due when the job is complete, refuses to send bad accounts to a collection agency and is afraid to take anyone to Small Claims Court. The truth? He is weak, afraid of his own shadow and it makes me sick to see the way customers take advantage of him. Worse yet, Mike is losing my respect, and this scares me because I love him. But I cannot be married to a man who I do not respect,” her email stated, in bold letters.

I could sense the tears which must have fallen to the keyboard when Laura wrote those words.

“We read your column, and I am hoping that you have some ‘prescription,’ some kind of a script he could follow which would make him not appear to be such a willing victim of customers who are just plain users. Finally, as You and the Law is such a great source of common sense advice, are you related to Dear Abbey or Anne Landers? (A smiley was attached)

Getting paid starts before any services are performed or goods delivered

There is a legal and moral responsibility of paying our bills on time, and to insist that we are paid for the work we do for others. When good people are taken advantage of, often they let it happen by tolerating excuses, saying, “No big deal… pay me next month,” when they know it is a big deal, yet allow themselves be walked on.

This sends a message to the morally challenged customer, and, more importantly, to family – a fiancée – about just how strong a person are you? Should I marry someone who lets people walk all over him, what does this say about me?

The seeds of being stiffed are often planted before any work is performed or items sold. Our body language could be yelling, “I’m vulnerable.”

Some years ago we had a gardener client, very much like Mike, who came to our office with a stack of accounts that were more than four years old – $50,000 in past due bills, beyond the statute of limitations. He proudly announced, “I’ve just hired a person to keep on top of the problem.” But the watchdog he hired turned out to be even more of a mouse than our client.

So, we gave him grooming – wear a uniform with your logo – and acting lessons on how to appear competent but not act like the customer’s best friend. We also developed a written contract which every customer signed. Looking like a serious businessman sent the right message, and his bad debt problems ceased.

Our recommendations to help keep those wedding bells ringing

  1. Make the time when payment is due clear to your customer before performing any services. Get a check or other form of payment when the job is completed, or some amount prior to beginning work.
  2. If payment is late, immediately pick up the phone, and find out why you haven’t been paid. Don’t be overly polite. Don’t say, “Sorry to bother you, but…”
  3. Do NOT waste your time with threatening notices, month after month. This only gives the crook more time. Yes, I said crook.
  4. Find a lawyer who will send out a personalized demand letter for a reasonable fee. Remember: your own late notices are being tossed in the trash, and computer printed form letters from collection agencies wind up trashed also, but lawyers scare people.

There are a lot of flakes who go through life late with the rent, the car payment, the child support, and with excuses for everything. Anyone who buys the excuses and gets taken, deserves it. There is a time to stop being a nice guy. Do not be afraid to confront the deadbeat customer. Cut them no slack.

Finally, it’s a real compliment being compared to the advice columnists Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abby.) Most people do not know they were twins born on July 4, 1918, in Sioux City, Iowa. They lived a few houses down the street from my mother, and the three were friends from elementary school all the way through high school. It is indeed a small world.

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Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to him at (661) 323-7993 and be sure to visit dennisbeaver.com.

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