“Show me the money!”, as Tom Cruise kept saying in the movie Jerry Maguire. In my view, the preparation of invoices and billing of clients is probably the most important task of a PR consultant. You can’t run a successful business until you have a satisfied client and a readily paid invoice to feed those hungry mouths and pay service providers.
Last week a PR firm emailed an invoice to me only one hour after they had emailed me their draft report. They had never indicated when they would bill me. I hadn’t even read their report by then, and certainly had no chance to discuss it before being billed.
Last month a lawyer billed me for his time in phoning me largely to seek my approval for his fee to be paid out of the advance I had paid into his trust account. He was charging me for the privilege of paying him!
Last year a digital media firm emailed me their commencement invoice before I had even signed their contract.
What are the perceptions formed from these approaches to invoicing? Certainly my impressions as a client were:
- Poor communication – on my part as well as theirs.
- Undue haste to be paid.
- Either greed, financial desperation or an overly process-driven mentality from the service providers.
Payment and invoicing contact points create a vital overall impression for a client. These are the touch points or ‘moments of truth’ in the customer journey. Timing is an important part of this journey.
What’s more, experts say the most lasting impression in an interaction is at the end of the experience. If the end, or nearly the end, of the contact is receiving an invoice, this should be a vital part of the process to gain your attention – even the most important part.
Really? Yes. I believe this from my experience over more than 30 years – in corporate management, consulting, and as a business coach.
Invoicing is literally the bottom line. It is the end of the customer service process. Unsexy? Yes, but hugely important.
Your most important customers or clients are those who return. This creates greater profitability – you don’t have to spend time and resources chasing new clients if you keep an existing client. And you don’t have to learn from scratch about their business.
One of the key ways to motivate them to come back is the perceived fairness of their experience with you along the way –– whether they are a company, a government entity or another service provider.
If you are a PR consultant, you need to pause to think who will receive the invoice and who will need to authorize payment – not necessarily the same person – and how you persuade them directly or indirectly that they have gained good value for money.
Money is probably the most important part of the customer relationship. Customers want to believe they have received a good product or service that provides good value, no matter what it is.
And probably the best way for a client to perceive this is for you to take a strategic approach to the transaction process, especially the invoicing.
Examine the whole journey
Examine the whole process that leads to invoicing. Imagine you are one of your key clients – “put yourself in the shoes of the customer.” It is important you keep the whole client/customer journey in sight. The acts of servicing the account comprise only part of the journey. Payment for the work comes towards the end of a project or campaign and should be handled competently to preserve a good experience for the payer. Customer experience is a perception, and it is your responsibility to ensure positive perceptions during the billing process.
Frequently the client will be dealing with different people in your firm along the way. Check this cross-functional journey. Investigate the silos involved in the process. Appoint a formal or informal account lead – most likely the person who has the most touch points in the relationship – who is responsible for coordinating the overall handling of the account.
No unpleasant surprises!
Document to the client what billing they should expect in return for your appointment. Put on their hat and read the invoice as they would receive it. Is the invoice clearly laid out and logical? Does it relate directly to the contract or agreement on which it is based?
Above all, provide an indication ahead of time when and how much you will invoice them – and the work on which it is based. This can be important to a small client for whom you are performing major work.
Don’t oversell what you will deliver, because that will create unrealistic client expectations through which they will judge your performance – and might make them reluctant to pay.
Treat billing as part of your new-business activity for that client
Review your draft invoices. Consider them from a new-business perspective. Have you worded the description of work in a way that gives a positive impression rather than minimal words that convey little? Include this type of helpful description where appropriate in the invoice as well as in a separate summary. If the invoice and the summary become separated after receipt by the client, the description will still show in either document.
For example, don’t just write “Media relations $5,000” in the invoice. This asks for trouble. Clients usually have no idea of the extensive amount of work needed in media relations, and if the client contact person or an authorizing executive receives a project invoice merely stating this, they are likely to object.
Give a more descriptive summary such as “Media relations – includes initial client briefing; project planning; information research; drafting and editing release; liaison with client re changes to draft release; planning, preparation and checking media contact list; writing pitch email to media contacts; telephone follow-up to media; admin for distribution of release and captioned photograph provided by client; liaise client IT re posting release on client website; social media activities in support of release [a full social media strategy should be itemized separately]; media monitoring and reporting to client on coverage; preparation of report to client on agreed outcomes, ie increased contacts from potential customers.” Etc. You can show each sub-item as a bullet-point on a new line if this helps to clarify.
As a rule of thumb, don’t supply a client with figures showing total of the number of hours involved in the project. Some clients will argue whether the number of hours you have shown is reasonable or not. And never detail the amount of time you have spent on each activity within the project because some clients may argue about time spent on individual components when they have no real idea of the amount of work needed.
If you follow these guidelines, assuming you have satisfactorily performed the agreed activities, the client is likely to pay as agreed and is likely to be satisfied with the relationship.
Also, if you are not in a PR consultancy, but if your organization provides products or services to others, you can use the above tips as a guide for productive invoicing.