Prior to becoming a remodeler, I learned selling and hands-on management from a smart carpet merchant in San Diego. Here's what he taught me about getting paid:
Customers will pay because you need money, not because they owe you. Your customer will pay the guy that needs the money. In addition to letting the client know how much you appreciated the opportunity to deal with them, let them know you'll also appreciate their prompt payment because you need to meet payroll this week.
Verify ownership of property before you invest time in the appointment. Make sure your appointment is arranged with the property owner. The property owner and the property are, legally, the ultimate source of payment.
Tie your contract payment schedule to progressive work completion. A valid home improvement contract is mutual. A deal struck for payment keyed to progressive work completion trains the client to pay throughout the job.
Avoid fund control. Fund control is a "Mother, may I..." game that introduces two unwanted players to your process of getting paid: the fund control administrator and the project inspector. If you run a tight ship, have cash reserves, and value your long-standing professional reputation, don't play the fund control game. Instead, rely on your client references to sell prospects on your integrity and delivery commitment track record.
Never mail an invoice. Collect payments personally. People who need money don't request payment through the mail or rely on the post office to get the check back. Invoices should be hand-delivered by the person who sold the job to the homeowner.
Stop work if the customer does not pay. If the homeowner doesn't keep their promise to pay promptly, follow up with a written demand for payment and cite the "stop work" clause in your contract. Try to work with them without an attorney breathing fire on the problem. Finally, pull off the job if they don't pay.
Require simple hand-written change order requests from the homeowner. Include blank change order forms with your contract. When the homeowner wants extra work, or unforeseen problems arise that are the homeowner's financial responsibility, offer language over the phone, agree on the content, and ask them to hand write and sign the request as authorization to proceed.
Formalize a punch list procedure and attach punch list completion to the final payment. Problems usually involve performance issues (quality), so I recommend you get a supply of the NAHB Residential Quality Standards books, available in paperback now. Reference this text in your contract as the quality performance standard for the project. Give your client the book to review before signing the contract and have him or her acknowledge review and receipt.
Prove to the homeowner that you have paid subs and suppliers on their job. Provide lien releases from your suppliers, subcontractors, and yourself before requesting final payment. In California, it's the law. If it's not the law in your state, you'll be ahead of your competition by setting the standard.
Arrange an appointment to pick up the final payment and deliver warranty paperwork. The homeowner knows you're coming to receive final payment. It's another opportunity to say thanks. Taking a $50 to $100 glass vase filled with fresh-cut flowers will make the words heartfelt. Use the occasion to get their OK for using them and their residence as a reference to prospects. --Steve Lusk, CGR, is CEO of Lusk Building & Remodeling in San Diego.