Editor’s Note: Today we’re launching a new feature, “Thea’s Mailbag,” in which Thea Dudley uses her 30+ years of experience in LBM credit management to answer your credit and collection questions. Got a future mailbag question? Contact her at theadudley@charter.net

Dear Thea:
What is your advice for dealing with getting a "bad" customer’s balance paid while still selling them? You know, keeping them on the line until your get your money … and then you can stick a fork in them.
--So Over It in Atlanta

Dear Over It,
You are probably are not going to like the answer, as it sticks in my throat a little to write this: You are going to have to play nice with them. Ever hear the saying "keep your friends close and your enemies closer?" That should explain it all. I love hanging with our good customers, but the problem children get to be my new best friend until that debt is settled. That is, as long as they are paying on the old debt. If they aren't paying and won't address the problem, that is a different column altogether. I am a nice woman, but don't get confused. That bill isn't going to pay itself.

If bad customers are making payments on the old balance while you are selling them COD, play NICE! You have several options for how to do this. Have them pay COD for the current orders while putting some amount towards the old. Establish either a set amount per order or percentage of the COD order, whichever works better for you. Another option is to create a reasonable repayment plan weekly or monthly while the laggard is purchasing COD.

These accounts are what I like to refer to as energy vampires. They take a lot of time, energy and patience. They constantly have to be reminded of the deal and walked through it. You will hear some interesting and unique views from your energy sucker: "I am just trying to help you out, Thea," Mr. Sucker will say. Help me out??? Did I miss something? Did I force you to purchase this product? How did the debtor manage to convince himself that he is the victim here?

This will be the toughest part for you, my credit compadre. It’s not easy to bite your tongue while some really challenging and creative comments come your way.

The road also gets rocky if your bad customers aren’t purchasing much, or buying anything at all. Most likely they are purchasing where they currently have credit or don't have to lay out the cash to pay for new COD product and an old balance. You are getting smaller orders with smaller payments or no orders and no payments. This is where tough love comes in. I will work with anyone, but that does not mean I carry you indefinitely with little or no payment. Resolution is a two-way street.

Reminding these customers that every action, or lack thereof, has a reaction. I am very clear about my next steps based on their poor choices. This is usually met with me being told how Mr. Energy Sucker is able to purchase cheaper somewhere else and that is why he isn’t buying from me.

I have asked my charming wayward customer if he would like to see if the company currently selling them at those fabulous prices would like to purchase his debt since that company is so generous. Or I remind the little wheeler and dealer that we too could sell to him at that price if he wasn't taking advantage of our involuntary long term repayment program.

Think of it like child support. Just because you have moved on to a new family does not mean you get to forget about the child you left behind.

This discussion usually refocuses the bad customer for a month or two. Then we hit the replay button and start the dance again. This continues as long as the payments keep coming, the debt is paid off, or we head for divorce court.

Yes, the fabled "next steps". At what point do you move past the dance, take off your shoes and go home? That decision is up to each individual company. Just don't want too long. If you let them, those energy vampires will suck you dry and move on to the next victim without a backward glance.