"I know my account is overdue," Rick told me on the phone before I even said hello. "But I can't pay you yet."
"Because one of my customers can't pay me yet," he explained.
I asked him to follow up and let me know when he thought he could clean things up, and he told me he would call the customer who owed him money right now.
We hung up. My phone rang. It was Rick.
"I'm calling to see when you can pay me," he said.
"Why am I paying you?" I asked.
"Because your account is past due."
"I think you are confusing me with you," I told him.
"I thought the same thing, but reversed," Rick said.
Sure enough, we owed Rick's granite company for a countertop while his contracting company owed us for cabinets.
"So send me a check," I told him.
"Why should I do that?" he asked.
"So I can send you a check."
"You send me a check first."
"You send me a check first."
For the next five minutes we sounded slightly less mature than two kindergartners fighting over a playground swing.
Reliability, craftsmanship, and character mean a lot in our business. So when we add a product or a service, we like to work with those manufacturers, distributors, and subcontractors with which we have strong relationship. Often, that means working with our own customers.
Rick had been a customer of ours for many years. The contracting jobs we were involved with were top-notch. So when he opened a granite fabricating company, we were happy to give him some business.
Early on, we had agreed that we would keep the invoicing separate–we wouldn't pay one invoice owed to one of us with an invoice due to the other. We both didn't want to hear "I thought we'd work it out later when we billed you something" from each other.
We both had heard a lot of excuses for late payments over the years, like "I need to transfer funds." That involves a process that takes me all of two minutes at an ATM machine but somehow can take up to three weeks for my customers.
Then there is the "We only write checks on the 31st of the month" bromide, which of course creates significant problems five months of every year.
Extra popular these days is "The market is killing me. I just can't liquidate right now!" And its twin brother: "The market is soaring. I can't just can't liquidate right now!" Lately I've heard rumors about the "I'm waiting for my stimulus check to clear" excuse, but I haven't come across it personally.
It occurred to us we were offering each other a variation of another old favorite, the "I can't pay you until he pays her so she can pay him and he can pay me" excuse, with the unique twist that we were talking about each other.
Our reasons were rooted in our accounts payable policies. Both our companies were careful not to let money out the door if there was any kind of risk attached. And both our bookkeepers took the nonpayment by the other as a sign of risk.
We both spoke to our bookkeepers, got checks for each other, and agreed to exchange them in the morning.
Our hands reached out over coffee to grip the envelope the other was holding.
"You let go first," I suggested.
"No, you let go first."
"No, you. ..."
Tad Troilo is a manager for Cranmer's Kitchens by Design in Yardley, Pa. 215.493.8600