Covid-19 bred a devastating cash flow management crisis in small and medium sized businesses around the world. Making many owners painfully aware of their business vulnerability.
“Two out of five small businesses expect to run out of cash with six weeks, according to a survey. And one in five small businesses say they will run out of cash within three weeks.” writes Timothy Adler
Every SMB faces a cash flow crisis at some time.
While many of these crises are of their own making there are also rare occasions when they have to face a far more serious “black swan” event. A crushing punch far bigger than any business that also seriously damages the world economy.
At times like this, many small business owners face a financial black hole. And confronting this crisis is both scary and urgent.
Cash Flow Management Action Steps
Setting out it may feel like attempting to climb Mt Everest with no training or equipment.
Whatever the circumstances! Do it. And follow these steps at any time the business faces a cash crunch.
Step 1: Prepare a Simple Cash Flow Forecast
This exercise is not about bookkeeping or accounting it is simply about the cash! It should not be delegated to the accountant ... it is the responsibility of the owner!
Start with an understanding of the big picture by asking and answering questions like:
- What cash does the business need?
- How much cash do I need personally?
- What cash resources are available in the company?
- How much cash could I raise?
- What resources are available from government and bank schemes?
- Are there any expenses can be deferred? And for how long?
- What expenses can be cut immediately?
- What are other options?
Resource: A trusted advisor or friend - when making tough and painful decisions it’s easier to have someone else to bounce ideas off.
Action: On a spreadsheet ( Get your Google Docs example here) detail the weekly unavoidable expenses for the business for the next 4 to 5 weeks. If necessary also do a personal cash flow analysis.
Then include the income. This is any definite amounts that will be collected (no guesses or wishes!).
Finally prepare yourself for painful decisions and conversations – these are going to be tough and stressful so be ready.
Step 2: Cutting Overhead Costs
Focusing on the expenditure side review an up to date income and expenditure account.
Review last month's bank statements - business, personal, and credit cards. Make sure no expenses are overlooked. Check back over the previous two to three months to see if anything was missed.
Then to the action.
Over time every business accumulates fat. This is the time to brutally trim it.
Eliminate expenses like:
- Subscriptions you don't need.
- Monthly services that are not used.
- Premium subscriptions or services which have cheaper options.
- Change service provider retainers to service or project-based fees.
- Bring external services like bookkeeping and payroll in-house.
Then look for any expenses that can be renegotiated?
With this exercise creatively look for every cost saving option.
Resource: For a few good tips on effective negotiation I recommend reading Chris Voss’s book “Never Split the Difference”
Action: Make phone calls to negotiate potential savings, renegotiate existing agreements, ask questions and be persistent!
After completing this step update the Step 1 Cash Flow Summary with the savings.
Step 3: Cutting Staff Costs
Staff costs are the major expense in many SMB’s and often have the biggest savings potential. Unfortunately, they are also the most difficult to confront.
One option is to do this exercise without considering the actual incumbents. Approach it as an exercise of rethinking the business structure. Draw up a new organisation chart. Analyse every role and define the deliverables or accountability for each position.
Do some quick research on the market pay rates for people in these positions (taking into consideration factors like the location, the size of the business, unemployment in the area and the required deliverables).
With the structure defined, map the existing staff on to the chart.
At the same time asking questions like:
- Is the position really needed?
- Are there options to automate?
- What are the alternatives to get the same deliverables?
- Is the function executed in the most optimum way?
- Can positions be combined?
- Does it need someone full-time or part-time?
- Is it necessary to be on site or could it be remote?
After completing this exercise the next thing to do is to review each person’s performance against the revised structure and the requirements of the role. Then to compare the salaries for the role with the market levels.
Being as dispassionate as possible ask the following questions:
- Is there an excess headcount?
- Are people paid in excess of market rates?
- Are there under-utilised people?
- Who are the under-performers?
A number of business owners I have spoken to recognised during lockdowns that their businesses had excess staff. This became obvious as working with a skeleton staff the business worked as well as it did before ... with significantly fewer people!
Taking the Hard Actions with Staff
Remember to focus on “what's the best decision to save the business?”.
The difficulty with dealing with staff is that over the years, relationships have been built with them – many are loyal and hard working. As a result there will be waves of emotion when dealing with certain people ... but this is the time make the hard choices.
What are the immediate options to reduce staff costs?
- A blanket reduction either permanently or for a limited period.
- Deferring or not paying any bonuses until the business can afford them.
- Introducing short time – reducing the working week with a reduction in pay or using accumulated leave.
Resource: This is another step where you may need some support from a trusted advisor. As they are not emotionally involved, they will give you a more rational perspective.
Action: Based on the decisions made adjust the Step 1 Cash Flow Summary.
Step 4: Suppliers
Speak to suppliers about deferring or splitting payments or settling accounts with discounts and come to agreements.
Negotiate extended terms. Commit to continue supporting suppliers who will assist (this is not a threat but a commitment!).
Consider options like those in Step 2 and ask suppliers what they can offer. In “Never Split the Difference” Chris Voss covers a number of effective negotiation tactics.
Action: After completing this process make any payment adjustments to the Step 1 Cash Flow Summary.
Do NOT just let the situation drift without being proactive and having the one-to-one conversations. Note that this is not an email or WhatsApp communication but ideally owner-to-owner.
Step 5: The Cash Flow Crisis Decision
After making all the changes analyse the Cash Flow Summary and decide whether it’s doable.
If yes, go ahead and make it happen.
If no, go through the exercise again and see if there is anything else that can be done to either reduce or defer payments or get in more cash.
This is the time to decide whether the mountain is too high and whether you have both the resources and drive to make the plan work. If not, it it will be time to start considering your Plan B options.
Assuming that there is a way forward then move on with the next two steps.
Step 6: Get Cash Fast
Be relentless in collecting any outstanding debts. Customers may be in the same situation as your business so ensure you are at the top of their “to pay first” list.
Pursue all the possibilities of getting cash in fast:
- Can the business make any sales online?
- Sell any slow-moving or excess stocks for cash?
- Convert any redundant assets into cash?
- Collect any outstanding personal or business loans?
Step 7: Staff Discussions
It’s now time to brainstorm solutions to minimise the impact of the staff reduction decision on the staff.
What can be done with the excess staff?
- Could they be relocated in the business in a lower level, lower paid position?
- Is it possible to assist staff who have been impacted to build their own business?
- Could their role be suited to the gig economy?
- Are there other businesses in the area that could use their services on a part-time basis?
- Is there any staff eligible for early retirement?
- Eliminate the redundant “baggage” the business has been carrying through the good times?
Having considered these options, it is time to address the final hurdle. Having a one on one discussion with each affected staff member – it is important to to note that this also is not an email or WhatsApp message solution.
In the one-on-one discussions find out whether they have any ideas, options or suggestions? Have they been planning to leave?
Action: After completing this process make any final adjustments to the Step 1 cash flow summary.
Execute the plan!
The Final Step
Cash flow management and forecasting is probably one of the most critical tasks in any SMB. Use this exercise to build the process as an essential element of the ongoing business system. Consider it as the business thermometer to measure the sustainability risk in the business.
Even if the business appears to have sufficient cash it is easy to accelerate the cash burn and quickly turn a business from safe to critical.