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Good communication speeds up the billing

What’s the secret to good collections?

“It’s all about communicating,” says Mary Howe of the New York City office of Hughes Hubbard & Reed. And the communicating extends to the attorneys, and clients’ billing staffs.

When Howe came to the firm, she took on the new position of director of billing and collections. And one of the firm’s first directives was to review the billing process and the roles of the billing team to improve billing efficiency and speed up the revenue flow.

“It’s a work in progress,” she says. But on average, the billing has been accelerated by 5 days. For some attorneys it’s faster by as much as 15 days.

And what has made the difference is communication.

Listening to both sides of the firm

The communicating began right at the start.

The first thing Howe did was to talk with the partners and attorneys about the billing to find out what their needs were and how her department could better support them.

Then she went off to staff and talked “about their pain points in dealing with the attorneys.”

And then she told each side what the other wanted. For example, staff said it would be helpful if the attorneys turned in their final bill revisions before the cutoff date. And the attorneys said it would be helpful if staff reviewed the prebills for errors and client preferences before giving them to the billers.

A friend in the money line

Then came communication between billing staff and clients.

Howe encouraged the billing coordinators “to make a friend in each client’s billing department,” specifically, the staffer who is in charge of the accounts payable.

When staff call those offices, they talk with the contact person on a personal level. They ask how the day is going. They remember birthdays. And they do things such as sending an e-mail after a vacation saying “I hope you had a good time!”

Personal relationships pay off, she says. On one level, staff always have a someone to ask for. But on a more important level, the outcome is “treat people like they’re human, and they respond nicely.” And nicely means that when staff call about an unpaid bill, it gets put on top of the payment pile.

Waiting for the firm to call

The communication continues on.

“We do more than just send out the bill,” Howe says. As soon as the bill is late, “we follow up by phone.”

And that follow-up solves a lot of issues right there. Often, the client just has a question about an entry. Sometimes the department finds that the attorney is holding the bill. But large or small, she says, when there is a problem, “most clients wait for the firm to call.”

Our notes show that…

The department also keeps notes on the billing arrangements the firm has set with each client and on how clients have paid in the past. Good notes, she says, go a long way in bringing the payments in.

If a client who has traditionally paid within 60 days is now 75 days out, the office knows that’s “unusual behavior” and calls. And instead of beginning the conversation with “where’s the money?” it can say “you usually pay within 60 days, but we noticed your payment is later than usual. Do you have any concerns about your invoice that we need to help you with?”

The notes also show which clients are repeated late payers, and the firm can follow up appropriately there as well. In most cases it sends a” friendly reminder” with a summary of the amount outstanding and also calls to ask if there are questions about the bill or if the client needs additional information.

It’s usually Howe who makes those calls, and again, she establishes a relationship at each office. It’s essential to have constant communication with clients “and understand what’s going on with the fee arrangements,” she says, and the notes make that possible.

Also essential is the personal communication with the billing contacts. Knowing those people on a personal level, when staff call them about a bill, the matter gets personal attention.

Camping out at the office door

Another communication element speeds up the collection flow even more. And this one is in-house. The firm requires that the attorneys sign off on the final bills and get them back to the billing department by the end of the month.

But “attorneys are deadline-oriented,” she says. If they know the bills are due on the 30th, that’s when they get them in – no sooner.

So to get the show on the road, the coordinators now make personal contact with the attorneys during the last 10 days of the month.

“They all but camp out” in front of their offices and keep pressing with “where are our bills?” and “can we help you with the edits?” and if an attorney is especially busy, they ask if another biller who has more time can review the bills.

As a result, the final bills are now getting to the coordinators from five to as much as 15 days earlier than in the past.

“Communication on both sides” is essential to good collections, she says. “The more the billing team can go in and talk with the attorneys” and ask questions and find out what the attorneys need, the better the money results.

If your law office has a system that helps operations run smoothly, Law Office Manager would like to write about it. Contact the Editor at catherine@plainlanguagemedia.com. We pay $100 for every idea we write about in this column.


Editor’s picks:

7 ways to improve your billings and collections processes


Model Policy: Client billing

How are your billing and collecting processes?


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