You know we’re self employed and some of our customers are the upper echelon of society. Yes, the selfsame 1%. I am the Great and Powerful Oz of this operation so we do not budge without a contract. I’ve told you that my experience with the filthy rich has been generally the same as my experience with the working class, it takes all kinds and you just never know.
A few years ago, I was delighted by an exceedingly wealthy woman. She was charismatic, of a certain age, and had a great sense of humor. Once she engaged our services, she called me for advice on anything that transpired in her daily life. She was in the midst of personal turbulence and I was sympathetic to her position. Her conversations began, “Elroy, you know I trust you, what do you think of this proposal?” “Elroy, do you have a minute? My mac doesn’t work and I need help.” She was a dynamic conversationalist. She made me laugh out loud. Her family was a fixture on the stock exchange. The money she spent on stables, jockeys and vets would have fed a small nation for a long while. You would have been charmed by her too. She paid us promptly. We were not friends. We had an amiable business relationship.
Last year, we completed work for some equally wealthy people. I didn’t know of them. I did know their caretaker was reputed to be a scurrilous individual. I followed through with due diligence prior to drafting their contract. I was enamored. The family has a charitable trust. You know, a PBS foundation. After Sesame Street, for instance, you might hear the cultured voice announce that the program has been underwritten by a grant from the Goodworks Family Foundation. I didn’t hesitate to begin work. That was last year.
I have a pretty trusting attitude about money and accounts receivable. I function on the premise that we will be paid. If payments are delayed there must be a good reason for it. Things happen. Usually it doesn’t take four months for things to happen and the things that happen never include a trip to Africa and Paris. No, they most certainly do not.
Here at this working class desk, bills are paid as soon as they arrive. Bills in, checks out, that’s the way we do it, prompt payment just like at the grocery store. I often wonder what the cashier would say if I loaded my cart after the groceries were rung up and said, “Send me a bill and I’ll send you a check.” Sometimes people would like to negotiate our rates. I wonder how the cashier would react if I offered to pay $2.50 for a $5.00 gallon of milk, “Five bucks for a gallon of milk, that’s a little more than I’m willing to pay, I’ll give you two-fifty.”
Back to our story-
When I have to communicate with people whose accounts are overdue, I send gentle reminders. I rarely threaten bodily harm. After four months without payment and no response to emails or voicemail I began to feel just a bit apprehensive. I wrote to them, “I am dismayed. We completed work at your property in good faith that we would be paid. Time is the only truly priceless commodity any of us have. The people who work with us exchange irreplaceable hours of their lives for wages. We rely on your payment so that we can pay them and they can support their families. You have a long history of generous contributions to charities, which makes your disregard for our payment more puzzling to me. You indicated you were completely satisfied by our work. I do not know what has happened to delay payment or why you have chosen to stop communicating with me. Please advise.” The check arrived in great haste, if haste is attainable after a four month delay.
We have an account relationship with another affluent gentleman. He is The Customer Who Refused to Allow Us to Close. I am very fond of him. His grandkids and their gadgets drive him crazy. He adores his wife of over 50 years. He always prepays us, laughing when I tell him I do not accept prepayment and I will not deposit his check until the work is done. We continue to work on his projects, even though we have closed that business, because we like him.
We enjoy rewarding business relationships with our working class brethren. We offer installment payments to people who need them. We know what it’s like to need something we can’t afford. We’ve had help when times were tough and money was tight. We have never been disappointed by helping someone. We had a customer last year who received general assistance and partial disability as well as federally funded food stamps. That customer paid us in full when the refund from the federal income tax return came. I offered to continue the interest free installment agreement but the offer was politely and proudly declined.
All but one of the customers I’ve described are Republicans. The Democrat is the customer who made us wait. I was tormented by that situation. For one thing, the lack of communication implied disdain. There are very few people in the world who inspire my derision; the people who have it, worked continuously to earn it. I do not view entire classes of people with contempt nor do I exploit people intentionally or inadvertently. I felt ashamed for asking to be paid for work that we completed. I know, what was I thinking? Finally, it was not an insignificant sum. If we weren’t as cautious as we are, being owed that amount for that term could have put us in a tenuous position. If we were a brand new business, with no reserve, in this economy, it would have closed our doors.
I learned a new coping mechanism from this experience. If I’m right but I feel bad about it I’m going to give that bad feeling right back to its source. I also remembered the basic truth of an old adage, you can’t judge a book by its cover.