Managing protracted disputes
As a small business owner or manager, the last thing you want is to get stuck in a dispute. Whether it’s over payment of an invoice; the quality of a supplier’s product; or an issue involving your staff; disputes are inevitably costly in terms of time and money.
However, it’s important to understand that occasional disputes are inevitable in business, because ultimately everyone has to fight their own corner and defend their interests. SMEs are therefore best advised to take a two-pronged approach to the subject:
1. Position your business to minimise disputes by being very clear about your terms of trade.
2. When a dispute does arise, take it in your stride and resolve it calmly and reasonably.
Minimising the likelihood of dispute
Most disputes between businesses arise out of a lack of clarity: basically, the expectations of a buyer don’t match the product which a supplier is realistically willing to provide. The disparity can be about quality, quantity or timescale.
One of the problems is that far too many firms still trade without a clear set of terms and conditions. This document, which you can send to all your clients automatically on agreement of a contract to supply, is essential for setting out exactly what and when you will deliver. T&Cs not only help to avoid misunderstandings, they will also put you in a stronger position should a dispute arise. Of course, they work both ways and it is equally good practice to read any terms received from your own suppliers thoroughly.
As with business disputes, problems with employees can also be avoided: for example, you should issue clear policies on any contentious matters which are affecting the workplace, such as bullying, discrimination, timekeeping or health and safety. These should set out grievance and disciplinary procedures, so that everyone can be clear on what will happen should a policy be breached.
When disputes arise, remember to listen
Even if you take all possible precautions, it is likely that at some point your business will have to deal with a dispute. When this happens, try not to take it personally – that will only add to the stress and you need to be calm and look at things objectively.
Consider the other party’s position, try to see the problem from their perspective and encourage them to do the same. The best way to resolve a dispute is with a calm, frank discussion. For arguments between SMEs, this should hopefully help preserve valuable trading relationships. As a seller, you should always be prepared to listen to customers: if you do, you might even find that a disagreement highlights opportunity to improve and grow your business.
If no agreement can be reached, Australia has a relatively enlightened approach to business disputes, with each state offering a resolution service. Seek them out and bear in mind that this method is still based on finding common ground.
Similarly, Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman provides detailed guides for dealing with disputes with employees.
Naturally you can also opt to take legal action. Unfortunately, as things stand you’ll have to pay for that, although Small Business Ombudsman Kate Carnell did say this year that Australia should consider giving small operators access to legal aid or other forms of financial support to fight legal disputes against bigger players.
Keep an eye on cash flow
When managing a dispute, remember to keep a careful eye on your business and your cashflow in particular. If you are having to get by without payment of an important contract, or you are out of pocket on legal fees, it’s crucial that you don’t let this spiral out of control and affect your ability to pay suppliers and staff or fulfil your own trading obligations.
If you need to put some form of short term financing in place, you might consider tim’s flexible invoice financing. After all, you don’t want to incur more charges by taking out an expensive loan or business overdraft. Or even a fixed term funding facility with locked-in charges if all you need is some cash right now to cover essential operational costs and you are owed the cash from outstanding invoices from your debtors – simply contact tim. Discuss your requirements to establish a facility for you and tim. will then advance you the cash you require within 24 hours of providing the information.
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