CASH: NOW YOU SEE IT, NOW YOU DON’T

The first response to a cash crisis is usually to tighten up on expenses, cut back on something, or generally to make do with less. That may be necessary, but it is usually only part of the answer.

As shown in the diagram below, cash flows generated (or consumed) by any business are the net result of the inter-action of three related cycles. They are the expense, revenue and capital cycles. I will discuss the first two today, and conclude next Friday with the capital cycle.

A brief description of each follows, along with what I consider the most common problems within each cycle. All three cycles presuppose that you have the ability to measure and monitor its activities and results.

The expense cycle:

Let’s start with the expense cycle, the assumed “bad guy” for most small business cash problems. This cycle is largely what the name implies. It is also the easiest to fix.

The expense cycle involves the cash used to pay vendors, employees and others for the goods and services they supply. It also includes operating expenses such as rent and utilities.

The biggest obstacle to correcting expense cycle issues is one of attitude. Your goal is not to “pinch every penny” and second-guess past spending decisions. Experience teaches that it is too easy to miss the big picture while focusing only on inconsequential items. Reducing paper clip expenses by 80% will not save your company.

The focus of your expense cycle review should be to ensure that costs are planned and justified by their expected benefits. Ask yourself whether they are consistent with your business goals. If the answer is no, the appropriate action is to eliminate the expense. It is that simple!

Furthermore, expenses must be incurred within an environment of adequate internal controls. This control environment includes management tools such as monthly financial statements, a detailed budget and basic procedures such as a purchase order process with competitive bidding. Without these controls, it is simply not possible to manage expenses.

The revenue cycle:

The revenue cycle deals with money coming into your business. If only it were that simple!

Problems within this cycle are the most difficult to identify and analyze, especially if management lacks a solid grasp of the numbers. Consequently, the root cause of many business failures lies within the revenue cycle. They are unpleasant to address, since they ultimately affect customer relations. Two examples follow.

Money coming into a business always starts with a sale to a customer. However, it does not end there. If your business offers credit to customers, making a sale actually drains cash until you collect the receivable. This creates an inherent conflict between the desire to increase sales through generous credit terms and lenient collection procedures, and the need to maximize cash flow. Success in this area requires adequate internal controls including standardized billing and collection procedures, a balanced customer approval process, and sound treasury management.

One unpleasant aspect of squeezing more cash out of the revenue cycle is the prospect of having to raise prices. Perhaps the single most common mistake is under-pricing products and services relative to your cost structure. Correcting this challenge is even more difficult after you have established unrealistic customer pricing expectations, or if you operate in an especially competitive environment. People who do business with you primarily because you offer the lowest prices are unlikely to exhibit much customer loyalty.

We will finish this topic next Friday with a discussion of the capital cycle and a closing comment on cash flows.

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

CFO America: Your Cash Flow Optimization experts

 

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