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By John W. Schoen Senior Producer
msnbc.com

Q: I have a small business with past due accounts and some unpaid accounts. Do you have sample letters I could send, without having to go through a collection agency?— Steve, Boca Raton, Fla.

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A: There's a variety of software packages out there at office supply stores that offer sample collection notices to cover a wide variety of situations, but you're probably best off keeping it short and sweet. (Here's a free sample from the CCH Business Owner's Toolkit.)

The basic idea is to start out with a polite reminder and gradually tighten the screws. Send them out at 30, 60 and 90 days past due. (You might want to sign the last one "Tony Soprano" and see if that helps.)

At some point, though, you have to ask whether chasing a bad debt is just throwing good money (your time) after bad. If you're truly dealing with a deadbeat, you don't really have to worry about losing a paying customer.

If you do decide to use a collection agency, shop around. Their fees -- usually a big chunk of what they collect -- are very negotiable.

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