By Marcus Leach

The Late Payment Index from Experian reveals that the first quarter of 2011 saw no signs of significant improvement as UK businesses of all sizes continued to contend with challenging trading conditions.

Experian’s analysis shows that firms paid their bills 25.2 days late on average during Q1 2011. This represents only a nominal improvement from the 25.7 days recorded during the previous quarter, despite the improvement in the severe weather that had hampered payment performance across businesses of all sizes during the last few months of 2010.

The largest businesses (500+ employees) delivered the biggest improvement in payment performance, from 36.7 days in Q4 2010 to 34 days in Q1 2011. However, they remained the worst culprits, on average, in terms of bills paid late. Even the smallest firms —traditionally the fastest payers - failed to pay their bills under 20 days late.

“It has been a tough winter for businesses — particularly small firms — and companies are cautious about making any changes to their day-to-day financial operations," Jason Mills, Head of Payment Performance at Experian UK & Ireland, said.

“Small firms, in particular, must be mindful that continued poor payment performance can affect their creditworthiness, which may in turn make it harder for them to secure finance or win new customers.

“Our analysis also shows that there is also a lesson for all firms in terms of creating and enforcing robust credit management and collection policies so that companies do not leave payment to chance.

"Goodwill goes a long way in business relationships, but ultimately firms need to pick up the money that they are owed promptly or they risk encountering serious cashflow issues. By monitoring late payment trends, business owners are able to make smarter decisions about who they do business with, but also about how they manage their existing customers.”