01 February 2024


Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Bruce Billson interview with Jeremy Jones.

ABC Radio Capricornia

Subjects: Payment problems for small business, helping small business resolve disputes, 


Jeremy Jones

Well, it's hard to think of something more frustrating: do the work, the long hours, not taking other work in the meantime, and then your client doesn't pay. Maybe they felt the price was too much or the cost of materials shocked them. Or maybe it was a miscommunication about the desired outcomes. Well, what can you do? What's the right thing to do? If you feel like you're dealing with someone dodgy, you want the whole world to know that they're dodgy. Or you just want your money. Or you just want the whole thing to go away. 

Well, disputes about being paid, troubles with digital service providers and contract bills and franchise agreements are the top four issues where small businesses have sought out the help of the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman over the past six months. The Ombudsman, Bruce Billson, joins me now. Bruce, thanks for your time. 

Bruce Billson

Jeremy, fab to be with you and how good’s that 1976 song Rich Girl from Hall & Oates. A blast from the past and Fraser, on your board, was telling me you're in great form today. But one thing we can be pretty confident about is that small business owners, female ones, are not rich girls. In fact, nearly half didn't make a profit in the last full taxable year and about 73% who have their business as their full-time livelihood pursuit, take home less than full-time average weekly earnings. So, we're talking about people not rolling in rivers of gold. And yet, still, some people don't want to pay them in a timely way.

And this is the majority of concerns that are raised with my office. We set about trying to equip the business with some know-how to approach and raise the concern and, if necessary, get involved with some case management to get a better outcome and hopefully get businesses back to business. 

Jeremy Jones

How common is pay disputes?


Bruce Billson 

Spectacularly common. That's the sad thing. Two out of every five matters that comes to my agency involve a payment dispute. 

Occasionally it might be a small business with another small business. It might be bound up with some misunderstandings about what each other wanted the other one to do. 

It may be a big business simply exercising their market muscle and saying, we'll pay you when we're ready to.

Or worse, we've had some examples where we've had to lean into an arrangement with a government department and a small business supplier where they frankly just hadn't got around to paying them. 

And it what's interesting, Jeremy, is, a bit like Hall & Oates, they want to keep the relationship going. In many cases it's a valued client. They just want to be paid. We try and share some know-how, give some tips on how to raise it in a way that will get an outcome, but hopefully keep relationships intact. 

Jeremy Jones

It's interesting that you bring that up. I feel some people might think going higher to maybe the Ombudsman, it feels like you might be putting a nuclear bomb to the relationship because you're sort of taking it outside of, maybe the four walls of an email chain or something like that. How can you get desired outcomes when people have sort of taken their frustrations to the next level? 

Bruce Billson

What we do is we work with the businesses that contact us. We've just ticked over our 40,000th   business that we've assisted since the agency was established. We try and equip the business themselves to deal with and approach the matter first so that we don't need to necessarily get involved, but we are happy to share the know-how.

You touched on one of the dynamics that plays out here Jeremy. People can get frustrated; they can get emotional. And let's remember, a small business is often the identity, the personality, is more than just a job for a business owner. It's really what they're about. They put their heart and soul, and many mortgaged their houses for it. So, it's a big deal and that can also heighten the emotion. 

And so, one of the things we do is we say don't raise that you felt slighted or shaded by a phone call you had two years ago and throw that into the mix. 

Focus really on what the issue is, what the concern is you want to resolve and what a good outcome looks like and stay to that and engage. We help them prepare their own letters, some tips on how to raise a claim that they're supposed to be getting paid and no one's paid them. And really try and go about it in a classy way to give it the best chance to get resolved and then people can get back to business. 

If that doesn't work, we’ll get involved and shoot a note out saying, hang on, you've engaged this contractor to tile a commercial building, and they've done all the good work and you haven't paid. What's the go here? What's your take on this? We're impartial, but we want to get an outcome. And they might just say, look, you know, few things are going on. How about I pay half of it now and I've got money coming in, I'll pay the next half next week. We will check in with the other party, make sure that works for everybody and away we go.

Jeremy Jones

I really appreciate the point you made there as well. In these situations, I can imagine for some it might be the contractor and then you go, well, you took a long lunchbreak when you did this and you did this, he did this. All these things that are maybe relevant to there being hard feelings, but not actual to the context of the situation in the payment at hand.

Bruce Billson

And not helpful to getting an outcome. You know, you start throwing in emotion, hurt feelings - we've all got those. But we try to stay professional. We try to stay focused. A real problem-solving lens. Our first step is to provide the business with some know-how, some approaches, some resources that are on our website, www.asbfeo.gov.au which is the acronym of Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman.

Jeremy Jones

Bruce, a big thanks for joining us this morning.