The newest Xero data on small businesses suggests September was a good month: owners enjoyed relatively quick payments and the best cash flow in three years. But it wasn’t smooth sailing for all sectors. A closer look reveals that some industries are chronically paid late while others manage to get paid early.

What causes the disparities, and what can be done to encourage speedier payments? We looked for clues by examining hundreds of thousands of anonymised Xero invoices with 30-day payment terms.

On average, small businesses invoices were paid in 34.3 days in September, or just over four days late.. And it’s a steady improvement from September last year (35 days) and September 2015 (36 days).

But for small businesses in manufacturing the wait is often longer than average. Manufacturers’ invoices took 40 days to be settled in September – or 10 days past when they were due. In fact, on average some 60 percent of their invoices were paid late. A look at prior years’ data reveals a similar pattern for small business manufacturers, as defined by ANZSIC codes.

A related industry – transport, postal and warehousing – waited nearly as long. These small businesses saw their invoices languish for an average 39.6 days in September. And over half of their invoices were paid late. It seems to be a recurring theme for the sector in past months.

At the other end of the spectrum was the retail trade. Retailers saw relatively quick payments for September. Thirty-day invoices were paid in an average 24.7 days in September – more than five days early. And less than one-third of their invoices were paid late. That figure excludes on-the-spot payments made at the cash register or at an online storefront.

What causes these disparities in payment times?  Experts in credit reporting suggest two factors may partly explain the differences.

When dealing with larger customers, some retailers offer rebates if payment is received early. These retail agreements can speed payment times in some cases, says Patrick Coghlan, managing director at CreditorWatch. The credit reporting bureau serves over 50,000 customers, including many small and medium-size businesses.

In industries such as transport and manufacturing, larger businesses dominate. They tend to have credit departments to chase late payments and legal departments to take court action. Many little players lack these advantages.

“Smaller businesses are often are run off their feet,” says Coghlan. And in an industry where chasing payments is the norm, those who lack the resources to do so may be paid last. In such cases, it may make sense for small businesses to use virtual payment assistants like CreditorWatch, a service which integrates with Xero. It identifies new debtors who are likely to be late payers, and alerts businesses when reliable payers subtly start to drag out payment times.

Small businesses can take some simple steps within Xero to get paid sooner, such as using e-invoices. These can include a “Pay Now” button at the top of the invoice, which is linked to a payment provider like Visa or PayPal and encourages prompt settlement.

In addition, Xero can send automated invoice reminders to customers. All a business has to decide is when and how often the reminders are sent out. Businesses can also see whether a customer has seen an invoice and check whether it’s been paid.

An analysis of hundreds of thousands of Xero Australia invoices, over a one-year period, found that e-invoices are paid an average of 33% faster than traditional invoices. And where time is money, getting paid one-third faster can make all the difference.

For more tips on getting paid promptly, check out this month’s suggestions from a Xero partner, and be sure to subscribe to Small Business Insights for the latest updates.