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Should Supplier Inquiries Go the Way of the Telephone Operator?

“The Operator is Extinct. Please go Online …”

For more than a century, dialing 0 or 411 was the way for telephone customers to uncover the information that they needed. 

Telephone numbers, addresses, weather updates, bus schedules, sports scores, the time and date, election results and other information requests were only a call away.  

From the inception of the telephone, operator services and directory assistance were a way for telephone providers to attract and retain customers.  

But like many things, the value of operator services and directory assistance has waned with the growth of the Internet.  

Recently, AT&T discontinued operator services for millions of its customers with digital landlines.  AT&T already ended operator services for its wireless callers in 2022.  In a notice published on its website, AT&T directs customers to go online to find the information that they need.

AT&T’s decision to disconnect its operator services and directory assistance should be a wake-up call to businesses burdened with telephone calls from suppliers about the status of payments. 

Like operator services and directory assistance, self-service online portals can provide suppliers with the information that they need.

The Burden of Supplier Inquiries

If your business receives a lot of inquiries from suppliers about the status of invoices and payments, it is not alone.  

According to the findings of InvoiceInfo’s 2020 Accounts Payable Customer Service Survey, 22 percent of businesses receive inquiries on 20 percent of the invoices they receive from suppliers.  Eleven percent of businesses receive inquiries on 15 percent of the invoices that they receive.

Sixty-three percent of businesses receive supplier inquiries as calls to their accounts payable (AP) department. Another 10 percent of businesses have a dedicated voice mailbox for supplier inquiries.  

That’s a lot of telephone calls for many businesses. That’s not to mention emails.

The most common questions that businesses receive from suppliers are: 

  • Has my invoice been received?
  • Has my invoice been approved? 
  • When will my invoice be paid?
  • Has my invoice been paid? 
  • What is the check/payment number for my approved invoice?
  • Which invoices does a payment cover?
  • Why was my invoice short paid?

It’s Getting Worse

The burden of supplier inquiries, both calls and emails, is getting heavier for many businesses.  Twenty-two percent of AP leaders surveyed by the Institute of Finance and Management (IOFM) say a spike in supplier inquiries is their department’s biggest challenge from the prolonged shift to remote working – only the increased risk of fraud and compliance issues is a bigger challenge in the eyes of AP leaders. 

Responding to supplier inquiries creates big headaches for busy AP professionals and other staff: 

  • Insufficient time to research inquiries
  • Difficulty disseminating information
  • Poor communication with vendors
  • Limited tracking of supplier inquiries
  • No root cause analysis for supplier inquiries

Importantly, 67 percent of finance, procurement and sourcing professionals surveyed by InvoiceInfo believe that responding to supplier inquiries is a distraction to their AP staff.  

At a time when businesses of all sizes are looking for ways to “do more with less,” while providing a better experience for trading partners, rethinking supplier inquiries is a good place to start.    

What Suppliers Expect from AP

Suppliers cannot be faulted for wanting to know when they will be paid. After all, suppliers need to manage their cash flow. 

When suppliers inquire about the status of an invoice or payment, they expect an experience that is: 

  • Easy.  Our consumer interactions with electronic commerce providers have conditioned us to expect a user experience that is easy, intuitive and personalized. 
  • Fast.  If we can instantly see when our pizza or rideshare will arrive, why can’t we see whether an invoice was received or when an approved invoice will be paid? 
  • Accurate.  No one likes being told the wrong information, especially when it concerns their company’s cash flow. 
  • Consistent.  Early on, telephone customers perceived operators as being servile and attentive – “The Voice with a Smile.”  The efficiency and effectiveness with which AP responds to supplier inquiries can play a big role in the level of service that suppliers perceive it provides. 
  • Clear.  There’s no room for vagaries when it comes to getting paid.  

The question that AP leaders must ask themselves is whether the telephone is the best way to deliver the experience that suppliers expect.  The answer for more AP leaders is, “No.”

Why Deploy an Online Self-Service Supplier Portal

That’s why AP departments are deploying online self-service portals to respond to supplier inquiries. 

An online self-service supplier portal digitizes and simplifies the process of responding to inquiries. 

  • Suppliers can electronically submit invoices
  • Suppliers can receive confirmation that their invoice was received
  • Suppliers can update their contact information and banking details
  • Suppliers can digitally upload W-9 and W-8 forms 
  • Suppliers can communicate online with customers

In other words, a portal puts the information a supplier needs at their fingertips, when they need it. Like operator services and directory assistance, supplier inquiries can be fulfilled online. 

Maybe it’s time for AP departments to disconnect from supplier inquiries over the telephone and via email. 

To find out how InvoiceInfo can help you with vendor inquiries, contact us.

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