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P2P’s Payables Customer Service Challenges

Survey Says …

A day in the life of procure-to-pay is seldom dull. Perhaps one of its livelier aspects is interaction of the payables team with its “customers,” i.e. those whom accounts payable serves internally and externally. Payables customer service is a necessary part of the job, and depending on a number of variables, can be very challenging.

A new survey from InvoiceInfo captures the current state of affairs in accounts payable customer service. The report looks at a number of questions and issues involved in customer service.

The identification by respondents of the challenges of customer service is interesting not because it reveals something startlingly new, but because it provides a picture of the current state of affairs. That state is one that will be familiar to anyone with much experience in payables.

The survey question on challenges allowed for respondents to write responses in their own words. Quantifying the responses, familiar issues emerge.

The results can be divided into two types of answers — those that addressed the larger context of the procure-to-pay (P2P) process, and those focused specifically on customer-service issues related to payables.

Taking the former first, roughly half of respondents described some P2P process issue as being their biggest customer service challenge. This is eminently sensible. After all, if you have trouble in your P2P process, then you have trouble fulfilling payables’ mission of paying accurately and on time and bing! — you’ve got customer service issues.

What are the broader issues? The usual suspects: invoices that don’t go directly to AP, causing delays; missing invoices, i.e. the ones that didn’t get to AP at all; internal noncompliance with P2P procedures; process inefficiencies; lack of supporting documentation such as approvals, PO numbers and receiving documentation (oft cited by consultant Judy Bicking as problema numero uno!).

The point has been made before, but good customer service begins with paying invoices accurately and on time. But that remains dependent on a host of process variables.

Those underlying problems that lead to late, unclear or inaccurate payments result in customers, both internal and external, contacting AP. But even if AP has its processes mostly under control, there’s still a need for customer service, particularly since a lot of contacts are simple questions like “Did you get our invoice?” “When will it be paid?” or “When was it paid?”

So what are the challenges of AP customer service more narrowly defined?

By far the primary issue AP faces is volume — the sheer number of inquiries, together with insufficient staff and time to deal with them. Some version of this response is repeated in the majority of responses that focus more narrowly on customer service.

And the problem is compounded when AP receives calls from different people about the same problem.

Other challenges include:

  • Lack of technology to help,
  • Personnel turnover,
  • Urgency on the part of the customers, “wanting everything done NOW!”
  • Customer service process — e.g. tracking inquiries and confirming closure,
  • ‘Invalid’ or unnecessary inquiries, where a customer calls before doing their own due diligence, which would have shown that the invoice was already paid,
  • In the case of large shared service centers, matching up locations and customers,
  • And (surprise) keeping that up-beat, positive attitude!

A few also pointed to vendor AR cash application problems as a root problem, and two mentioned getting customers to use the company’s portal was a challenge.

The prescription? Also familiar: Continue to work diligently on P2P process improvement. Look for a supplier portal that can handle and therefore remove 60 to 85 percent of the inquiries through easy vendor self-service. And for the small percentage remaining, answer them with a smile!

For more results, see InvoiceInfo’s 3rd Annual Accounts Payable Customer Service Survey.

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