Companies where the accounts payable department has a poor image as well as poor relations with other departments can attribute part of the communications problem. When you add to this the fact that the rest of the company doesn’t really know what accounts payable needs in order to get payments made it is easy to see how communications can easily become muddled. And don’t forget communications key cutoff dates. Many overlook this communication. All this can lead to poor relations with other departments, (AP’s internal customers) and is an issue easily remedied. Let’s take a look at some ways any organization can accomplish that goal.
Accounts payable needs to communicate its requirements to others in the company. This can be done by:
- Sharing the AP policy and procedures manual
- Periodically sending around a short informative AP newsletter
- Publishing the names and contact information of the staffers in accounts payable
- Publishing the cutoff dates for expense reporting payments and vendor payments
The accounts payable department should have a few pages on the company’s Intranet site. The information indicated above should be included on it for all to see. Transparency should be the name of the game. If the AP policy and procedures manual is long, and many are, a shorter synopsis can be included on the web site and/or in a memo to the rest of the company. It is unrealistic to expect others to wade through it to find the information they need.
Larger companies might want to assign one or more people to a customer service function and answer questions the rest of the company might have with accounts payable related issues.
As discussed in other parts of this book, the policy and procedures manual should be updated periodically. Perhaps input from other affected areas could be sought the next time the update is done. Those having input are more likely to conform to the policy than those who don’t.
The old adage of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is a good one for accounts payable and other departments. Occasionally purchasing and accounts payable are at odds. By having representatives from each department work for a day or two in the other department can lead to a greater understanding of the other’s problems. This is also a good idea since the two groups need to work closely.
Accounts payable should track errors to find the root cause of problems. With this data, they can identify weak points as well as other departments that may be causing problems. This does not have to be a negative. Let’s say that with the error information, it becomes apparent that one purchasing agent is responsible for numerous voided checks. By meeting that agent and reviewing the process, not only can the situation be rectified, the relationship may be also strengthened.
Whenever a new system is rolled out, representatives from accounts payable should be sent to interact with other departments to ensure that everyone knows how to use it properly
Of course, any organization that uses invoice automation will eliminate some of the communication bottlenecks. Not only that, but it will eliminate the battle of “who gets the invoice first” for with an automated system everyone can see the invoice at the same time.
Almost Best Practice
Send the staff to customer service courses to help them deal with difficult situations. It is also a good idea to make sure they understand that they are not the customer, when it comes to internal departments. Occasionally, accounts payable staff will take the approach that “the customer is always right – and they are the customer.” That never goes well.
Special Pointers for Accounts Payable
The very nature of the tasks handled in accounts payable make it likely that there will be conflicts from time to time. These can be both with other departments as well as vendors. The goal should be to handle these sticky situations with finesse and tact. Vendors will sometimes try and get accounts payable to pay them earlier than their contracts stipulate, other employees will occasionally blame accounts payable for late payments they caused, and employees who are tardy about their expense reports will then try and hurry the process when their credit card bills show up.
By recognizing that these situations will arise and dealing with each separately, relations with internal customers will improve. But don’t expect an overnight improvement. It will take time.
Finally, as additional parts of the procure-to-pay function are automated and an electronic audit trail is created, some of the problems will diminish. A lot of the he-said, she-said finger-pointing games will disappear because of the electronic paper trail.
Worst practices include:
- Ignoring the customer service implications of the accounts payable function.
- Not working to share information about accounts payable issues with the rest of the company
- Not working with purchasing
Mary S. Schaeffer, a nationally recognized accounts payable expert, is the founder of AP Now, a company that creates business intelligence on all issues impacting the accounts payable and payment function. She is the host of the AP Now Podcast.
This piece was based on work that originally appeared in 101 Best Practices for Accounts Payable.