By Mary Schaeffer
Customer service isn’t something that every accounts payable department considers part of its daily routine. In fact, because the company is the customer in relation to vendors, some point out that since they represent the customer, they should be accorded a certain level of deference. Although technically correct, this approach has gotten more than one accounts payable department into hot water. While most accounts payable staffs are not blatantly belligerent, a few could certainly fine tune their customer-service outlook.
Even though accounts payable does represent the customer in a sense, it also has customers. For starters, there are the internal customers, the employees on whose behalf accounts payable toils. It is accounts payables’ responsibility to do its job competently and avoid adversely impacting others within the company. A very simple example is that of accounts payable not processing invoices in a timely manner. This can result in the purchasing manager receiving vendor complaint calls or worse yet, the company being put on credit hold. (Of course, if the invoice was not processed on time because the purchasing manager sat on it for six weeks, that is another story.)
The second group of AP customers is those employees who turn in travel and entertainment expense reports. So, whether they drive you crazy or not just remember this: without their expense reports your department might need fewer employees.
And, finally, your vendors are to some extent customers too. Even if they technically don’t fall into that category, they should be handled with a customer-service approach. This can certainly work in your favor when you need something from them—like extended payment terms, help figuring out line items details, etc.
Just deciding to adopt a customer-service attitude is taking a giant step in the right direction. Once you’ve made the decision and convinced the staff it’s the right approach, it’s time to do a little research. Your idea of how the department is viewed by the rest of the company may be completely out of sync with reality. There’s only one way to find out and that’s to ask your “customers” for their opinion.
Prepare a survey asking about the level of perceived service offered by the department, what the biggest problems are and what your customers would like to see changed or added. You may be surprised by the results. Keep in mind that all feedback is useful and if some of it is particularly nasty you don’t have to share it word for word with the staff.
What Most Customers Want
What most companies want from their accounts payable staff can by summarized in a few short phrases: accurate information easily accessible by those who need it and timely payments delivered without “attitude.” While this sounds simple enough, those who deal with payment issues know that it isn’t. To become more customer-service oriented and simultaneously more efficient:
1) Develop a lost-invoice tracking process.
2) Mandate a timely resolution of all discrepancies and stick to it.
3) Provide transparent, consistent information to employees and vendors. This means everyone who communicates with vendors (purchasing and AP) must provide the same information. This will require coordination and cooperation between the two departments.
4) Establish a policy requiring a response to all inquiries within 24-48 hours. The problem may not be solved in that time frame but anyone calling the accounts payable department will receive a call back within the timeframe. Once the standard has been set, communicate it to everyone involved and publish it with an invitation to anyone not receiving a call back to contact the manager.
5) Communicate regularly with your internal customers regarding:
- Changes in policy;
- Cut-off dates; and
- Backup requirements.
Automation Can Help
When it comes to communicating information, automation can play a huge role in helping accounts payable. Under optimal conditions, the information can be posted on an Internet site and, with proper password protections, the vendors can access it themselves never having to call the accounts payable staff. Ideally, the date the invoice is scheduled for payment would be posted along with where the invoice is in the approval process, if no payment date has been scheduled.
The best products offer an online resolution module allowing the vendor to communicate with the appropriate party when there is a discrepant invoice to resolve.
Adopting a customer-service attitude will pay off in one more way. It will lead to a smoother, more efficient department. What’s more, on those very rare occasions when accounts payable does make a mistake, you will find a more understanding customer willing to help instead of one running for the phone to call your CFO and complain.
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.