Procure-to-pay becomes a target for B-to-B automation

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Procure to pay is an old way to automate the relationship between obtaining supplies and accounting, old enough that it's rarely automated.

"The payment part doesn't exist. It's procure to get ready to pay," said Karla Friede, CEO of Nvoicepay. "In most cases the invoice gets routed, approved and stuffed back into [enterprise resource planning]."

Nvoicepay is collaborating with Coupa Software, a cloud-based spending management company, to build a CoupaLink app from Nvoicepay that enables payments for national and international supplier invoices through the same process flow.

Procure to pay, which like consumer transfers also carries the "P-to-P" payments industry shorthand, is designed to incorporate supply management, requisition, purchase orders, receiving, invoice reconciliation and account payable in a smooth workflow to simplify supply chains.

But the P-to-P name is about all the two transaction types share in common. Unlike the Venmo/Zelle consumer version of P-to-P, which relies heavily on mobile technology and collaborative networks to quickly zip funds through an email address or mobile number, the business version of P-to-P is clunky, disparate and still paper-based most of the time.

"The heavy lift in P-to-P is understanding what suppliers accept. Is it cards, or ACH?," Friede said. "Consumers can just pickup a phone and pay someone. But in business there are millions of suppliers, and it's hard to determine which vendors are in which bucket in terms of how they want to get paid."

Because of this, most business P-to-P technology automates the workflow as far as the payment approval, and the accounts payable staff has to figure out how to pay suppliers. The choices are usually card, ACH, e-check, iWires, and iACH.

Nvoicepay's technology communicates with the different systems banks use to manage payments, ERP and front end automation. The invoicing half of the Coupa/Nvoicepay partnership provides invoices and "OK to pay" information to Coupa Payments. Coupa's open business network notifies the supplier via text, email, and the supplier portal with options to pay in 170 countries and 140 currencies.

"As the payment clears, the technology manages the data and payment information and type on the back end, so the data travels all of the way through the transaction," Friede said.

The two companies charge a transaction fee and a monthly subscription fee. The hope is the product is economical given the reduction in expense that can come from replacing paper checks with digital transfers.

Companies have been seeking to automate the supply chain payment process for years, and NvoicePay adopted cloud computing three years ago to reduce the amount of hardware companies have to manage on-site for this purpose.

"We all want bill payment to be automatic, but we all want to know details about what we're being charged for," said Andy Schmidt, an executive advisor at Gartner's CEB. "So as much as I would like to think we can get to fully automated invoicing, there will still be some degree of paper until we can get to tablets that work just as easy as paper."

But paper still dominates, and lots of companies are trying to change this. In addition to Nvoicepay, PayCommerce and Transpay have upgraded their technology in recent month in an attempt to automate steps for cross-border business payments.

"There has long been a mantra in corporate payments that the information about a payment is often as valuable as the payment itself," said Gareth Lodge, a senior analyst at Celent. "For example, knowing where it is and when it might clear mean that corporates can make better informed decisions around inventory management for example. However, that requires the whole value chain to talk the same language and be able to send and receive the additional information."

For larger businesses, the savings make sense. But for a smaller supplier, the investment may be overkill, according to Lodge. "It may be a level of sophistication beyond them and it may be just one of many solutions that bigger banks have asked them to join."

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B-to-B payments