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Uncertainty calls for flexible accounts payable strategy

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The first couple of weeks of shelter-in-place regulations saw finance and accounts payable organizations scrambling to set up remote operations and get payments out the door. Most were able to accomplish these goals quite well.

Now we've moved into the next step: establishing efficient workflows and productive practices. It's still challenging, however. Companies have to find ways to keep people safe while executing paper-based processes that keep their teams office-bound. For example, many companies still have to go into the office to pick up mail, circulate invoices for approval and prepare checks for mailing.

They also must consider the best way to move forward and develop strategies for managing their teams through economic uncertainty. The Conference Board, a nonpartisan economic think tank, recently sketched out three possible scenarios. The best-case scenario predicted a 3.6% decline in U.S. GDP for 2020, while the worst case would see a 7.4% decline. In other words, nobody knows what the next six to 12 months are going to look like.

That means AP needs to focus on conserving cash while keeping operations moving. They can expect more calls from suppliers since accounts receivable teams typically ramp up their efforts in tough times. They need to prioritize payments and capture early pay discounts. Procurement is going to reach out to try and renegotiate prices or terms. Treasury is going to be very interested in the timing of payments and managing working capital. It's on the AP team's shoulders to make sure they're engaging with these teams and coordinating efforts.

At the same time, they've got to consider the efficiency and the productivity of their own team as we continue to work remotely. Among other things, that means coming up with a strategy for shifting to electronic payments at scale.

Many organizations have had this goal for a long time, but, depending on the research you look at, around 40% of business payments still issue by check. This number is down from a decade ago, but still problematic in a remote work environment. So why don't businesses pay more of their suppliers electronically? Well, as everyone who rushed to shift suppliers to ACH payments when stay-at-home orders took effect has learned, you can't just flip a switch and move all your suppliers.

It's easy enough to find a bank to handle ACH transactions for you. It also sounds a lot cheaper upfront than checks — if you only look at transaction processing costs, which are usually well below $1.

But with ACH, you have to enable your suppliers one by one, and then store and update their data securely. That becomes a fixed cost because there's a constant churn of suppliers and their bank data, usuallly changing around once every four years per supplier. You should also expect to manage exceptions that arise with ACH file submissions and more nuanced supplier questions.

Thinking ACH is cheap or straightforward is one of the biggest misconceptions holding companies back from paying electronically. That's not to say you shouldn't make ACH payments. That said, they should be part of a holistic strategy that addresses the entire payments workflow, encompassing all forms of payment, including international wire payments.

What does that look like? If you're going to reach out to suppliers to enable them for electronic payments, you should first ask them to accept payment by credit card.

Virtual cards — sometimes known as single-use ghost accounts or SUGAs — are not as well known as they should be in finance and accounting circles. Still, they can be an incredibly valuable part of your payment strategy. Unlike P-cards or company-issued credit cards, virtual cards exist to pay suppliers easily. Each card has a unique number that can only be used by the assigned recipient in the designated amount. That provides AP with substantial control and makes it one of the most secure, fraud-proof payment methods. You also should expect to receive rebates to offset some of your AP costs.

The main challenges are enablement and outreach, which don't require significant effort on the part of AP teams since virtual card payment and remittance are relatively straightforward for suppliers. All that's left is to structure your rebate program to support your team's efforts and then some.

If a supplier declines to accept cards, which often happens due to the interchange fee, your second request should be to enable them for ACH. Most vendors will say yes to this; in fact, they'd prefer it to check. Just be sure you have a realistic appreciation of the true ACH payment operating costs, including enablement and data management, as well as fraud support.

While the number is dwindling, there are some suppliers with a ride-or-die mentality who won't accept anything but checks. For these suppliers, an outsourced payment provider can do a print check from an electronic file, so your team doesn't have to handle all the paper.

Your payment strategy should include automating the payment workflow. Fintech ePayment providers wrap these disparate workflows into one interface so that all AP has to do is click "pay." Then their payments will issue to their suppliers in the method they elected to receive. Because these platforms are in the cloud, payments can be approved and scheduled remotely, with visibility for multiple team members.

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Coronavirus B-to-B payments Electronic invoicing Payment processing Merchant Digital payments
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