Once a business reaches a certain stage in its development, process optimization becomes a major factor in its long-term success. Removing bottlenecks, improving efficiency, and reducing errors can help drive sustainable growth.
Among the critical parts of a company’s financial health and efficiency is the accounts payable (AP) process. Companies follow this process to ensure they pay their debts on time and maintain strong vendor relationships.
It can also be challenging, especially without a well-structured system. We’re here to help. Let’s explore why AP process improvement is important, the common pitfalls to avoid, and 15 tips for optimal efficiency.
Why Is Improving Your AP Processes Important?
Driving sales and generating revenue gets most of the press, but managing expenses effectively is the back end of a business that ensures profitability and sustainability. Making improvements in your AP process is important for several reasons:
- Cost reduction: Reduce processing costs per invoice by reducing manual entry, errors, and rework.
- Enhanced efficiency: Tasks can be completed quickly and with less effort, freeing staff time for more strategic activities.
- Improved accuracy: A well-structured AP process minimizes the risk of errors such as duplicate payments, overpayments, or payments made for fraudulent invoices.
- Better cash management: Improved visibility into payables allows better cash flow management, leveraging payment terms and capitalizing on early payment discounts.
- Regulatory compliance: An optimized AP process ensures compliance with tax regulations and audit requirements, reducing the risk of penalties.
- Improved vendor relationships: Timely and accurate payments positively impact relationships with suppliers, which can lead to better terms and services.
Outsourcing AP to specialized service providers can also enhance efficiency and accuracy by leveraging their expertise and technology.
Common Challenges in the AP Process
While each business experiences its own set of challenges, some common ones tend to arise in the AP process:
A slow AP process can be a result of several factors, such as:
- Manual data entry
- Paper-based invoice processing
- Lack of standardized procedures
- Ineffective workflow systems
This sluggishness can cause delays in payment processing, leading to additional problems, such as strained vendor relations or missing out on early payment discounts.
Duplicate and late payments/invoices
On average, the number of duplicate payments an organization makes is between 0.8% and 2.0% of its total. Duplicate payments occur when an invoice is processed more than once, which can happen due to poor record-keeping, failure to match invoices with purchase orders, and data entry errors.
On the other hand, late payments are often the result of inefficient processes, approval bottlenecks, or simply misplacing invoices. These issues not only cause financial losses but may also harm the company’s credit standing and lead to extra late payment fees.
Unauthorized payments can happen when there are inadequate controls within the AP process to validate the legitimacy and accuracy of an invoice. They can also include payments made without proper approval or against fraudulent invoices.
Human error is an inherent risk in any manual process. In AP, this could manifest as:
- Incorrect data entry
- Misclassification of expenses
- Mistakes in vendor payment details
- Accounting discrepancies
These errors are time-consuming and can lead to more serious consequences like financial loss and damaged supplier relationships.
Manual processes and paper checks
Reliance on manual processes such as handwritten notes, physical file keeping, and paper checks is cumbersome and outdated in today’s digital age.
It can slow down the payment cycle, result in lost paperwork, create a backlog, and make it difficult to track and manage cash flow effectively. It’s also less secure and more costly than electronic payment methods due to mailing costs, the potential for check fraud, and the manual labor involved in writing, signing, and mailing checks.
Fraud and theft
Without proper controls and oversight, organizations can fall victim to fraudulent schemes such as fake invoice submissions, overbilling by vendors, or internal fraud by employees embezzling funds.
These activities result in financial loss, jeopardize the organization’s integrity, and can lead to legal repercussions.
15 Tips To Improve Your AP Process
If you’re trying to improve your AP process in 2024, here are 15 actionable tips to consider:
1. Streamline department workflow
Optimizing the workflow within your AP department is key to improving efficiency and accuracy. Streamlining involves assessing and remapping your AP process to eliminate redundant tasks and create a more logical sequence of operations.
- Standardize procedures: Develop clear, standardized AP procedures consistent across the company, including how invoices are received, processed, approved, and paid.
- Centralize invoice management: Use a centralized system to manage invoices. This improves visibility, allowing for easier tracking and management of payables.
- Set clear roles and responsibilities: Define roles and responsibilities within the AP team. Ensure each member knows their tasks and the order in which they should be performed.
Streamlining the workflow enhances the reliability and transparency of your entire payment process, setting a solid foundation for your business’s financial operations.
2. Digitalize and go paperless
By digitizing invoices and other financial documents, you eliminate much of the manual paper handling. A paperless AP process starts with creating electronic records for every transaction. Electronic documents are quicker to process, easier to store, and simpler to retrieve than their paper counterparts.
Going paperless also has implications for remote work environments. With digital documents and cloud-based AP systems, team members can access necessary files and perform their tasks from anywhere, which is especially valuable in a mobile and globally dispersed workforce.
3. Automate data entry
Automation software for data entry uses optical character recognition (OCR) to read and extract data from invoices and other financial documents. The software can then populate the data into your AP system, significantly reducing the time for data entry and minimizing human errors.
Implementing data entry automation requires selecting a suitable AP automation solution, configuring the software to recognize and correctly interpret your specific document types, and setting up validation rules to ensure accuracy. Once in place, this technology can:
- Accelerate the invoice-to-pay cycle
- Reduce administrative overhead
- Improve data accuracy
- Enhance document management and retrieval
- Free up staff to focus on higher-value activities
Overall, automating data entry is a critical step toward modernizing the AP process.
4. Establish KPIs
Establishing key performance indicators (KPIs) is crucial for monitoring the performance and efficiency of your AP process. KPIs provide you with measurable values that reflect the success of your AP operations, helping you identify areas for improvement and ensure goals are met.
Here are a few common examples:
- Cost per invoice processed: The total cost to process an invoice. It includes personnel, overhead, and technology costs divided by the number of invoices processed.
- Invoice processing time: The average time it takes from receiving an invoice until it’s ready for payment. A shorter processing time generally indicates a more efficient AP process.
- Error rate: Includes data entry mistakes, incorrect payments, and duplicate invoices.
- Invoices per AP employee: This KPI helps assess the workload and productivity of your AP staff by showing the average number of invoices each employee processes within a given time frame.
By regularly reviewing these KPIs, you can gauge the performance of your AP department and make data-driven decisions for improvement.
5. Avoid duplicate payments
Duplicate payments can lead to unnecessary cash outflows and can be a symptom of deeper issues within the AP process.
One effective method for avoiding duplicate payments is using three-way matching. This process involves cross-referencing the invoice with the purchase order and the goods receipt note or packing slip.
By verifying that the details across all these documents—such as quantities, price, and terms—are consistent, you can confirm the legitimacy of the invoice before processing the payment.
6. Settle disputes right away
Disputes can arise from invoice discrepancies, delivery mismatches, or quality issues with the goods or services. When these situations occur, it is important to address them immediately.
A key to efficient dispute resolution is to have a clear procedure in place. It should outline who is responsible for the investigation and set internal (between AP and purchasing) and external (with vendors or service providers) communication guidelines.
7. Keep contact information updated
Maintaining up-to-date contact information for all vendors and suppliers is vital. Accurate records ensure smooth communication about invoices, payments, and developing issues.
Promptly update vendor contact details whenever they change, including information like:
- Email addresses
- Phone numbers
- Mailing addresses
- Banking information
Regularly verifying and updating these details can help prevent unnecessary delays and maintain strong vendor relationships.
8. Track everything
Meticulous tracking is essential to a healthy AP process. Documenting every step—from the receipt of an invoice to payment—provides a clear audit trail and helps ensure accountability and compliance.
This tracking should not be limited to invoices and payments but should also cover approvals, discrepancies, disputes, and any communications with vendors.
An electronic AP system can simplify tracking, as most offer time-stamped records of each action. It also provides quick access to historical data for analysis, reporting, and auditing purposes.
9. Set up reminders for payments
Setting up reminders for upcoming payments ensures that your business retains a good credit rating with vendors by avoiding late fees and taking advantage of any early payment discounts available.
Reminders should give adequate lead time for approvals and processing, ensuring payments are made efficiently within the vendor’s terms.
10. Streamline your invoice approval workflow
Streamlining your invoice approval workflow involves simplifying and speeding up the steps an invoice goes through before payment is authorized.
- Define a clear approval hierarchy to avoid confusion over who is responsible for approving invoices.
- Use electronic routing to automatically pass invoices to the appropriate people based on predetermined rules.
- Set thresholds for different levels of approval to ensure that only necessary reviews are carried out, thus avoiding micromanagement.
- Provide training to make sure everyone involved understands the system and how to use it effectively.
A well-structured and streamlined approval workflow minimizes delays and reduces the risk of lost invoices.
11. Adjust accounts on a regular basis
Regularly adjusting and reconciling your accounts ensures you maintain an accurate and up-to-date ledger. It involves verifying transactions, correcting errors, and matching internal records with bank statements or other financial data.
Adjusting accounts periodically—rather than waiting until the end of the fiscal year—helps prevent the accumulation of errors and makes it easier to spot inconsistencies or irregularities early on. It also supports effective cash flow management and provides reliable financial information for decision-making.
12. Maintain good relationships with your suppliers
Maintaining positive supplier relationships is fundamental to smoothly operating the AP process. Strong relationships can lead to better terms, discounts, and increased flexibility.
Regular communication, prompt payments, and professional dispute resolution contribute to supplier satisfaction. It’s also beneficial to solicit supplier feedback on improvement areas, demonstrating that you value and respect the partnership.
13. Implement regular training and development
Ensure that all team members in the AP department are well trained and up to date on the latest best practices, technologies, and regulatory requirements.
Implementing regular training sessions and encouraging continuous professional development can boost the skills and efficiency of your AP team. This leads to faster, more accurate processing and higher employee satisfaction.
14. Conduct periodic reviews and audits
Regular assessments and audits of the AP process can help identify inefficiencies, control gaps, and opportunities for further improvement. External reviews also add an additional layer of oversight and can offer new insights or best practice recommendations.
By continually monitoring and refining the AP process, you can maintain its integrity, adapt to changes in the business environment, and ensure that the company’s financial operations run smoothly.
15. Embrace continuous improvement
Adopt a philosophy of continuous improvement, often referred to as Kaizen, where you regularly seek to make incremental changes to optimize the AP process.
Encourage feedback and suggestions from the AP team, who are on the front lines and likely to have firsthand knowledge of inefficiencies or potential enhancements. Experiment with new methods, technologies, and strategies while measuring the impact of these changes.
This culture of continuous improvement can keep your AP process agile and resilient in the face of evolving business needs, regulatory changes, and technological advancements.
Efficient AP management is critical for maintaining a healthy cash flow, solid vendor relationships, and overall financial stability.
Ready to take it to the next level without overextending your internal resources? Consider exploring business process outsourcing (BPO) as a viable and affordable solution.
Outsourcing your AP tasks to experts can free your team to focus on core business activities while gaining access to specialized skills, technologies, and process efficiencies. Read more about BPO and whether it’s right for your AP needs.