How to Organize Your Accounts Payable Department for 2023
Ira Brooker Written: June 5th, 2017 Updated: February 10th, 2023
Businesses have always looked for new ways to stretch their dollar, and that has only become more true in the past few years. The lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing economic uncertainty, and worldwide supply chain struggles have cost-saving measures even more front-of-mind than ever. From improving energy efficiencies to sourcing better priced materials, businesses across all industries are on the lookout for ways to increase their profits while maintaining quality. That search definitely extends to the accounts payable department.
No matter the size of the business, the bills need to be paid. For small businesses, those bills can generally be handled by a few members of staff. Larger companies, however, might get thousands of invoices per month, requiring the efforts of an entire accounts payable department. Regardless of your accounts payable department’s size, you can implement some best practices to improve your bottom line.
Let’s take a look at some accounts payable tips and tricks to streamline your processes and enhance your cash flow.
“Automation, in its many forms, is undeniably the foundation to enable successful communication in 2023 and beyond. At MHC, we believe the organizations that leverage flexible, scalable and reliable automation functionality to engage in tailored, one-to-one customer communications will quickly leapfrog their competition.”
Gina Armada, MHC CEO
TABLE OF CONTENTS
What Does the Accounts Payable Department Do?
The accounts payable (AP) department is the backbone of your organization’s financial efforts. This is the team that makes sure that all of the payments your business issues are correctly processed, approved, and paid in a timely manner. Your AP team also keeps track of what is owed to which suppliers and maintains balance sheets for your financial operations.
AP plays a major role in both your organization’s internal and external functions. The AP team coordinates with departments across your organization to ensure that payments are routed and approved properly. They also work closely with vendors and suppliers to ensure that invoices are received and paid quickly and accurately, thereby playing an important role in your vendor relationships.
The Biggest Challenges in the AP Department
Every AP team faces its own unique set of challenges, but there are some issues that create big complications for every organization that faces them. Some of the most notable AP challenges today include:
An outdated system with too many manual functions and disjointed communications can make it a struggle to find the procure-to-pay documents you need when you need them.
Late Payment Fees
Late payment fees due to slow invoice processing negatively impact your bottom line and damage your relationships with the vendors and suppliers who keep your business running.
If your organization has unique AP payment requirements that your ERP is not equipped to handle, the disconnect between your systems can create bottlenecks and processing slowdowns.
Journal Entry Adjustments
Making manual changes to journal entries and other rework tasks can be tedious and time-consuming work that slows down the overall invoice approval process.
Paper Documents and Manual Processes
If your organization still receives a majority of invoices in a paper format, your AP team must process mass quantities of paper, a much slower and more error-prone approach than automated alternatives.
Avoidable errors in your AP process can create bigger problems down the line, leading to overpayments, underpayments, duplicate payments, and other costly mistakes. Identifying and correcting those errors also eats up time and money for your AP team.
We discussed the biggest challenges in AP automation with AP Now Founder Mary Schaeffer.
Find the top problems and their solution in our blog and infographic!
Creating a Basic Accounts Payable Structure
Even if you have a tiny accounts payable department or even lack a formalized department entirely, properly organizing your accounts payable is crucial. Without a stable structure, you could be missing out on opportunities to save your business money. Here are a few basic accounts payable organization ideas to keep in mind:
1. Centralize Accounts Payable
Almost all organizational issues within your accounts payable system can be handled by centralizing the department. Whether you’re a sprawling enterprise or a small family business, keeping your accounts payable information all in one place is essential.
Centralizing your accounts payable department ensures your staff and management know where to go to handle invoices. It also enables your accounts payable staff to finish tasks more quickly and makes performance tracking easier. In short, centralization improves your department’s organization and speed, helping you cut operational costs.
2. Use an Accounting Program
If you’re a small business receiving a few bills a month, a manual or spreadsheet-based system will typically work well for you. However, if you’re receiving a few bills every day, you would benefit more from an accounting program.
These programs help you keep everything organized and in one place without the potential for error associated with manual methods. If you’re not already familiar with an accounting program, there are plenty of classes available for you to learn.
3. Personally Track Progress
Do not leave everything up to someone else. If you’re the CEO of a company, you should regularly keep an eye on your books, even when you’re running a large corporation. While letting an administrator enter the data on a regular basis can help reduce your workload, review these expenses and entries on a daily or weekly basis to check for errors.
If your business is truly too big for you to handle this, hiring a dedicated accounts payable professional is a step to consider.
4. Keep an Accounts Payable File
Keep a dedicated digital and analog filing system for your accounts payable department. Each invoice should be stored with relevant account information and contain the date of arrival, the due date and any pertinent comments. While most bills these days can be handled electronically, any paper bills should be kept as well, along with their stub and envelope.
This file should include any business credit-card purchases, which should be deposited the same day they’re expensed. If you don’t know how to organize accounts payable files, you can pursue classes or personal training on the subject.
5. Pay Bills in Batches
Pay your bills on time, but be sure to pay them in weekly batches, rather than individually. This makes it easier to track outgoing checks in your ledger. Choose a day and time each week for yourself and an assistant to do this, or, if someone else is responsible for sending these checks out, review and approve the list of outgoing checks before they’re mailed.
6. Standardize the Purchasing Process
Make sure you have a particular purchasing process within your business. Employees and management should know who can and cannot make purchases for the firm and what level of approval they need to get before making substantial purchases. This minimizes confusion both for you and for employees.
5. Avoid Duplicate Payments
Inefficient and outdated accounts payable practices make it much easier for billing and payment errors to slip through the cracks, greatly increasing the risk of issuing duplicate payments for the same invoice. Correcting duplicate payments is a time-consuming, costly, and embarrassing process that can be largely avoided with an automated invoicing system.
These are broad-sweeping accounts payable organization ideas will help most aspects of your accounts payable department. However, you can employ other, more targeted practices as situations arise.
Improving Client and Vendor Management
Keeping track of your customers and vendors is an essential part of cutting costs and maintaining healthy business relationships. Make sure you’re keeping clients and vendors happy by doing the right thing at the right time for each entity. Additionally, keep track of your vendor contracts for money-saving opportunities, such as batch sales. Here are a few ideas for properly managing and maintaining relationships with your clients and vendors:
1. Manage Customer Relationships
Always track information about your customers. Every interaction should be logged so you know what to expect and what to do with each client. Flag any particularly important notes, such as communication preferences. Do the same with your vendors whenever possible.
2. Keep Detailed Contract Records
After you’ve negotiated a contract with a vendor, keep this data safe. Keep an electronic version of the contract and summarize the terms of the contract for easy reference in your purchasing and payables systems.
Inaccurate contract records can result in payment errors and delinquencies, which can disrupt your supply, so ensure that they are copied accurately and updated regularly.
3. Keep W-9 Files for Vendors
Always make sure you have a W-9 on file for each of your vendors. This allows you to keep everything together and prevents unnecessary hassle come tax season when you need to prepare your 1099 – inappropriate 1099 reporting can result in substantial fines.
4. Welcome New Vendors
It’s good practice to greet a new vendor with a letter that informs them of where to send invoices, along with any information they need to include on their invoices, like vendor ID numbers or project numbers.
This can help ease your processes by making sure your vendors provide the information your accounts payable department needs. Vendors also appreciate this practice, as it means their payments process more quickly.
5. Acknowledge Inequity
For many companies, especially retail companies, the holidays often come with lots of inequity between accounts payable and accounts receivable. If your business isn’t financially prepared, this can mean you’re relying on your vendors’ credit.
As soon as this occurs, be honest with your vendor about the inequity and when they can expect to be paid. By just acknowledging the inequity and thanking them for their patience, you can more easily maintain vendor relationships.
6. Provide Self-Service Access to Documents
Allowing vendors to access digital documents via a self-service portal is an excellent way to empower your suppliers and offer greater visibility into how their transactions are being handled. This gives suppliers greater confidence in your organization and makes them more eager to continue working with you in the future. Even better, it takes another task off the plate of your AP team, freeing them up to focus on more productive areas.
Streamlining Invoice Management
Invoices are the basis of your accounts payable system. Learning how to manage them appropriately is a critical part of running accounts payable departments smoothly. Process and track your invoices with the following tips:
1. Track All Invoices
All invoices should come to your accounts payable department before they’re paid. This allows department managers to log the invoice as a separate entity within your system. Without this tracking system, records of an invoice may get lost, causing problems when it comes time for an audit. In this same vein, all invoices should be logged separately, and copies should be kept with appropriate notes, such as account or special handling notes.
2. Pay From Original Invoices
Always pay from the original invoice when possible. If you must pay from a copy due to loss of the original, make sure to check your records for the same invoice number and dollar amount. Any discrepancies should be sent back to the vendor.
3. Eliminate Manual Data Entry
Entering data by hand doesn’t just take up a great deal of time and effort, it also puts your business at risk for costly errors. For an organization that processes large volumes of invoices on a regular basis, manually inputting data from multiple formats is a tedious and repetitive process that can contribute to high rates of employee burnout. Automated solutions including optical character recognition (OCR) can pull data from formats including PDF files, Microsoft Word documents, spreadsheets, and even scans of paper documents and enter them into your system seamlessly.
4. Set Invoice Entering Policies
Have a solid policy for employees who have to enter invoice numbers so they enter invoices with a consistent format. When each employee has unique rules about entering leading zeroes, you could have multiple copies of the same invoice on file or spend unnecessary time tracking down a single invoice in your system. Such policies help maintain consistency, which helps maintain operational speed.
5. Keep the Audit Trail in Mind
When in doubt, think about what information you’ll need come audit season. To keep everything easily trackable, input invoices individually and always track the amount of the original invoice, even if you don’t plan on paying the full price. Detailed notes of everything are important for your audit trail.
Reducing Fraud and Errors
Fraud and errors can happen whenever you employ humans in a company. From embezzlement and fraudulent bills to simple transcription errors, the accounts payable department can be a hotbed for fraud and error. Fortunately, you can combat both by implementing checks and balances in your systems. Some ideas for error mitigation include the following:
1. Separate Duties
This simple fraud minimization method requires different levels of authorization for various operations. For example, while junior employees can process and print checks, only managers of a certain rank can approve and sign them. You might even require a second signature on checks over a certain amount.
Use these controls and balances throughout your business operations to minimize fraudulent activity and keep low-level employees from accessing any information they don’t need to perform their duties.
2. Separate Operations
This type of operational separation combats both fraud and error by giving employees control over a narrower portion of your business’s operations. For example, employees may embezzle from your company by setting up a “dummy vendor” and paying invoices to themselves.
Alternatively, an honest employee may accidentally enter and pay a vendor twice for the same service. Avoid these errors and fraudulent activities by having different people in charge of vendor management and check issuing.
3. Train and Check Expense Reports
All employees must be trained on filing expense reports if it is to be a regular part of their work. Regularly evaluate your employees on this topic to make sure they are comfortable and accurate when creating expense reports. If the process is too complicated for them, use expense report software to help automate the process.
Reduce the potential for error or false reporting by segmenting your employees’ expenses into separate business credit cards, making it easier to check your employees’ work. You can even implement software that uploads data directly from the account for comparison against the employee’s report.
4. Consider Using Vendor Portals
Supplier portals help cut out the middle man in your system, reducing the roles your employees play in creating vendors and paying invoices. Instead of having employees set everything up, a supplier portal allows vendors to track and verify orders electronically, send invoices, receive payments and make edits. This helps reduce errors and fraudulent activity, improving your company’s order accuracy.
If you’re a mid to large size business, automating some of your processes may be a good way to cut down on your labor. Although electronic data interchange is not suitable for every business, the automation these systems offer help reduce errors and maximize profits. Some of the benefits of process automation include the following:
1. Minimize Errors
Since automated systems do not require human interference, they reduce the occurrence of human error. Some problems automated systems minimize include those associated with paying incorrect amounts, inputting wrong check or invoice numbers or even paying too early or too late.
2. Streamline Workflows
Automation can help your AP workflows reach a new level of efficiency. By tracking activity, automated systems can identify bottlenecks in the system, sources of error and other problems. You can then take this data and develop appropriate solutions to improve efficiency, creating an avenue for constant improvement in your accounts payable department.
Deeper visibility into your AP workflows eliminates problems with lost or missing invoices. An automated workflow also reduces miscommunication between departments while making sure that every invoice is routed properly for approvals. A centralized control process combined with seamless integration with your existing ERP system makes an automated solution easy to use and learn.
3. Maximize Profit Opportunities
Some automated systems can check electronic communication with vendors, mining information to identify opportunities for savings, such as discounts and rebates.
4. Automate Reports
Automated reports give you a better picture of your business. For example, aging reports can help you identify checks that have not yet been cashed, while error reports help you identify problem areas in your processes.
5. Integrate Systems
Some automated systems can integrate with scanning systems, collecting data from scanned invoices for input into the system. These systems can integrate with check printers and bank records, automatically updating the system when checks are printed and cashed.
The availability of these functions depends on the level of automation you choose. However, all automated systems can guarantee a higher level of accuracy and speed than your employees.
Manage Accounts Payable With MHC
Accounts payable departments face a very different set of challenges in 2023 than they did even a few years ago. Navigating that changing landscape requires software solutions that are designed for today and flexible enough to handle the challenges of tomorrow.
MHC Accounts Payable Automation software helps manage your company’s workflow more efficiently, automating the data collecting and entry processes. Our user-friendly solutions integrate easily with any platform, boosting your AP department’s efficiency, speed, and accuracy while helping you maintain strong relationships with your vendors and suppliers.
Ready to find out more about the difference MHC can make in your AP operations? Contact us today to schedule a demonstration of our industry-leading solutions!