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It’s Time to Revisit the Benefits of Virtual Card

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It’s Time to Revisit the Benefits of Virtual Card

In the wake of the many changes this year has brought, companies are moving toward making more of their supplier payments electronically. It’s a welcome thing. Check payments have dwindled in consumer life, but across US industries, nearly half of all supplier payments are still made by check. As accounts payable departments went into work from home mode, it became difficult to cut checks. They rushed to set suppliers up for ACH payments, skipping over what might be a better opportunity: paying them by virtual card.

Not every supplier accepts virtual cards, however. Before you set your suppliers up for ACH, you should at least ask about cards—there are compelling benefits for both buyers and suppliers with that option. For suppliers, getting paid by card is the fastest way to get their money in the bank. On the buyer’s side, virtual cards are the most secure payment method, and they can also generate rebates. To get the promised rebates, you need to find the right card program for your business and have a solid plan for continually enabling suppliers. For most companies, it makes sense to consider virtual cards in the broader context of automating the entire payment process.

To be clear, I’m not talking about p-cards. P-cards are a physical card that AP uses to pay suppliers over the phone. Virtual cards are 16-digit “card” numbers issued to a named supplier for a specified amount. These “v-cards” can’t be processed by anyone other than the supplier, or for anything larger than the authorized amount. And, if somehow a fraudulent transaction should occur, virtual card issuers offer the same protections as they do with plastic cards. When it comes to check and ACH payments, money that falls into fraudulent hands can be challenging to get back. Card processes are more traceable and are, therefore, easier to reverse.

There are Challenges of Maintaining In-House Processes

It’s possible for your team to own their own card payment processes instead of handing the reins over to a payment automation partner. But the work required often dissuades companies from doing so.

One of the main reasons checks have persisted as the top payment type in the business world is the minimal setup required. This makes checks an attractive payment method on paper, especially for companies who do business with thousands of suppliers. But the actual process is more labor-intensive because each check must be approved, printed, signed, and mailed—a process that can take days for some companies.

On the reverse side, card payments require an enablement component. Someone must reach out to each supplier to confirm their payment preference. The up-front work often prevents decision-makers from pulling the trigger on implementing such a system. Ironically, many companies turn to ACH or wire as an alternate solution, but these are even costlier and more time-consuming. For these payment types, companies must collect supplier bank account information. Then they must validate store them securely, and maintain tight, protective controls on them.

For smaller companies that are more focused on generating an additional revenue stream, a standalone virtual card program can be a decent option. The caveat is that without a strong enablement effort, any projected rebate may have to be invested back into your process to maintain it.

Standalone Programs Aren’t Permanent Solutions

An independent program works well when companies are highly integrated between their ERP system and their bank. In these scenarios, the company usually has most of their suppliers set up to receive ACH payments, simplifying the reconciliation process.  However, adding more payment automation over the top of existing automation would be redundant, closing the door on additional revenue that might be generated from a card program down the road.

Larger companies should look at comprehensive payment automation solutions with virtual card embedded into them, even if you don’t plan to use them right away.

How Does Payment Automation Resolve These Problems?

Automated solutions wrap all payment types into a single workflow, making it easy to offer several options to suppliers without adding to AP’s daily workload. Because suppliers are continuously enabled for electronic payments via a supplier network, most companies can immediately pay a significant percentage of their suppliers electronically with no effort. Paying by check also becomes as simple as submitting a pay file and approving it. This simplified process cuts out a significant portion of AP’s manual tasks, leaving them more time to focus on higher-level initiatives.

By automating the whole payment process, including enablement, reconciliation, and error resolution, AP teams usually see cost reductions of up to 70 percent. When you add revenue from card payments into the equation, AP can become a profit center.

Card payments still only account for about five percent of B2B payments. There’s a significant opportunity that companies have been missing out on, either because they haven’t researched virtual cards, don’t want to do the supplier outreach, or haven’t found a partner that can help them make it work. Due to processing fees, not every supplier will accept card payments. Still, a surprising number—around 20 percent of suppliers, in my experience—will say yes if they’re asked.

Now that cash flow is king, companies are shifting to accommodate more ACH enablement outreach. While you’re reaching out to your suppliers, it may be worth your time simply asking if they would accept card payments. Wrapping these initiatives into a payment automation solution may enable your AP department to run lean in the cloud indefinitely.

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Kristin is Vice President of Regional Sales at Nvoicepay, a FLEETCOR company. Her experience in sales and sales leadership spans 16 years, and includes positions held with companies like Capital One and Billtrust. With Nvoicepay, she delivers scalable payment solutions to mid-market and enterprise companies. Kristin has received several accolades, including Sales Rep of the Year & Quarter, and multiple President’s Awards.

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How to Make the Case for Optimizing Invoice Payments

What I’ve learned working in sales for a bank and two financial tech companies is that when it comes to payments, there is a clear difference between fintechs and banks. Banks look at business payments as a product, while fintech see them as a process to be optimized. 

What does that really mean? Optimization is a term we throw around a lot, usually in relationship to costs or processes. Costs are relatively easy to optimize, because they’re easy to see and measure. The business case is simple to make.

Making the case for process optimization is a lot harder, however, because the costs are hidden and hard to measure. And when we get really good at running a process, we no longer realize just how complicated that process really is. We’ve got something that’s working, so we keep doing it the same way. If we think about optimization at all, we look at pieces of the process and see if we can make them faster or cheaper. But then we often overlook new technology that can radically change or even eliminate part or all of the process. 

A serious dent

For example, smart phones have radically changed and/or eliminated the use of alarm clocks, radios, landlines, paper calendars, cameras, feature phones, weather reports, and more. Those all still “work,” but why have all those different pieces and processes for each when you could have a smart phone? 

Few people, if any, make the effort to figure out how much time and money they save by switching to a smart phone having all that functionality in a single portable device. You’d have to add up the hard costs, break down each process into its component parts, and then assign a value to the time you spend on each. No one would do that, because by now just about everyone realizes that smart phones offer a faster, easier, more convenient way to do things. But that’s exactly what you have to do to make a case for changing a business process.

To make the case for optimizing the B2B payment process, you need to evaluate three key areas: 

Transactional costs. This seems pretty straightforward: what does it cost to send an ACH or wire, or print and mail a check? This cost includes transaction fees, check stock, envelopes, stamps. But there can be additional fees for delivering standard or upgraded remittance information, PositivePay, returned checks, and research on lost or erroneous ACH payments. Be sure to consider all of these when making your business case.

Rebates. This also seems straightforward: how much spend can you get on card, and what’s that likely to yield in rebates? But there are some nuances. First, not all rebates are the same—they vary in terms of rules and payout percentages. Some rebates don’t kick in until you hit a certain threshold, while others pay out monthly, annually, or semi-annually and you must figure in the time value of money as well. Others pay less if you don’t choose to pay your balance off daily or weekly. Then there are exceptions like Level 2 and 3 processing and large ticket charges. I would suggest taking a look back at previous years to see what you actually earned vs. what you remember from the sales pitch.They are often vastly different.

Operational efficiency. This is where you can get sucked down a rabbit hole. But it’s also where you can really transform your business. Let’s take a look at all the pieces of the payments process:

Enabling suppliers for electronic payments. What does your go-to-market strategy look like?  Is it phone calls, mailers? Does your AP team participate?  Your procurement team? How many vendors accept card? ACH? Who collects, keys in, and updates the banking information? How is it secured? 

Creating payment files for transmission. How many different file types must IT work to create and test, and how often are you sending? How long does it take, and who does it?  Is the approval built into the system? Or is it manual and paper-based?

Collecting physical signatures on checks. How many people are involved? How much time do they spend? What is their hourly pay rate? 

Sending out remittance advice. Is it stuffed in envelopes and mailed? Emailed? Is it automatic or do you need to create, save to desktop, and manually send?

Fielding phone calls asking about payments. How many calls do you get per 100 payments sent? What’s the average time to fulfill a request? Who’s involved, and what’s his or her pay rate?

Tracking down and reissuing lost or erroneous payments. What’s your error rate per 100 payments sent? Who fixes errors, how long does it take on average, and what is his or her pay rate?  

Early payment discounts.  How often are you able to take advantage of terms offered by suppliers? What is the lost revenue opportunity when the payment process causes you to miss out?

Late payments. How many payments are late? How much are you paying in late fees? What is the effect on your discount and vendor relationship when payments are delayed?

Updating supplier banking and payment information. According to Nvoicepay internal data, suppliers change their banking setup about every four years, meaning you’re updating 25 percent of suppliers annually. But in this day and age, you can’t just accept supplier updates at face value. You have to validate those requests to make sure it’s not fraud or phishing. Who handles that, how long does it take, and how much do they get paid? Do you have a liability policy for fraudulent payments? What has fraud cost your business historically?

Escheatment and unswiped cards. This is the time spent following up on uncashed checks or un-swiped card payments and reissuing them and/or reconciling them back into the accounting system.

How much does it all add up to? Very few organizations really know. There are benchmarking studies out there on the costs of writing checks, and of processing invoices. But no study I have seen recently considers the entire process, beginning with supplier enablement and ending with a reconciled payment. 

Processes and sub-processes

Those detailed studies don’t exist because it’s difficult to discern how much time an AP team spends on all the required processes and sub-processes for completing a payment. Those task hours are often dispersed across the team and can be tough to measure. 

In accounts receivable, for example, there are staff members that only do cash application. So if you make your cash application process 70 percent more efficient, and you have a headcount of 10, it’s easy to say “Okay. I can assign a savings number to that and reallocate 6 or 7 people.”  It’s pretty straightforward.

That’s much more difficult to do on the AP side. For most companies, no role within AP focuses solely on handling errors, enablement, fielding phone calls, or escheatment. Team members need to be pulled from other duties to cover those tasks. I’ve even seen teams pull staff from the manufacturing floor to stuff envelopes during Friday check runs. It’s hard to adequately quantify the time that goes into all these components, let alone understand all of the costs that roll into the payment process. And why would you if you think your method works and there are no viable alternatives? 

The Fintech A-ha

There is a better way. Over the past decade, fintechs have made steady progress in optimizing the B2B payments process. Payment automation providers can now offer a single interface for all payment types, eliminating the need for multiple payment files.

Some, like Nvoicepay, use cloud networks to handle supplier enablement and information management securely at scale, taking those tasks off of AP’s plate. We even service the payment on the back end, handling incoming calls and error resolution. 

The combination of technology and services radically changes the process, eliminating some of AP’s most time-consuming and unproductive tasks, and freeing up staff time for higher-value work.

And that’s the fintech difference. Slowly but surely, technology companies have surveyed the fragmented financial services landscape and figured out how to knit processes together to replace complex, repetitive, non-value-added manual activities with a few button-clicks. To truly optimize business payments, you need to look beyond stamps and envelopes and consider the entire payment journey. Only then can you truly understand the massive optimization opportunity in front of you. 

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Kristin Cardinali is the Vice President of Enterprise Sales in the Midwest Region at Nvoicepay. Her experience in sales and sales leadership spans 16 years, and includes positions held with companies like Capital One and Billtrust. With Nvoicepay, she delivers scalable payment solutions to enterprise companies and other large organizations. Kristin has received several accolades, including Sales Rep of the Year & Quarter, and multiple President’s Awards.