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How to Make the Case for Optimizing Invoice Payments

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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.

How to Find Your Way in the World of International Payments

Credit card, direct deposit, check, cash, e-pay… making domestic payments is a breeze these days, with enough flexibility to offer optimization based on your vendor’s payment preferences. International payments, on the other hand, are much more complex, and bring to mind painful images of cumbersome wire submissions.

Alternate options, such as fintech solutions, enable companies to submit all their domestic and international payments in one file. If the fintech also includes vendor maintenance as part of their services, then the payment file draws banking details from the fintech’s vendor network, eliminating the responsibility of maintaining that data from AP teams’ plates.

But before we delve too deeply into the process, let’s take a step back and explore nomenclature. Over time, companies have imposed their own internal vocabulary over common terms. Terms like ‘wire’, ‘direct deposit’, and ‘ACH’ are often used interchangeably, even though they operate differently. Let’s synchronize our understanding of these words.

What’s in a name?

International vs. cross-border vs. FX

“Cross-border payments” is a self-explanatory term—the definition is right in the name. These funds cross international borders to reach their destination.

“International payments” also describes cross-border payment activity, but carries other specific interpretations as well. For example, it may also refer to funds transferred within a single country through a bank or fintech located outside of that country (e.g. Canada to Canada, but through a U.S. fintech).

The term “FX” (Foreign Exchange) is occasionally thrown around to describe international payments, though it typically refers to currency exchange instead of the transmission of funds.

At the end of the day, as long as your company recognizes the nuances, the use of any term is fine. For simplicity’s sake, the rest of this article will refer to “international payments.”

Stepping out of history and into the future

Wire vs. EFT

Wire is the most popular and recognizable form of international payment processing. From a simplistic, yet technical standpoint, wire payments transmit account data from one bank to another. It’s sometimes the only method for sending money from one country to another, especially when working with specific currency exchanges or infrequently paid countries.

The term “EFT” (Electronic Funds Transfer) is quite a bit broader. It is a catch-all phrase used to describe any electronic payment process. Wire, ACH, direct deposit, and other methods fall under this umbrella.

Standardized codes

Codes are commonly used to determine various international payment factors. Use of the wrong codes can cause downstream payment issues, so it’s worth identifying each type, since they often appear to be very similar to one another.

Country Codes

ISO (International Organization for Standardization) country codes are country-specific abbreviations with varied uses.  Although three ISO country code variations exist—ISO Alpha-2, ISO Alpha-3, and ISO Alpha numeric—the ISO Alpha-2 code is used most in the international payment scope, in IBANs and SWIFT codes. 

As the name suggests, ISO Alpha-2 codes are 2-character codes assigned to each country for identification purposes.  For example, the United States is “US”, the United Kingdom is “GB”, and China is “CN.”

Currency Codes

Currency codes are 3-digit codes that identify currencies. Their resemblance to ISO Alpha-3 country codes may cause confusion, so it’s always worthwhile to make sure you’ve got the right code before adding it to payment instructions.

For example, the ISO Alpha-3 country code for the United States is “USA” while the currency code for U.S. dollars is “USD”. Similarly, “CHE” is the ISO Alpha-3 country code for Switzerland, while the currency code for Swiss francs is “CHF.”

Payment specifications

Information requirements for international payments are far less cut-and-dried than those for domestic processes. The details often vary depending on the payment type, currencies, and the countries involved.

SWIFT/BIC Codes

Veteran AP personnel are likely very familiar with the SWIFT system (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications), which is known as the BIC system (Bank Identifier Code) in some countries.

SWIFT codes were introduced in the ‘70s as a way to streamline the global money-transferring process and reduce the possibility of human error. SWIFT codes are a series of characters that identify the bank, country, and branch location to which a payment should be sent. Decades later, they still play a significant role.

Routing Numbers

While SWIFT codes are still essential to send international payments, the growing financial industry has highlighted the need for additional details.

Routing numbers are the collective answer, and play a fairly large role in the modern payment structure.

The caveat is that they may not always be called “routing numbers”, which is a U.S. term. For example, Australia has the “BSB Code”, China the “CNAPS”, and India the “ISFC Code”.

While it may seem redundant to provide both the SWIFT and routing details, it is an excellent way to clarify the payment destination.

IBANs and Account Numbers

IBANs (International Bank Account Number) arrived in the ‘90s as a way to further standardize banking information, and have been adopted primarily by countries in the European Union, the Middle East, and several countries in Africa. While IBANs vary in length depending on the country, they contain these common factors:

ISO alpha-2 country code

Check digits

Bank identifier

Branch identifier

Account number

Because IBANs often include the bank identifier (which shares digits with the SWIFT code), further account information isn’t typically necessary, which massively simplifies the payment process.

Countries that have not adopted the IBAN must still provide the SWIFT code, routing details, and the account number, as well as any country-specific requirements with their invoices.

Country-specific details

Additional details can include purpose of payment, tax documentation, and company phone numbers, amongst other things. Since each country requires specific information, it can be tricky to know exactly what to supply.

When in doubt, ask your payment solution provider—they can outline each country’s requirements, as needed.

Putting it all together

While international payment processes have evolved over time, the task is still nothing to sneeze at. Fortunately, fintechs like Nvoicepay have simplified the process, and store and maintain banking details on your behalf. That way, when you’re ready to pay your international vendors, you’re good to go in just a few clicks of your mouse—no more painful single-payment submissions through the bank.

Alyssa Callahan is a Technical Marketing Writer at Nvoicepay. She has four years of experience in the B2B payment industry, specializing in cross-border B2B payment processes.