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Mary Schaeffer
Mary Schaeffer

Are Your Vendors Cutting Back on Paper Invoices?

Five strategies show you how to make the transition.

November 5, 2009
by Mary Schaeffer

“Never pay from a faxed or copied invoice” has been the rule-of-thumb for account payable departments looking to avoid duplicate payments for the longest time. With today's technology it is now possible to have many originals of the same invoice. What’s more, some suppliers are refusing to mail invoices reasoning that there is a faster and better way. And, they are correct.

Trends

Some large organizations insist on electronic invoice receipts and have placed such requirements in their terms and conditions:

If you want to do business with us you have to agree to accept your invoice electronically.

While others use fax as their standard-delivery method for invoices. A growing number of organizations see the benefits and now encourage invoices by e-mail and fax. And some actually prefer fax because they direct the fax to an e-fax number that reads right into their imaging system actually making their life a little easier.

One company shared with me that they have vendors that plan to charge for issuing paper invoices. While I don’t really expect this to become a popular tactic, a few of the 800-pound gorillas will use this approach to force acceptance by their smaller customers.

With the low cost of technology today, money should not stand in the way of any organization adopting the e-mail/fax invoice acceptance methodology.

If you haven’t adjusted your processes to include receipt of invoices by both e-mail and fax, you might want to consider making that change.

Fax and E-mail Benefits

The advantages to the vendor are clear: no postage, paper or printing costs. But, does the recipient benefit? Although the advantages to the customer are not as clear cut, they are considerable.

Here’s why you should consider the e-mail/fax approach:

  1. No envelopes to open; better use of staff time.
  2. No invoices lost in the mail.      
  3. No time delays.
  4. Easier to earn early payment discounts.
  5. Disputes/questions handled by replying to the original e-mail.
  6. Can upload e-faxed invoices into system.

Drawbacks

Interestingly, only a few vendors object to the e-mail/fax invoice delivery. Their objections were as follows:

  • E-mail requires printing out invoices.
  • Must ensure the fax tray has paper.
  • Must ensure the invoice was delivered to AP and not elsewhere in the case of a shared fax.
  • Large volume vendors necessitate a lot of printing help.
  • Illegible fax printing makes processing the invoice difficult.

While there is some validity to these objections, they can be overcome fairly easily.

Recommendations

How can you take advantage of this new methodology in an organized manner? It’s not that hard. Here’s how to get the ball rolling:

  1. Set up a single e-mail address to be used exclusively for the receipt of invoices. Whoever is responsible for either processing the invoices that come into this address or forwarding them for approval should have the password, as should their backup and perhaps the department manager. Make sure the e-mail account does not belong to only one person.
     
  2. Set up a dedicated fax number to be used for accounts payable invoices only. Invoices can be retrieved throughout the day and integrated into the normal accounts payable workflow.
     
  3. Set up an e-fax facility to receive faxed invoices into an e-mail account. This should eliminate the problem of illegible invoices.
     
  4. Include your new e-mail address and fax number in all correspondence with vendors, especially your New Vendor Welcome kit.
     
  5. Convert as many vendor invoices as possible to this approach for delivering invoices. The benefits are overwhelming.

Once you have followed the above strategies, you’ll wonder why you stuck with paper for so long, plus you’ll save a few trees as well.

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Mary S. Schaeffer is the author of over a dozen business books including The Controller & CFO’s Guide to Accounts Payable (2007 John Wiley & Sons) and Fraud in Accounts Payable: How to Prevent It (2008 John Wiley & Sons). She is the publisher of the CFO & Controllers Accounts Payable Management Journal, a quarterly electronic journal for senior executives concerned about internal controls and cost control in their payment function, writes a monthly newsletter, a free weekly ezine e-AP News, speaks at accounts payable webinars, seminars and conferences and directs the organization’s consulting practice.