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Helping clients create a highly efficient AP approval workflow: Part 3 - Creating a workflow that works for your clients

Brandon Roth
BILL, Senior Manager of Technical Marketing

Great to see you back again to complete our Best Practices for Automating AP Workflow blog series! Before we dig into our third and final topic—creating an AP approval workflow that works for your clients—here’s a quick refresher on what we’ve covered in this series so far …

The first article provided you with key client questions to ask—geared to help you gain insight into your client’s existing AP approval workflow and any inherent challenges. Part 2 offered six top KPIs for measuring AP workflow success. Combined, the learnings from both articles sets you up to take the final step—developing a highly efficient, automated workflow that supports your clients’ unique needs.

And here are the defined steps to do just that …

Identify the right workflow model

There are many ways to interact with your client in an outsourced approval workflow, but there are three proven and tested models we recommend. These workflow models are dependent on how hands-on you wish your firm to be vs. the business client in the bill pay process.

Consider your relationship with your client, how you want them to be involved, and the responsibilities your staff should manage:

  1. Participatory model: This model is a good fit for pro-collaboration clients. These are clients who desire to be part of the process but still want relief from the bulk of AP workflow tasks. In this model, the client and vendors submit invoices and oversee approval while your firm does the rest.

  2. Non-Participatory model: This model represents a fully outsourced option where your firm handles AP work from start to finish. This option can come at a higher price tag, so keep this in mind as you assess which model is best for a client.

  3. Client Ownership model: This allows clients to maintain control over the complete AP workflow, while the firm oversees the broad process to ensure it’s being managed appropriately. Typically, the firm only needs access for tax and audit purposes or to run reports.

There’s an option to fit the needs of every client.

Document the workflow

Without proper documentation, you can’t expect to stay on track with workflow implementation or properly maintain it long-term. By documenting the workflow, you provide clients (and your staff) with a clear roadmap of all the moving parts—serving as the go-to reference doc. 

Be sure to document key elements of the process, including:

  • A comprehensive list of every person involved in the workflow, their role, and tasks assigned. This includes bill creators, approvers, and payers.

  • The vendor onboarding process, vendor management policies, and the W-9 collection process.

  • Document collection and storage policies.

  • The bill routing process for approval and tracking.

  • Aggregated approval policies and who is responsible for approval within each scenario.

  • Stakeholders responsible for fund disbursements, vendor credits, and more.

  • The bill reconciliation process for remitted payments and who oversees this task. 

This is not an exhaustive list, but it offers a good start and a proper outline for workflow documentation.

This is a process document that will need to be updated and managed over time. We recommend using an AP software solution to automate the work but also keeping an external document to track all moving parts.

Run it by your clients and stakeholders

You can’t create an AP approval workflow that works for your clients (and your staff) if you don’t include them in the process.

At this stage, you’re looking to get buy-in from both clients and all other stakeholders. A collaborative approach is best here, as it represents a firm dedication to creating the best workflow for clients as well as conveys that staff input is valued.

Ideally, this new process will be simpler and more organized than the client’s previous process … so it will be a welcome change.

Be aware that more complex workflows may require you to train clients and staff. Be ready to provide this level of service. This is also where having your process and decisions documented will come in handy–making training easier or helping when you have turnover in staff.

Implement automation software into the new workflow

To help clients operate at peak efficiency, the AP approvals workflow should be automated. A best practice to help with time- and cost-saving efficiencies is to implement bill pay automation software.

Today’s leading solutions help businesses of all sizes easily manage their AP approvals end to end in real time. In fact, BILL clients report an average time savings of 50% on accounts payable and an average of 36 business days annually. That’s a big efficiency win!

Automation of duties can also help reduce risk of fraud via digital payment methods, a clearly defined approvals workflow, separation of duties, and providing an audit trail of activity. Learn more about how to lower fraud risk for clients by reading our Protect Small Businesses from Fraud article in our Accountant Resource Center.

Next comes the actual workflow implementation.

Once you have buy-in across stakeholders and the process fully documented, it’s time to move forward with implementation. Depending on the client, you can either dive in full scale or work in phases to minimize disruption.

Applying the Participatory model as an example, you can put the new workflow in action by following BILL’s four-step process to manage AP workflow (see below).

The Participatory model + BILL = A streamlined, automated AP approvals workflow.

This workflow supports real-time capture of invoices, assignment of documents to the right firm staff, automatic approver notifications for the client, payment remit alerts, and automatic syncing for recordkeeping and account reconciliation. For more detail on workflow steps, be sure to read the full guide.

Track, monitor, and refine the process

Once the new AP approvals workflow is in place and running, it’s important to monitor it closely. This is not a set-it-and-forget-it operation. There will be bumps along the way, and it will take some time to work out process kinks. The goal is to ensure that workflow is carefully tracked and evaluated in order to identify issues and refine the process to work best for the client.

This is the time to apply the KPIs we offered in article 2—Helping clients create a highly efficient AP approval workflow: Part 2 - Tracking time and cost with KPIs. You’ll be measuring such KPIs as the average time to approve bills, average time to pay bills, and cost to pay bills—to name a few. Make sure to apply all the KPIs that will help you identify process issues and then adjust accordingly.

While you may see significant improvements right away, be sure to check in at least quarterly. There are always areas that can be improved.

In closing …

The opportunity to help clients run a more efficient and profitable business is big—especially when you consider that the average business using paper checks is paying up to $22 per transaction

Enhancing the AP approvals workflow is one way to help clients improve operations, eliminate cash flow barriers, and increase success rate. And outsourcing the complete bill pay function to your firm is the answer to achieve all of these things. When you implement a fully automated AP workflow for clients, it can reduce cost, human effort, and provide peace of mind that the work is being done right and on time.

To get your clients onboard and moving with automation, be sure to follow the foundational steps in our three-part article series:

  1. Part 1: Asking the right questions

  2. Part II: Tracking time and cost with KPIs

  3. Part III: Creating a workflow that works for your clients

When you partner with your clients to help improve overall operations, it supports their long-term success. And isn’t that why you got into the accounting profession in the first place?

Access the complete guide, Accounts Payable Approval Workflows - Best Practices, for detailed insights, tips, and tactics on helping clients move to a structured and automated AP process.