By Derek Halpern
Remote work initiatives have created a strong tailwind for digitizing business payments, with companies rushing to move away from checks and onto card and ACH payments. This huge market--roughly 10 times the size of the consumer payment market--is ripe for change. Over the past decade, a decent amount of investment has gone into this area. Everyone is getting into the game: banks, card providers, and fintech providers, for example. It's very early days, with paper checks still the predominant form of payment in the US. Who will win the market? Ultimately, it will be the players that can best address the needs of both buyers and suppliers.
I've spent time on both sides. Before coming to Nvoicepay, which helps automate the payment process on the accounts payable side, I was with Billtrust, which automates accounts receivable. Their founder and CEO, Flint Lane, was a big believer in the need to solve for both sides of the equation. That was my first introduction to the concept. Now, having sold into both accounts receivable and accounts payable, I'm a firm believer as well.
Two Sides of the Coin
There are two sides to every payment—creation and receipt. When it comes to consumer payments, both sides are straightforward, especially with today's technology. But in the world of business payments, process complexity adds friction between them. Accounts payable's goal is to manage cash flow by hanging on to money as long as possible. That puts them at odds with accounts receivable, who wants to get paid as quickly as possible. Digitizing transactions doesn't efficiently address the complexity or friction between the sender's and receiver's processes. And the lack of consideration can worsen the issue.
For example, funds sent by accounts payable may hit their vendor's bank faster with card or ACH payments, but a complicated payment application process can lose the receivable department precious time anyway. Without a way to streamline the process from beginning to end, simply switching to electronic means in a few places may not offer the time savings that businesses hope to achieve.
What's the Solution?
Portals work well for larger companies that can dictate the terms of doing business to their smaller customers. But their customers may not be happy having their own interests dictated to them. And if you don't have that kind of authority, chances are your portal will go unused because you've created a one-off process for your customers, making life harder for their accounts receivable people.
Electronic means can help accounts payable make payments at the last minute, and they'd prefer paying by card over ACH because they can make money on card rebates. But convincing suppliers to accept card is often a challenge because the accompanying fees can get expensive very quickly. Meanwhile, enabling suppliers for ACH translates to AP managing large amounts of sensitive bank account data.
Many organizations end up "dabbling" in electronic payments because of these enablement challenges. That leaves them managing four different payment workflows--card, ACH, wire, and a whole lot of checks. This is the problem that payment automation providers solve by taking on the supplier enablement process, maximizing card rebates, and simplifying AP workflows.
As much as both sides might agree that digital payments are the future, they're stuck between a rock and a hard place without automation.
Paving the Way
Fintech businesses like Nvoicepay and Billtrust are bringing automation to payables and receivables separately, and that's a big step forward. I believe the next generation of solutions will bring both worlds together on a flexible, dynamic platform where both parties to a transaction can choose from a range of options that best meet their needs at any given time.
From an accounts receivable perspective, funds need to be accompanied by enhanced digital remittance information. They could offer buyers incentives in dynamic discounts in exchange for speedy payment and a streamlined cash application process through the platform.
On the buying side, easy access to supply chain financing could allow them to take advantage of such discounts while at the same time extending payment terms. The buying organization takes its two percent discount and gives half a percent to the financing organization, paying the invoice within the discount window. Then the buying organization pays the financing organization in 30 days. Payables manages cash, gets part of the discount and a rebate if they pay by card.
Bringing it All Together
The key to creating these win-win outcomes is including the presence of a technology platform that uses data to offer convenience and choice, allowing organizations to meet whatever their needs happen to be at any given time. For example, if your cash position is good, you may not offer discounts or offer them more selectively. If you work with many small suppliers with tight margins, consider taking the card option off the table.
These are not new ideas, but they haven't yet been addressed effectively with technology. Historically we've tried to do this through EDI (Electronic Data Interchange), a computer-to-computer communication standard developed in the 1960s. It's always been very clunky, and it is unwieldy for the volume and velocity of data in the supply chain today. However, a majority of organizations still use it for lack of anything better.
Nacha and the Real-Time Payments Network add remittance data to ACH payments, but that's not a complete answer. There still needs to be some technology put in place to incorporate the data into payment workflows.
Suppose you look at fintech innovation in the consumer payments market as a leading indicator. In that case, it's been less about new payment products and more about using technology to send and receive money seamlessly, regardless of which electronic network is used.
In B2B payments, fintechs changed the game by thinking about payments as a business process rather than a collection of products, and built software solutions to automate those workflows. With remote work providing an additional incentive, many more organizations are adoping electronic forms of payment. That, in turn, makes data more available to continue developing digital platforms. Whoever gets there first has a good chance of becoming the leading player, but you won't get there at all if you don't build for both sides of the equation.
Derek Halpern is Senior Vice President of Sales for Nvoicepay, a FLEETCOR Company. He has over 20 years of technology sales and leadership experience, including 16 years in the fintech and payments space.
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