Insights and lessons learned from supplier onboarding with E-procurement in magazine consultancy.uk
It was Thursday the 10th or September 2015. The first day at my very first assignment for a large semi-governmental organization. Although this was my first day, the project for which I had been hired about a year ago. The organization was right in the middle of a large E-Procurement implementation process, containing several different elements (E-Ordering, E-Invoicing, Catalog Buying, Master Data Management, Declaration process and so on). In short, the whole P2P process was automated by means of E-Procurement systems.
As you can imagine, this is a massive job. In one way or another, many people were involved in and / or concerned with the implementation of E-Procurement. In this chapter, I would like to tell you about my experiences when implementing E-Procurement, and especially concerning the suppliers in the implementation process. Not just how it should go, but how it actually goes in real life.
As mentioned before, E-procurement systems cover several elements. I focused on the elements E-Ordering and E-Invoicing.
- E-Ordering: E-ordering was developed to optimize existing communication flows related to orders. Where E-Invoicing is very interesting for the customer who receives many invoices, E-Ordering is interesting and useful for the supplier who receives many orders. Usually, a customer places an order by means of a phone call or PDF. The supplier then needs to transfer the data of the order into their own system. When you receive many orders, this can be a time-consuming job. E-Ordering is actually ordering goods and services through Internet technology. By means of E-Ordering, workers within the organization can electronically request, view, order and receive products and services via a catalog ordering system. Once an employee has its order request, this (possibly automatically through approval procedures) is approved and converted into electronic orders to suppliers.
- E-Invoicing: This is a form of electronic billing. E-invoicing includes a number of different technologies and entry options and is electronically presented to a customer for payment. An e-invoice can be defined as structured invoice data in EDI or XML formats, possibly using Internet-based web forms. These documents can be exchanged in a number of ways including EDI, XML or CSV files. Enabling E-Invoicing typically involves members of accounts payable, IT and procurement. E-Invoicing finds itself right on the border of both procurement and finance. But how does this process look like and what is the difference with the old process of invoice via paper or email?
I was a part of the project E-Ordering and E-Invoicing and my main responsibility was coordinating the supplier onboarding / enablement process, meaning that I would help the buyers. to switch to E-Ordering / E-Invoicing. After all, you could have a beautiful system that works perfectly technically, if you do not have any suppliers that want to receive E-orders from and send E-Invoices to you, it is still not very useful.
Once the supplier explicitly states that he is 'on board' and wants to switch to E-Ordering / E-Invoicing, I turn the responsibility for this supplier into line who will technically implement the system.
How to onboard suppliers?
Ok, so you have a working E-Procurement system, it would be nice if suppliers want to send you E-Invoices so that you can actually get the job done . How to achieve this?
- Determine your position in the market with respect to your suppliers. Are you a large player in the market? Are you an important client for your suppliers? If the answer is yes, this will be very helpful in the supplier onboarding process because it will provide you with the necessary means to persuade your suppliers to switch to E-Invoicing. If the answer is no, you are definitely in need of a skilled consultant to help you out. Luckily for you, I happen to know one.
- You need to switch to E-Invoicing. These are the suppliers who send you the most invoices. The more E-invoices you receive is better for your organization. You probably mean that you get faster results by starting with the big one. Now the sentence reads as if you can be happy when you have to pay a lot (get a lot of invoices) Analysis of the invoice statements of the previous two years to identify which suppliers should be targeted. At the organization where I worked, we applied the boundary of 100 invoices a year, meaning that all suppliers who send more than 100 invoices per year should switch to E-invoicing, one way or another. This boundary is arbitrary and subjective: if a supplier sends 99 invoices this does not mean he is 'of the hook', and if a supplier sends this does not mean he has to switch. Always look at what kind of supplier it is, and what the expectations are for 100%.
The reason why it would be a pre-selection instead of reaching out to all suppliers, has to do with scope and money. Some organizations have over a thousand suppliers. When starting this project, try to focus on the suppliers. Suppliers who send in invoices do not contribute to your goals of reaching efficiency gains. Furthermore, switching to E-Ordering and / or E-Invoicing requires investment from your suppliers. The size of this investment depends on the option of the supplier chooses. But still, the business case for suppliers is not likely to be made. The investment costs are not likely to be big enough to justify the investment.
- Determine which purchaser is responsible for each selected supplier. The purchaser can tell you whether or not the supplier is a suitable candidate for E-Invoicing. It could be for example that the contract will be terminated, or that the supplier will send significantly less invoices in the next few years. Furthermore, when approaching the supplier, it would be best to do this through someone who knows the supplier. The purchaser has a relationship with E-Invoicing, or at least find out who the right person in the organization is to discuss this topic with.
- Finally, you want to make it as easy as possible for your purchasers and suppliers. So be sure that you provide them with the right information. Organize a meeting for your suppliers to explain what it is and what they need to do. This is also new for them, and not part of their core tasks of purchasing. Help your purchasers by providing them with email templates, brochures and flyers that they can send to their suppliers. This information material explains why you are doing this, what it is, what the costs are, what the benefits are. After all, you are asking for an investment, so you need to make it clear what is in it for them and why you think the investment is justified.
How it really goes
So, you made the plan, and it's a good plan. You are the supplier of all the materials you need. I am just going to tell you right now: it is not that easy. Do not think it will go something like this:
Organization X: "Dear Supplier, we from organization X are switching to E-Ordering / E-Invoicing. We kindly ask you to switch and send us E-Invoices instead of paper or PDF. Here you have some material information with the different options and costs. So which option would you like? "
Supplier X: "Well of course, what a good idea, I would like to have this option in motion so that we can quickly implement E-Invoicing".
No, it will not happen like this. A few examples of what you can expect during the onboarding process:
- People do not respond. Ever. You send them reminders about and over, but still they do not respond, or very slowly. They just ignore you and think that if you do that, the problem, which is you and your request for E-Invoicing, will not go wrong.
- Some people are just always on vacation. Or they just left the office. Or they do not work on Mondays. Or at least not on the day you call them to discuss this topic.
- Large organizations know what E-Invoicing is. And most of them already work with it or are more than prepared to switch to E-Invoicing. But most organizations have no clue on what E-Ordering / E-Invoicing is, and what this would mean for them. They still send paper invoices, or they send you PDF via email. This is already very digital for them and they do not have to change anything, because this works for them. If you ask them to send E-Invoices, they will respond that they have E-invoices because they are PDF. They do not understand what it is. For many suppliers, this topic is unknown and is not on the top of their priorities list.
- They only see the € They will ask you why they do not want to pay for something you want them to do. They do not see the benefits of this system, nor do they realize that this is the future and that this is the standard in a few years. In a few years, many other clients will ask them to switch to E-Invoicing, and if they choose their system wisely, they can use this for other clients as well. But for now, they just do not want to invest.
- People do not read. They do not read the information you send them. When they finally agree to switch to E-Invoicing, they come back to you. But you did. Several times.
- When they agree on switching to E-Invoicing, and the E-procurement system sends them the contract, or they can not be taken anymore. It is like they are disappeared from the earth (see point one).
- When the purchaser and the seller have agreed on implementing the IT department is difficult. The technical implementation of the system is delayed because the IT department does not have E-Invoicing on high on their priorities list.
- Finally, this is something that has nothing to do with the suppliers, but with the purchasers. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the purchaser is supposed to contact the supplier for E-Invoicing. As a project leader, you are coordinating this whole process, meaning that you want to know the status of each supplier. But in many cases, the purchaser does not know what he is asked for, he also ignores you when you ask him questions. Getting suppliers to switch to E-Invoicing is not on their priorities list.
There is no magical answer on how to solve the above problems. However, there are a few things you can do, and to prevent the onboarding process from getting stuck in the middle, without any progress.
- Make it very clear what you expect from certain people. You need the help of the purchasers, so they need to know how important it is that they cooperate. It is therefore necessary that their managers can help you out once they have been asked.
- Put a clean escalation structure in place. What do you do when a supplier does not want to switch? Who do you go to when a purchaser does not cooperate? You need to know what kind of purchaser or supplier.
- Organize supplier summits where you invite your targeted suppliers and explain them what E-Ordering / E-Invoicing is, and what you expect from them. Invite your E-Procurement system to give a demonstration on how it works. Explain why it is that you are doing this and what the benefits are. This makes it easier to communicate with your suppliers, because they know what it is you are talking about. They also feel that you can organize such an event.
- Make sure that you and your colleagues stay motivated. Implementing an E-Procurement system can be a tough process. What I did at the organization where I was working, was making a big block calendar that had been said that many days were left before the E-Procurement system was going live. Every day, someone who was involved in this process was supposed to take a selfie and place on the intranet. Then he / she could nominate the next person.
A final word
E-procurement, and especially E-Ordering and E-Invoicing is the future. In a few years this will be the new standard. Onboarding suppliers is a long and difficult process, and this makes it tough. It takes some time before you see the results of your hard labor, but slowly, suppliers will come onboard. It just takes time.
This article first appeared in online magazine consultancy.uk