Historically, accounts receivable (AR) has been the victim of a lack of investment from a technological perspective. Primarily, this lack of investment in AR is the result of something simple: a misunderstanding.

AR is largely regarded as a necessary but transactional back-office function and not something that creates ‘value-add’ for the business. Unlike the core accounting of bookkeeping, AR’s reputation is that of a kind of conveyor belt. Necessary, but low impact in the grand scheme of things. As a result, AR is the victim of fundamental misunderstandings regarding how it can be optimized—and the business impact that the right optimization can have.

When finance professionals think about how to streamline or optimize AR, typically it has been viewed as something that may be better offshored or that the ERP already handles. This is due to it being largely manual, time consuming, and often transactional. But this simply moves the problem elsewhere, rather than solving the underlying issue.

Investing in technology that automates the accounts receivable function grants you complete visibility over the flow of cash into your business, in real time. The data, intelligence, and real-time oversight of working capital that optimized AR offers to businesses are invaluable, for several key reasons.

Unlocking Working Capital

Applying customer payments to customer accounts quickly and accurately is the cornerstone of successful AR. However, manual processes lead to significant delays in unlocking crucial cash flow.

Money owed by customers is one of the largest assets on any balance sheet. A recent report by PwC estimated that the amount of working capital held hostage in this way is an enormous €1.2 trillion globally. According to PwC, releasing this cash would be enough for global companies to boost their capital investment by 55%, without the need to look externally for funding or put their cash flow under unnecessary pressure. With interest rates as they are right now, never mind what might be on the horizon, looking internally to find opportunities to streamline cash flow and payment processes is a no brainer.

Let me give you an example: on average, organizations are paid on day 50-55. For a business with $500m revenue, each day is worth $2m. By automating and optimizing payment processes, businesses can potentially release a significant amount of cash into the bottom line that can then be put to work in the business.

Releasing cash from receivables is the quickest and cheapest way to more working capital, yet organizations continue to rely on manual processes which don’t provide proper visibility and tie up cash for far longer than necessary. Investing in AR frees up more working capital, which means stronger business resilience and enables more effective decision making. Put simply, it puts much more power in your hands and leaves much less up to guesswork.

Maintaining Lasting Customer Relationships

Credit controllers used to be a lot more persistent. This was clear in the terminology they used. They looked at customers as ‘debtors.’ This sounds more akin to something you’d read in a Dickens novel than the way a business refers to its trusted partners.

The way you treat your customers not only reflects your efficiency internally, but crucially shapes perceptions, both for potential new customers and those who might be on the fence about jumping ship. Chasing a customer for a payment that was made days before, simply because you’re reliant on manual processes that don’t give you proper visibility, could reflect poorly on your organization. Aside from the wasted time and effort, receiving an erroneous demand for payment on a bad day could be the difference between a continued relationship and a swift parting of ways.

Customers provide the value for our organizations. It’s our customers that are going to support us through the tough times. A mindset shift is required here at all levels of business, including the C-suite. Customers should be treated with the same respect when they owe money as when they don’t. Investing in AR creates the visibility over customer payment behaviors that is essential to this.

The right solution can unlock decision intelligence by removing time-consuming and error-prone processes involved in preparing, transforming, and visualizing data, so your teams can make more informed decisions around credit risk policies, collection strategies, or credit limit increases to create greater value for the business. It can help you gain visibility into customer behavior changes. This could unlock opportunities for you to work with customers to solve payment challenges before they become a major problem, or increase their line of credit and in turn, your revenue. This can improve profitability by reducing the financial risks posed by write-offs and late payments.

Creating greater visibility over real-time payments allows you to leave the war of attrition over unpaid invoices behind. This leads to a more customer-centric approach to credit, collections, and complaints that can help you to maintain good customer relationships.

Retaining Talent for a Competitive Advantage

In an increasingly competitive business environment, the ability to attract and retain top talent is crucial to business success. A recent survey commissioned by BlackLine suggests that one of the first steps finance and accounting needs to take to retain their best workers is to eliminate transactional, mundane work. More than a quarter (28%) of F&A professionals surveyed said there weren’t opportunities to learn new skills because transactional work takes up so much time, while a similar number (26%) claimed that they had become bored of the mundane, repetitive nature of their jobs. What’s more, a quarter (26%) also claimed not to have time to focus on future career development.

It’s clear that your talent wants to spend their time adding value, regardless of function. Completing a long list of manual tasks, which could be automated, is not adding value. If 80% of your time is spent on routine tasks that can be automated, that’s 80% of your value gone before any major or strategic tasks arise. This wasted energy wastes your employees, which passes on up the chain.

Automation frees up F&A team members to focus on strategic, more career-focused goals, ensuring their motivation and energy is spent bringing value to your business (and not someone else’s).

Don’t Let Manual Processes Decide Your Fate

Many organizations have now automated processes such as accounts payable, but the prevalence of manual processes in accounts receivable continues to pose serious health issues for businesses. The problem is that automating some processes and not others could ultimately cost you more than you bargained for. If the budget only stretches so far, it’s essential to upgrade the process that will have the biggest impact. Let me explain by way of an analogy.

Imagine you need to dig a hole somewhere in your back garden. You could do it with a shovel, but it needs to be a very large hole, so doing it that way would take a huge amount of time and exhausting effort. So, you hire a contractor with the right equipment. This gets the job done much faster and with much less effort. The problem is, you didn’t know where exactly to dig the hole to begin with and you’ve dug it in the wrong place. Now, not only do you still need to dig the hole, but you need to repair the large area of back garden that is now a building site.

Automating some F&A processes but leaving AR up to manual processes creates a similarly traumatic scenario. Choosing to invest in accounts receivable opens up a treasure trove of intelligence and profitability that could make the difference between success or failure. When it comes to accounts receivable, investment is no longer a nice-to-have, it is now a must-have for survival.

Get your copy of this exclusive report: The State of Accounts Receivable: Trends, Headwinds & Opportunities. Download the report to:

  • Understand common AR pain points organizations are experiencing
  • Learn if and how companies are investing in AR success in 2022
  • Discover opportunities AR teams have in 2022 to impact the bottom line now and in the future
2023 Predictions for Finance and AccountingWebinar Wednesday, December 7

We may not be flying to work in 2023 but there won’t be a shortage of innovation that enables Finance and Accounting teams to modernize their accounting operations. As organizations plan for continued supply chain disruptions, talent scarcity, and market uncertainty, accounting leaders are finding ways to innovate, automate, and scale processes to meet organizational demands. Hear from BlackLine’s industry specialists on the top leadership priorities and transformation trends of 2023, including Hyper-Automation, Talent Upskilling, and Decision Intelligence. 

CPE Credit: participants can earn up to 1 CPE/CPD credit in the Business Management & Organization field of study.