HMRC, Spotify and the gentle art of persuading retail branches to process invoices on time

The utopia of retail Accounts Payable automation is of course to process, match and pay every valid invoice with no human intervention. Inevitably though, some invoices will fall short and one of the biggest problems is getting branches to resolve invoice queries promptly – but maybe there are lessons we can learn here from HM Government and from Spotify (two sources that I’m not suggesting are in any way related!)…

These unusual bedfellows have at least one thing in common – they both rely on an important symbiotic relationship. For HMRC, the ability to provide public services depends on the relationship with the tax payers who provide the funds to make them possible. Despite the benefits that these services bring, tax payers often have a very different perspective when it comes to paying up!

There is an equally important relationship in the world of Accounts Payable invoice processing – between the AP team and the wider business and in retail that mostly means the branches. Both groups need payment of valid invoices to happen efficiently so that stock keeps rolling onto the shelves. Whereas, this is the central purpose for Accounts Payable teams, branches on the other hand, can find handling invoice queries an irritating distraction from their central role – to hit targets, increase sales psf and to motivate and retain staff to serve customers.

So how can we encourage branches to make invoice processing a priority?

Success starts with getting buy-in and making the work as simple as possible* but persuasion is often still required. One answer may be to use a big stick to beat defaulting branches into compliance* but there are more subtle ways of achieving collaboration with gain instead of pain and without over-using regional or senior management as ‘bad cop’.

A better way might be to remember that one bad apple does not spoil the whole barrel – some, and hopefully many, branches will collaborate well with the AP team – and that brings us to HMRC…
Like me you may have noticed a change in tactics that government, councils and the like are using to persuade us to take a particular course of action. Instead of just threats and fines, we now see illuminated road signs with smiley faces thanking us for keeping to the speed limit and pension campaigns using phrases such as ‘We’re all in’ to emphasise a social norm.

HMRC have adopted similar tactics to persuade us to file tax returns electronically with the strap line ‘Most people file online’ and even more importantly, to pay on time. HMRC self-assessment tax reminder letters now contain an additional line reminding us that ‘Nine out of ten people in the UK pay their tax on time. You are currently in the very small minority of people who have not paid us yet’.

Meanwhile on-line we see Spotify listing the songs our friends like, Amazon reminding us what other people bought and off-line we’ll often hear a shop assistant telling us that an item is ‘very popular’.
All of these are examples of behaviour theory in action and studies repeatedly show that this type of positive reinforcement can be more effective than threats and punishments. Research shows that people who recognised the ‘We’re all in’ pension adverts were 13% more likely to stay enrolled in the new pension arrangements. Adding the ‘Nine out of ten’ line to tax reminder letters increased the amount paid after 23 days by 5%. That may seem pretty small beer until you consider that the annual self-assessment tax revenue is £28bn making earlier payment of even 5% a very considerable cashflow advantage.

HM Government have even published a guide on the subject ‘The Government Communication Service (GCS) guide to communications and behaviour change’. https://gcs.civilservice.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/GCSBehaviourChangeGuideJune14Web.pdf

So how do we apply Behaviour Theory to persuade branches to process invoices? Here are some examples that you can incorporate into your messaging to branches as part of your AP process:

  • Establish a ‘social norm’ – In the words of the GCS ‘we’re all social animals and heavily influenced by what those around us do’ so it’s a good idea to use messaging which informs users how quickly other branches process invoices – human nature dictates that most users will want to follow suit.
  • Encourage commitment – Commitment to others increases the likelihood that users will comply with your request for action, so remind users that failing to pay suppliers on time affects other branches as well as themselves.
  • Acknowledge success – Remember to thank branches individually and publicly for processing invoices on time – and remind them why that was helpful.
  • Attract attention – Incorporate colour and images into messaging e.g. to indicate warnings or positive reinforcement of ‘good’ behaviour.
  • Make it personal and relevant – It sounds obvious but in the midst of other work people forget how important paying suppliers is so remind them, in your messaging, that unpaid suppliers = badly stocked shelves = less sales (and maybe therefore = less bonuses)!

These are just some examples of tailored messages which can be incorporated into:

  • Messages informing branches that invoices require their attention
  • Chasing messages for overdue invoices
  • Monthly or quarterly performance reporting shared with branches and senior management
  • Summary KPI reporting for appraisals
  • League tables

None of this is practical if this clever messaging has to be manually delivered as an extra task by the AP team but with the right Accounts Payable automation solution in place the use of Behaviour Theory to encourage branches to process invoices can become an integral component in the success of your AP transformation.

*separate blogs in this series are being published on these topics.

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