Accounts receivable (AR) refers to the outstanding invoices a company has or the money it is owed from its clients.
In your personal life, an example of Accounts Receivable would be buying a ticket to a concert or sporting event for a friend with the understanding that they will pay you back later. It’s essentially an “IOU”. In business, AR represents a line of credit extended by a company, due within a relatively short timeframe, which could range from a few days to a year.
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Importance of Accounts Receivable Management
Accounts receivable is a cornerstone of financial stability and growth in the B2B sector. Efficient management of accounts receivable not only helps businesses maintain a healthy cash flow but also supports customer relationships, risk mitigation, and strategic decision-making essential for long-term success.
If a company has Receivables, then they’ve made a sale, but have not yet collected the money from the purchaser. Most companies operate by allowing a portion of their sales to be on credit, offering their clients the ability to pay after receiving the service. For example, utility companies typically bill their customers after they have received electricity. While the utility or energy company waits for its customers to pay their bills, the unpaid invoices are considered Accounts Receivable.
Most businesses operate by enabling their clients to buy goods in credit. The cost of sales on credit is what is referred to as Accounts Receivable. Generally, Accounts Receivable (AR), are the amount of money owed to the company by buyers for goods and services rendered. The Receivables should not be confused with Accounts Payable (AP).
While AP is the debt a company owes to its suppliers or vendors, accounts receivable is the debt of the buyers to the company. Accounts Receivables are important assets to a firm, while Accounts Payable are liabilities that must be paid in the future by the company. Basically, firms choose to offer receivables to encourage customers to choose their products over the competitor’s products.
What is the Accounts Receivable Process?
It is advisable for a company to setup a process for accounts receivable to determine the customers that have already paid and identify any payments that are overdue. The process is a simple turn of events that make the receivables traceable and manageable.
However, using economies of scale, the process may differ for large and small firms. Large firms have a larger cash inflow, so they typically invest in highly skilled credit management teams and IT systems to help improve and manage the process efficiently.
Step 1: Establishing Credit Practices
The first step is for the company to develop a credit application process. The company will then decide, based on the credit-worthiness of the applicant, as to whether they will offer goods on credit. The company might choose to offer the credit to individual customers or other businesses.
Also, the company will establish terms and conditions for credit sales. The document outlines the client’s obligations and requirements. The firm must ensure that it complies with Federal laws on credit, such as full disclosure of the credit practices. For example, the company has to clearly communicate the interest rates for the credit.
The terms and conditions differ for large and small firms. Large companies may opt to give a customer longer periods of time. On the flip side, small firms cannot afford to offer goods on credit for longer periods due to their less cash flow and low capital.
How soon the money is collected on this debt from the client will be a contributing factor in ascertaining the company’s capital needed to run the business and the cash flow.
Step 2: Invoicing Customers
An invoice is a document provided to the buyer detailing the products and services that have been rendered, the costs of those products and services, as well as the date payment is expected.
Each invoice has to have a unique invoice number for easy retrieval. The customer is then given the chance to choose whether they want to receive electronic or physical invoices. Large firms prefer to send both the electronic and paper invoices.
Unlike paper invoices, electronic invoices are less expensive and convenient. As such, small firms mostly opt to use the mails to deliver the invoices.
The longer a company takes to send an invoice, the longer it takes for the customer to make payments. The invoice must be sent promptly.
Step 3: Tracking Accounts Receivable
This step is performed by an Accounts Receivables (AR) Officer. The Officer keys out a payment deposited into the bank account of the supplier, feeds it into the AR system, and then allocates it to an invoice.
The officer also reconciles the AR ledger to be certain that all the payments are accounted for and properly posted, and then issues monthly statements to clients. The statement provides details for the customers about the amounts owed as per previously sent invoices.
The tracking process differs in large and small companies. Smaller companies may not have an advanced system in place to track payments, and may use manual AR tracking by using tools, such as Excel. In a manual process, companies use spreadsheets to record when they send the invoices, and when they receive payments. Small companies also may not have enough staff to appoint an AR Officer, in which the company may hire a professional accountant to fulfill this function.
Larger companies typically invest in a team of AR officers to conduct the tracking process, and they use some form of an accounts tracking software system to help ensure accuracy. The system helps the AR officer to be more effective, because it automatically alerts the AR Officer to which debt is outstanding.
Step 4: Accounting for Accounts Receivable
The Collections Officer establishes the due date for payments. After identification of unpaid debts, the account department makes journal entries to record the sales. The process involves both accounting for bad debt, or the unpaid debts, as well as identifying early payment discounts.
A “Day in the Life” of an AR Professional
AR Officers are the most important personnel involved in developing and implementing the Accounts Receivable process. Their day-to-day activities typically include overseeing money owed to the business by its clients.
A typical day for an AR officer would involve activities such as verification of credits data, classifying the debts, and making journal entries for the transactions. The AR Officer also oversees a team of clerks, analysts, and accountants in addition to debt collectors.
Each day the Officer ensures that the team is working in collaboration to ensure success of the established AR process.
For instance, a customer may request to purchase goods on credit. The AR Manager would require the credit analysts to identify credit-worthiness of the customer.
The manager would ensure that once the customer was identified as credit-worthy that the invoices would be prepared by the AR Clerks and issued in time.
Next, the accountants would determine the total credit sales for the day. The information is then passed to the debt collectors including the due date for money collection.
The Effect Automation Has On The Accounts Receivable Process
The purchasing department places the order and transmits a copy of the purchase order (PO) to the AP department. The organization receives the goods or services—either through the Receiving department or the employee who ordered them—and the vendor sends the invoice to AP. You can learn more about the entire procure to pay process here.
An AP clerk manually keys the invoice data into an accounting system before physically storing the paper document in a filing cabinet. New supplier information is entered using the organization’s naming conventions to avoid duplication. Both new and existing supplier information is checked for accuracy against internal sources, such as the master vendor file, and external sources, such as the IRS TIN matching service and the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Control (OFAC) list of organizations that are banned from business in the United States. You can learn more about electronic invoicing here.
An AP clerk conducts a three-way match. A three-way match compares the PO, the receipt and the invoice to identify any inaccuracies or mismatched data. An AP manager prepares and approves paperwork for any exceptions for short delivery, damaged items, wrong items shipped, or other issues.
The AP team prepares the payment, either by writing a check or setting up a transaction via Automated Clearing House (ACH) or electronic funds transfer (EFT). An AP manager, controller or CFO (depending on the company’s approval process) approves the payment, authorizing the department to take an early payment discount for a supplier if the payment is being made within the date range specified in the terms. The payment is sent via U.S. mail, wire transfer, ACH/EFT, shipping company or courier.
The supplier calls the AP department to ask where the payment stands. An AP clerk researches the question, and determines whether the invoice is still in the approval process, or the payment is in the mail.
The information technology (IT) department monitors the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system and any hardware and software the AP department is using. The IT team approves and installs new versions of software as needed. The CTO’s team considers any proposals from AP for new technology and determines how to integrate it with the company’s legacy systems.
Reporting and Analyzing:
The AP department prepares and studies spreadsheets they’ve built in Excel, or a similar tool, analyzing all transactions, monitoring the department’s performance and metrics, including days payable outstanding (DPO). The CFO oversees the organization’s cash flow through conversations with the AP Director. The CEO receives written and verbal reports from the CFO on the performance of the organization.
The Continuous Evolution of Accounts Receivable Processes
Just like in accounts payable, manual processes in the accounts receivable departments create major inefficiencies and excessive overhead, wreaking havoc on a company’s cashflow.
Outdated, paper-based processes increase bad debt write-offs and keep companies from accessing the cash they need to support growth goals. The average company will write off 4% of accounts receivable as bad debt. For a $10 million company, that is $400,000 every year they’re losing.
By implementing an automation solution, companies can see a 10-20% reduction in bad debt, putting savings back into their business.