The venerable Tom Nichols once observed, AP believes that their clients don’t understand what it is they do. I tell AP people that it’s your fault because you’re not doing a good job at public relations. You’re not involving the customer in the process.”
Nichols understood AP customer service, and also the importance for AP to promote its value, to “tell its story,” communicating confidently to and working with its customers. As part of that, Nichols was a proponent of AP customer surveys.
Virtually everyone AP deals with is a customer, both internally and externally. An important but overlooked part of customer service is to understand how your customers view AP. Here Nichols urged AP to be in touch with its customers, surveying them regularly.
To what extent has AP embraced the call? A survey by InvoiceInfo provides the insight into what AP departments are doing in the realm of customer service and vendor relations. Among many findings in the report are data on surveying customers and on tracking metrics on customer service activities.
Tom, enjoying a well-earned retirement in Florida, would be disappointed in the results. On the question of surveying customers — Nichols recommended a short survey, maybe five questions, like the example found on the APP2P Network — just 13 percent of AP departments do. This is unchanged from what The Accounts Payable Network found five years ago.
Why? Possibly, as AP expert Pam Miller suggests, AP just “doesn’t want to know!”
Nichols and Miller both warn, however, of the danger of assuming you know what others think. In fact it’s hard to understand on the inside of any operation how those on the outside perceive you. Take procedures for example — a perfectly logical procedure from your perspective may be seen as unnecessarily difficult or simply incomprehensible by outsiders who do not have the full picture that you have. Learning how they view things can help you to communicate better.
Another reason to survey your customers is that your assumptions may be off the mark. There is another important benefit to asking: their surprise and satisfaction in learning you want their feedback.
Sure, comments may be critical, but they provide you valuable intelligence, while your solicitation of them demonstrates your interest in serving customers and making things better. A survey alone is not all you need. It can be a part of a broader open-door policy and attitude toward working with customers for improvement in service.
What about customer service metrics? According to the InvoiceInfo survey, just 12 percent of organizations track metrics on their customer service inquiries. Of that 12 percent, all track number of invoices generating inquiries, 83 percent track length of time of phone or email responses, and that same percent track cost of AP staff handling inquiries.
The percentage of organizations tracking their customer service metrics is low — slightly more than one out of ten. Yet there are great benefits to doing so. (See the InvoiceInfo white paper Relationships Count — The Importance of Accounts Payable Customer Service.)
In a real sense, tracking customer service metrics, including the reasons for the inquiries, is like surveying customers but better insofar as you are able to see the specific causes and issues that such inquiries reveal. Tracking them, even in a simple spreadsheet, is very valuable in identifying, attacking and resolving problems.
There is good news in the Customer Service Survey as well. For one example, more AP departments now have a policy or service level agreement setting goals for AP staff research and turn-around time in response to customer service inquiries. The survey finds that 54 percent of AP departments have a policy regarding inquiry turnaround time. This is a positive reversal of the numbers from InvoiceInfo’s prior survey a year ago, when 54 percent did not have such a policy. Of those a majority, 53 percent, require a response within one day or less.
For more results, see InvoiceInfo’s 3rd Annual Accounts Payable Customer Service Survey.
Long-time P2P consultant, winner of Lifetime Achievement award from The Accounts Payable Network and namesake of IOFM’s Excellence in AP Award, former head of AT&T payroll and payables, and a leader in moving accounts payable forward into the 21st century.