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What is accounts receivable?

Accounts receivable refers to the money a company is owed by its customers for goods and services that have been delivered, but not yet paid for. 

The accounts receivable process involves invoicing customers for goods and services that have been delivered, pursuing payment and then processing and recording payment.

The Buyer, or Accounts Payable (AP) owes money to the Supplier or Accounts Receivable (AR)

Example of Accounts Receivable

An example of accounts receivable is a furniture manufacturer that has made a delivery of furniture to a retail store. Once the manufacturer bills the store for the furniture, the payment owed is recorded under accounts receivable. The furniture manufacturer awaits payment from the store.

What is the difference between accounts receivable and accounts payable?

Accounts receivable refers to money owed to a business by its customers, while accounts payable refers to money a business owes to its suppliers. 

When Business A delivers a good or service to Business B, Business A records that account as “receivable” because they have the right to receive funds from Business B. 

Business B would record the same account as “payable” because they have an obligation to pay Business A. 

Accounts receivable are viewed as assets because they come with expected future revenue.  Accounts payable are viewed as liabilities, because they represent debts owed to other businesses.

Because it is a common practice in business to deliver goods and services before receiving payment, businesses must work diligently to manage their cash flow or else risk running out the necessary funds to keep their business functioning.

Goals of Accounts Receivable

Accounts receivable is the money that a business is owed by its customers. The goal of accounts receivable managers is to collect this money as quickly as possible while minimizing the costs of processing the transactions and maintaining good relations with their customers. Large accounts receivable balances that are slow to collect can be a major challenge to a company’s cash flow and viability.

Benefits of Maintaining Accounts Receivable

The main benefits of maintaining your accounts receivable are:

  • Improved cash flow
  • Insight into your cash position
  • Faster replenishment of customer credit which enables more sales
  • Reduced processing costs
  • Shorter order to cash cycle
  • Better customer relations

Accounts receivable automation can help companies manage their accounts receivable quickly and accurately. Because accounts receivable requires the careful recording and comparison of many points of data and must be handled quickly to keep cash flowing, automation is especially well-suited to the task. 

Accounts receivable financing can be a useful tool in the management of accounts receivable because it allows companies to borrow money against their accounts receivable balances that they can use to improve their cash flow and maintain operations.

Accounts Receivable Process

The accounts receivable process involves: 

Credit – Invoicing – Payment – Cash Application – Collections

Credit, Order, Invoicing, Payments and Cash Application, Collections form part of the Order to Cash Cycle.

Credit

The first step of the order-to-cash cycle is credit. It is the job of a credit professional to decide how much credit a customer will be granted.

In order to determine how much credit to grant a customer, a credit professional will pull credit reports on the customer from the credit bureaus, consult the customer’s bank and ask other businesses about their experiences with the customer (these are referred to as trade reports).

Invoicing

Once a good or service is delivered, accounts receivable professionals must now invoice the customer for the amount owed. This can be done in a variety of ways, either via a paper bill sent through the mail, or increasingly, through ePresentment or electronic billing. Electronic invoices include older formats such as faxes and phone (interactive voice response) and newer, more efficient formats like emailed bills and bills presented via portals.

Quickly and accurately generating invoices and delivering them to customers is important and time-sensitive work. The faster an invoice is presented to a customer, the faster they should pay and realize cash for the business.

Payment Acceptance

Customers will try to pay their suppliers in the ways that are most convenient and beneficial to them. This may include paper checks, ACH payments, wire-transfers or virtual credit cards.

The supplier must decide which form of payments they are willing to accept and set up processes to maximize the efficiency of receiving payments through their chosen channels.

There are costs and efforts associated with receiving each type of payment and businesses must balance honoring their customers’ payment preferences with their own interests.

Cash Application

Once payments have been received via the various payment channels, cash must be “applied” to accounts. In practice, this means recognizing that a certain amount of cash has been received and marking an invoice as PAID.

This is more complex than it seems. Companies typically receive hundreds or thousands of payments each month. Cash Application specialists must then “match” cash received with invoices. 

The faster that received cash is applied, the faster a business can reliably use it for operations and the faster a customer’s credit can be replenished, enabling them to order more goods. 

Collections

When payment is not received and applied by the agreed upon date, an account becomes delinquent and is transferred to collections.

It is the job of collectors to contact customers and try to get them to pay.  A collector has the complicated job of connecting with customers, understanding their reasons for delinquency and trying to work with them in order to realize payment for the company.

Risks of Accounts Receivable

The risks associated with having a high accounts receivable balance include insufficient cash flow, risk of default from customers and a slowed sales cycle due to exhausted customer credit. 

Businesses can work to ensure that their accounts receivable are healthy by employing best practices and automated solutions that give them insight in the state of their accounts and enable them to manage them quickly and accurately.

What is Accounts Receivable Automation?

Accounts receivable automation refers to technology solutions that automate many of the repetitive and manual tasks that constitute AR management. 

Automation can also give AR professionals greater insight into their accounts, instantly generating reports, displaying statuses, providing a centralized repository for customer invoices and pointing out issues that must be addressed. 

The larger a business grows, the more complex the work of managing accounts receivable becomes. As we can see from the above example, accounts receivable management is a time-sensitive practice. As such, a business must have the capacity to manage all of its accounts receivable in a timely-fashion or else risk cash flow problems.

Traditionally, accounts receivable management capacity has been increased by growing an organization so that more professionals can be assigned to accounts receivable (AR) tasks. This comes with overhead costs that can counterbalance the benefits of growth. Additionally, the growing complexity of a company’s accounts receivable can lead to more errors, bad experiences for customers and inefficient workflows regardless of the size of the AR management workforce.

AR automation can use machine learning to automate even complex tasks. The use of predictive algorithms can generate suggestions about what tasks AR professionals should take on next in order to work most efficiently and even how they should approach issues in their work.

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