Insights and lessons learned from an E-Procurement implementation

13 September 2016

Over the past year Carmen van Kruisbergen, a consultant at supply chain consultancy Supply Value, has supported a large client in the public sector with the design and roll-out of a E-Procurement solution. Van Kruisbergen reflects on the project’s ins and outs, the challenges she faced, the value added E-procurement can bring to internal operations, and presents a list of tips which she believes may be valuable for similar transitions. 

It was Thursday the 10th of September 2015. The first day at my very first assignment for a large semi-governmental organisation. Although this was my first day, the project for which I was hired started over a year ago.  The organisation was right in the middle of a large E-Procurement implementation process, containing several different elements (E-Ordering, E-Invoicing, Catalogue Buying, Master Data Management, Declaration process and so on). In short, the whole P2P process was automated by means of E-Procurement systems. 

As you can imagine, this is a massive job. In one way or another, many people were involved in and/or concerned with the implementation of E-Procurement. In this chapter, I would like to tell about my experiences when implementing E-Procurement, and especially about involving the suppliers in the implementation process. Not just how it should go, but how it actually goes in real life.

Advantages of E-Ordering

E-Ordering and E-Invoicing
E-procurement systems cover several elements. I focused on the elements E-Ordering and E-Invoicing. 

E-Ordering: E-ordering was developed to optimise existing communication flows relating to orders. Where E-Invoicing is very interesting for the customer who receives many invoices, E-Ordering is interesting and useful for the supplier who receives many orders. Usually, a customer places an order by means of a phone call or PDF. The supplier then needs to transfer the data of the order into their own system. When you receive many orders, this can be a time-consuming job. E-Ordering is actually ordering goods and services through Internet technology. By means of E-Ordering, workers within the organisation can electronically request, view, order and receive products and services via a catalogue ordering system. Once an employee has done its order request, this (possibly automatically through approval procedures) is approved and converted into electronic orders to suppliers.

E-Invoicing:  This is a form of electronic billing. E-invoicing includes a number of different technologies and entry options and is used as an umbrella term to describe any method by which an invoice is electronically presented to a customer for payment. An e-invoice can be defined as structured invoice data issued in EDI or XML formats, possibly using Internet-based web forms. These documents can be exchanged in a number of ways including EDI, XML or CSV files. Enabling E-Invoicing typically involves members of accounts payable, IT and procurement. E-Invoicing finds itself right on the border of both procurement and finance. But what are the advantages of E-Invoicing?Advantages of receiving E-Invoices

My tasks
So what part did I play in this masterpiece called E-Procurement implementation? I was project leader E-Ordering and E-Invoicing and my main responsibility was coordinating the supplier onboarding / enablement process, meaning that I would help the purchasers making sure that our suppliers saw the benefits this could bring for their organisation and persuade them to switch to E-Ordering / E-Invoicing. After all, you could have a beautiful system that works perfect technically, if you do not have any suppliers that want to receive E-orders from and send E-Invoices to you, it is still worthless.  

Once the supplier explicitly states that he is ‘on board’ and wants to switch to E-Ordering/E-Invoicing, I turn the responsibility for this supplier over to the next person in line who will technically implement the system.Advantages of sending E-Invoicing
How to onboard suppliers?
Ok, so you have a working E-Procurement system, it would then be nice if suppliers want to send you E-Invoices so that you can actually reap the benefits of this system as written in the business case you worked so hard on to make. How to achieve this?

  • Determine your position in the market with respect to your suppliers. Are you a large player in the market? Are you an important client for your suppliers? If the answer is yes, this will be very helpful in the supplier onboarding process because it will provide you with the necessary means to persuade your suppliers to switch to E-Invoicing. If the answer is no, you are definitely in need of a skilled consultant to help you out. Luckily for you, I happen to know one.
  • Decide which suppliers you want to target and definitely want to switch to E-Invoicing. The rule of thumb is that these are the suppliers who provide the largest volume of invoices. Analyse the invoice statements of the previous two years to determine which suppliers should be targeted. At the organisation where I worked, we applied the boundary of 100 invoices a year, meaning that all suppliers who send more than 100 invoices per year should switch to E-Invoicing, one way or another. This boundary is arbitrary and subjective: if a supplier sends 99 invoices this does not mean he is ‘of the hook’, and if a supplier sends 101 this does not mean he has to switch. Always look at what kind of supplier it is, and what the expectations are for the future, especially for suppliers around that baseline number of (in this case) 100.
  • The reason why it would be best to do a pre-selection instead of reaching out to all suppliers, has to do with scope and money. Some organisations have over a thousand suppliers. When starting this project, try to focus first on the suppliers that can make an impact. Suppliers who send ten invoices a year do not contribute to your goals of reaching efficiency gains. Furthermore, switching to E-Ordering and/or E-Invoicing requires an investment from your suppliers. The size of this investment depends on the option the supplier chooses. But still, the business case for suppliers is not likely to be made if a supplier sends only a few invoices. The investments costs compared to the benefits are probably not big enough to justify the investment.
  • Determine which purchaser is responsible for each selected supplier. The purchaser can tell you whether or not the supplier is a suitable candidate for E-Invoicing. It could for example be that the contract will be terminated, or that the supplier will send significantly less invoices in the next few years. Furthermore, when approaching the supplier, it would be best to do this through someone who knows the supplier. The purchaser has a relationship with the supplier and can ask them to switch to E-Invoicing, or at least find out who the right person in the organisation is to discuss this topic with.
  • Finally, you want to make it as easy as possible for your purchasers and suppliers. So be sure that you provide them with the right information. Organise a meeting for your suppliers to explain them what it is and what they need to do. This is also new for them, and not part of their core tasks of purchasing. Help your purchasers by providing them with email templates, brochures and flyers that they can send to their suppliers. This information material explains why you are doing this, what it is, what the options are, what the costs are, but especially what the benefits for the supplier are. After all, you are asking them to make an investment, so you need to make very clear “what’s in it for them” and why you think the investment is justified.Old process, paper/email

How it really goes
So, you made the plan, and it’s a good plan. You made the list of suppliers you want to target, you informed the purchasers on what you expect from them and you made the information materials so you are now ready to onboard the suppliers. I am just going to tell you right now: it is not that easy. Do not think it will go something like this:

Organisation X:  “Dear Supplier, we from organisation X are switching to E-Ordering/E-Invoicing. We kindly ask you to switch and send us E-Invoices instead of paper or PDF. Here you have some information material with the different options and costs. So which option would you like?”

Supplier X: “Well of course, what a good idea, I would like option X and I will immediately set this process in motion so that we can quickly implement E-Invoicing”.

No, it will not happen like this. A few examples of what you can expect during the onboarding process:

  • People do not respond. Ever. You send them reminders over and over, but still they do not respond, or very slowly. They just ignore you and think that if they do that, the problem, which is you and your request for E-Invoicing, will go away by itself (of course, this will not work because you just don’t give up).
  • Some people are just always on vacation. Or they just left the office. Or they do not work on Mondays. Or at least not on the day you call them to discuss this topic.
  • Large organisations know what E-Invoicing is. And most of them already work with it or are more than prepared to switch to E-Invoicing. But most organisations have no clue on what E-Ordering/E-Invoicing is, and what this would mean for them. They still send paper invoices, or they send you PDF via email. This is already very digital for them and they do not feel the need to change anything, because this works for them. If you ask them to send E-Invoices, they will respond that they already send E-invoices because they do PDF. They don’t understand what it is. So for many suppliers, this topic is unknown and is not on the top of their priorities list.
  • They only see the € sign. They will ask you why they need to pay for something you want them to do. They do not see the benefits of this system, nor do they realise that this is the future and that this will be the standard in a few years. In a few years, many other clients will ask them to switch to E-Invoicing, and if they choose their system wisely, they can use this for other clients as well. But for now, they just do not want to invest.
  • People do not read. They do not read the information you send them. When they finally agree on switching to E-Invoicing, they come back to you once they figure out this asks an investment from them, to blame you for not telling them that. But you did. Several times.
  • When they do agree on switching to E-Invoicing, and the E-procurement system sends them the contract, they either lose it in the mail, or they cannot be reached anymore. It is like they disappeared from the earth (see point one).

New process, electronic invoice

  • When the purchaser and the seller have agreed on implementing E-Invoicing, the translation of this agreement to the suppliers IT-department is difficult. The technical implementation of the system is delayed because the IT-department doesn’t have E-Invoicing on high on their priorities list.
  • Finally, this is something that has nothing to do with the suppliers, but with the purchasers. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the purchaser is supposed to contact the supplier and to get him to switch to E-Invoicing. As a project leader, you are coordinating this whole process, meaning that you want to know the status of each supplier. But in many cases, the purchaser does not do what he is asked, he also ignores you when you ask him questions. Getting suppliers to switch to E-Invoicing is not on their priorities list. 

There is no magical answer on how to solve the above problems. However, there are a few things you can do to make it easier for yourself, and to prevent the onboarding process from getting stuck in the middle, without any progress.

  • Make it very clear what you expect from certain people that they need to do. You need the help of the purchasers, so they need to know how important it is that they cooperate. It is therefore necessary that their managers can help you out once they do not do what is asked from them with respect to supplier onboarding.
  • Put a proper escalation structure in place. What do you do when a supplier does not want to switch? Who do you go to when a purchaser does not cooperate? You need to know who can make decisions on what to do with that specific purchaser or supplier.
  • Organise supplier summits where you invite your targeted suppliers and explain them what E-Ordering/E-Invoicing is, and what you expect from them. Invite your E-Procurement system to give a presentation and to give a demonstration on how it works. Explain why it is that you are doing this, and what the benefits are. This makes it a lot easier to communicate with your suppliers, because they now know what it is you are talking about. They also feel appreciated that you take the time to organise such an event. 
  • Make sure that you and your colleagues stay motivated. Implementing an E-Procurement system can be a tough process. What we did at the organisation where I worked, was making a big block calendar that stated how many days were left before the E-Procurement system was going live. Every day, someone who was involved in this process was supposed to take a selfie and place it on the intranet. Then he/she could nominate the next person.

Recommendations for E-procurement implementation

A final word
E-procurement, and especially E-Ordering and E-Invoicing is the future. In a few years this will be the new standard. Onboarding suppliers is a long and difficult process, and this makes it tough. It takes some time before you see the results of your hard labour, but slowly, suppliers will come onboard. It just takes time.