AP Customer Service Tips

September 6, 2018


by Chris Dritsas, Accounts Payable Manager

Use Win-Win Communication in a Client-Facing AP Environment

Top-quality customer service to both internal and external customers is our number-one goal in the North & South America (NSAM) Finance Hub of Cameron, a Schlumberger Company. Headquartered in Houston, TX, Schlumberger is the world’s leading provider of technology for reservoir characterization, drilling, production, and processing to the oil and gas industry.

Here in NSAM, we provide AP support that includes invoice processing, disbursements, accounting, auditing, help desk, travel and purchasing card functionality to customers via a shared services finance model. From a volume perspective, our team facilitates the processing of approximately 60,000 transactions per month, which include PO/non-PO invoices, expense reports, intercompany billings, and help desk tickets.

One specific area of operation that involves consistent client-facing communication is that of our AP HelpDesk, where we utilize an automated service management approach that organizes and tracks AP-related inquiries. These inquiries take the form of “incident tickets,” which are created, monitored, and reported on frequently. AP receives anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 customer inquiries per month. Once they have been received and acknowledged, the incident tickets are assigned a tier level based on their criticality and are subsequently addressed by our AP HelpDesk Team. The overall process involved in both addressing and resolving each incident can take anywhere from five minutes to five days, and from start to finish, a relatively high level of communication takes place.

How to Promote Win-Win Communication

The need for sound communication is critical to success in the client-facing environment in which we work. We strive to create “win-win communication” with every customer interaction. Simply put, win-win communications are those that are conducted in a manner that is mutually acceptable and beneficial to all parties involved. In the workplace, the best leaders know that they cannot obtain win-win results by monopolizing dialogue and action for their exclusive benefit. This type of approach will only set the stage for future failure by creating an atmosphere of conflict and mistrust that becomes increasingly harmful. Eventually, everyone loses.

In contrast, win-win communications help cultivate and foster productive, long-lasting, working relationships. There are many ways AP professionals can promote win-win communications with their customers. A good start is to practice the following “dos and don’ts” in all their customer interactions:

The Dos

1. Do be clear and direct. Say what you need to say. Whether it is spoken or written, ensure that your language is clear and unambiguous and your message is directly communicated. Don’t beat around the bush. Check that the receiver understands the message as you intended, and avoid acronyms and jargon when there’s a chance they will be unclear to the customer.

2. Do say “I’m sorry,” “thank you,” and “here’s how I can help.” If a customer or supplier calls with a problem, listen carefully, apologize if necessary (even if it wasn’t your fault), and offer a solution.

3. Do talk face-to-face whenever possible. When you have difficult information to convey or something that could result in many questions, choose to have a direct face-to-face conversation. You will also have the huge benefit of non-verbal communication cues including tone of voice, facial expressions, and other body language.

The Don’ts

1. Don’t pay more attention to technology than people. This practice is rude and gives your audience the message that they are not important. Constant texting, checking your phone and/or your computer means you are not engaged in the conversation.

2. Don’t get upset. Difficult discussions can elicit emotional responses. Remember that getting upset could prevent you from thinking clearly, escalate the negative emotions, and damage relationships with customers.

3. Don’t use these common statements that will sabotage good communication and customer service:

  • “That's not our policy.” If an employee cannot grant the request or fix the complaint, he or she ought to consult a superior for advice or be given authority to find alternatives that will transform the customer from disgruntled to appreciative. Either way, keep the customer informed at every stage.

  • “That’s not my department” or “That's not my job.” Anyone and everyone can be considered a customer. If you cannot help them directly, then please help guide them to someone who can. At the very least, take their name and number and get back with them, expeditiously, with information that fulfills their needs.

  • “My computer’s down” or “We’re having trouble with our servers. From a customer help desk perspective, this is simply not a caller’s problem, nor a reason to delay service. Business runs with or without active computers. If need be, apologize for the fact that you cannot help, then pick up a pencil, write down their phone number, and get back to him or her as soon as you can help — unfailingly.

  • “I was just waiting to get more information before getting back with you.” All this phrase does is insult the customer by signaling that he or she has little or no priority in your schedule. At least acknowledge that you have not forgotten their request and that you’re working on it.

  • “I am having personal problems.” Never bring your personal problems into business conversations, unless you have a long-term and personal friendship with the customer.

Remember These Secrets to Success

Finally, keep in mind these top secrets to success for keeping AP’s customers happy:

AP’s customers are happy when they feel we are on their side. The best ways to convince them you are on their side is to listen to them, acknowledge their situation, and assure them that you feel their pain. This can turn even the most negative situation totally around.

AP’s customers are happy when we satisfy their “critical needs.” In terms of problem resolution, there are generally three critical needs customers have. They want to know:

  • What happened?

  • What are you going to do to fix it — and how long will it take?

  • What are you going to do to ensure it doesn’t happen again?

AP’s customers are happy when we delight them with surprising and outstanding customer service. Deliver the unexpected. Go the extra mile. Treat them as if they were the most important customer on the face of the planet! Give your customers the kind of treatment that will make them so happy that they can’t help but share the experience with their friends and co-workers.

One way our AP people delight their customers is by being proactive vs. reactive. If we notice something is amiss within the payables process, our AP Business Partners (APBP’s) work closely with our customers to both address and resolve the issue/s as quickly as possible. They check to make sure invoices are received timely, quantities, pricing and invoice totals are correct and that they are appropriately routed for approval.

“Win-Win…It’s the only way to go.”

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