Royce Morse: Welcome to "Meet the Experts," an IOFM podcast series designed to introduce you to many of the more than 200 panelists and answer your "Ask the Expert" questions. "Ask the Expert" is a popular feature allowing our members to ask fellow AP and AR practitioners any work-related questions, and get answers back within five business days. I'm Royce Morse, Institute of Finance and Management's Managing Editor.
Today's guest is Tiffany Miller, Director of Accounts Payable at Empire Portfolio Group in New York City. She has 16 years of experience in the AP space, and has developed a passion for digital transformation and driving change, while identifying gaps in the relationship between accounts payable and the rest of the organization. She's always eager to create new streamlined processes, get the right people to the table, and elevate accounts payable to the next left. Welcome, Tiffany.
We talk a lot about what happens leading up to automation, how to get an automation system selected and how to do the implementation and what to look for, but we don't always talk a lot about what happens after the implementation, so that's what we want to talk about today. So a lot of times we look at the immediate issue itself, but we don't look at the new issues that we will inevitably encounter. Can you tell me a little bit about your exp with that?
Tiffany Miller: Sure. First, thanks for having me. I'm really excited to have this conversation with you today. And you're right. We talk about the need for automation. We talk about how to go about having the conversation around getting automation in and then implementation, and then we stop talking about it.
There's a lot that happens after the fact that could be confusing. It's not just you get it in, and everything's great. So it's a great place to start talking about things, like headcount, staff reduction.
Royce Morse: Those are big ones.
Tiffany Miller: The process is not quite automated yet. I call them "manual automated processes;" sometimes that's what you end up with. Those are all pitfalls that I think we've all experience, and we can kind of start diving into why those come up, and how to start facing those issues as well.
Royce Morse: Mm-hm. I really want to talk about the headcount piece, but first I would like to kind of address the fallout after you do an implementation. Like you said, a lot of times you're just kind of applying automation to your manual processes, but is there a process or a phase that you go through where you actually transform your processes and really kind of think about them and do them in a different way than you did before the automation?
Tiffany Miller: Yes, absolutely. I always refer to it as "digital transformation," because it's not just automation. It’s not just automating what you're currently doing manually. It's transforming the department. It's transforming the work that you're doing—not just how you're doing it, but how you're looking at it, so there's definitely a thought process to go through when you're looking at your individual processes, and you're also looking at what the software or the automation offers you, and then you transform it to make it the most optimal version of what you can.
Royce Morse: Mm-hm. In your director role, how do you approach that? That seems like kind of a big mountain to climb. You've got to get everybody's thinking changed, as well as your processes, so how do you attack that?
Tiffany Miller: Yeah, you do. It's absolutely something that is a mission of mine in my career in accounts payable is to really change the overall view of AP. And it's not something that starts with automation processes. It starts with conversations like this, and it starts with a general awareness of what actually goes on in accounts payable. And anybody who's been here long enough has heard the same things: Why does it take so long to get an invoice paid? What is it that you do? You get the invoice and you click pay; how hard can it be?
So I think that there's a general issue with the view of accounts payable that we have to address. Over the years of my career in AP it has been a huge point to make that change and to make that shift. And once that happens and we can start communicating about what the job actually consists of, how we do it, and what tools we need to do it, then there starts to be less resistance and we start having those conversations. That way, when we get to automation, it's a lot easier for people to help because re-envisioning AP is something that starts with me, but, really, the entire organization should be involved with how that can play out, how all these other systems can plug and play into the AP process, and how we can all build the best process together.
Royce Morse: Yeah, I think you hit on a really important point, which is it starts with you. You can initiate that conversation, but people have to be willing to adopt a new way of thinking, and have to be willing to step outside of their limited understanding of the complexities of AP, and what exactly is involved in doing it. Yeah, I think that's generally the consensus for people that have never worked in AP or don't understand the process well is: "Oh, you just pay bills. Well, how big a deal is that?" Well, it can be a big deal. Doing it wrong or paying the wrong person or getting scammed or dealing with prohibited vendors and things of that nature can really backfire, so you've got to be very careful.
Almost all the money that goes through an organization goes through the hands of AP, so I think a lot of people don't really understand. You really do have quite a bit of power, but they don't consider you empowered.
Tiffany Miller: Right. And it's also a lot of responsibility, which I think is huge for people to understand, the type of weight that could be on somebody in an AP role, especially an AP management role. That differs by industry, by organization, depending if you're public or private, if you have external and internal auditors, dealing with the IRS, dealing with taxes at the state level, dealing with certain regulations and restrictions. It can be very overwhelming. And so, for somebody to be in that role and not feeling supported or not feel like it's important is where that disconnect starts.
Royce Morse: Mm-hm. Yeah, definitely. I see that as a big problem. How does automation alter people's perception of AP?
Tiffany Miller: So once we start having these conversations, it then leads into the conversation about automation [and] all of these regulations and the things that the AP is responsible for doing and how to optimize what we're doing. So automation really helps with some of the more basic functions so that we can focus on some of those higher-level issues that need to be sorted through, or the planning that needs to be thought through.
Additionally, with other technologies across the organization, accounts payable managers also have to figure out how to integrate other non-AP-related software, such as facilities management. Then there's the outsourced pieces of AP, which could be anything between telecom or utilities management, and how to get all of that to play together. So I think once we have the conversation about why AP is important and we get the right people to the table and listening, then we can start talking about the importance of automation. And at that point, I think that's when they really start to understand what that can do for the department and for the organization.
Royce Morse: Right. And I think, for a lot of people who don't have AP experience, when you think about AP automation, you just kind of think about the immediate issues, but people don't take a longer view.
For example, I think this happens rather too frequently that upper management will say, "Okay, well, I'm going to invest X number of dollars in automation, so I'm going to lay people off. How much money am I going to save?"
Tiffany Miller: Yeah.
Royce Morse: What would you say to that?
Tiffany Miller: Yeah, unfortunately, that is a huge part of automation. A lot of what I would challenge senior management (or the executive-level C-suite) with when they come with those types of arguments is: "Do you feel that way across all the departments in your organization?"
Royce Morse: That's a great question.
Tiffany Miller: I've often found that that comment is reserved specifically for accounts payable. I have been part of organizations where automation and technology is designed to help them do their job better. Automation in other departments is to help them thrive and to make more money or save more money.
But for some reason, in AP, automation automatically triggers the mindset of: "How many people are we going to let go because of this?" I really like to try and get them thinking about how they approach this same type of process across the organization and not just in accounts payable, and to not just look at the only benefit of automation and accounts payable that we won't need as big of a team going forward.
Royce Morse: Why do you think that is? Do you think that the perception of AP is it's a clerical function and therefore expendable, as opposed to something else? What's the thinking that goes behind that, do you think?
Tiffany Miller: Exactly. And this goes back to my opening statements about the view around AP and the perception of AP and what happens in this back-office function of people who just type feverishly and plug in numbers and are data-entry clerks. We have to change that perception of what actually happens and the responsibility of what is happening in accounts payable, and what else we're doing besides data entry. And once we shift this thinking, then it will shift the approach that people take with us as well.
Royce Morse: Once you get people thinking about AP in a slightly different way, do they get it?
Tiffany Miller: Generally, yes. I think there's a lot of eye-opening moments that I've had in conversations with executives about what AP is actually doing. I've worked with amazing executive teams who are really in tune with what's happening at our level, and I have worked with teams that just have no idea what we're actually doing. So the conversations are extremely helpful, and I'm not really met with a lot of resistance. It's just a lot of learning and educating and having the conversations.
Royce Morse: Yeah, I think you've got to be a little bit brave. You've got to stand up and say, "This is what my department does, and it's important. Here's how we can do it better, but we need some help."
Tiffany Miller: Right. And that's when the conversation opens up for automation and we talk about that. What I like to coach other AP managers with and through is: What happens after? Because we have these conversations about automation, that it's going to help us, but sometimes after automation there's a struggle because there might not be clear communication about what's going to happen post-automation or post go-live of a new system.
And they might be expecting staff reduction. They might be expecting 100% automation, because that's what we told them. But I think the expectation needs to be more realistic, and we need to have a post go-live plan for how long that it's going to take for us to normalize in this new environment to make sure that we keep the team on board with us as we struggle through some of those processes after the fact.
Royce Morse: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's very well said. Framing expectations from the beginning and not just getting the person who holds the purse strings to sign off on the investment in automation, but making sure that everybody understand what comes after it in terms of process and personnel is super important. I think a lot of times the disconnect comes because those conversations didn't happen ahead of time.
Tiffany Miller: Unfortunately so, especially my experience with just getting the sign-off for the automation can be a process on its own. So I think that most people just aren't thinking that far ahead because they're struggling just with the process of getting the automation approved and signed and there's the demos and the "What are we going to choose?" The whole process takes a long time to unwind and unfold.
I just think there's definitely a pitfall within AP where we don't look at the "after" yet.
Royce Morse: Yeah, that's absolutely critical, I think, that you have a plan for that and that you communicate it up front, so the expectation is not: "Okay, now we've got automation. Let's lay everybody off." How do you present that? What do you tell upper management about what's going to happen with AP after automation?
Tiffany Miller: I think this is a time to be extremely honest and open in your communication with how you're presenting what's going to happen after. And when you are expressing that the automation is going to help and they're looking for staff reduction, the term that I like to use is "resource reallocation."
How are we going to sign off on a cost of this automation but still keep the people that we need in place to be able to steer the ship after the fact? So you really have to have your ducks in a row, and you really have to be honest with what type of resources you're going to need. A lot of that will be presenting what people will be doing after automation. Some of that gets cleared up in the beginning, in the conversations and adjusting the views of accounts payable and what's actually done, but a lot of it is then at this step with telling them what the department is going to look like after. What is the day-to-day of the people in your department going to look like? What is the type of analytics and reporting that they can expect to receive, and how often after the fact?
That's a huge part of setting the expectation on what's still being done here. It's not just the replacement of typing in invoices. It's reporting. It's finding the value. It's being part of forecasting. It's being part of the accruals process in a meaningful way. And really being able to present that is extremely helpful to paint a picture and provide a vision of what this is going to be after and to start kind of leading away from the thought process of this exchange of a human being for an automation.
Royce Morse: Yeah, I think that you made a great point, which is I think that people tend to forget that AP is an arm of finance, and that by taking some of the clerical burden away, that they can really contribute to that overview and the insight into the financial well-being of the company and contribute to that in ways that they weren't able to before when they were doing all of the clerical stuff and the manual processing steps. Do you run into resistance, either from executives or from the staff themselves who are worried about getting laid off?
Tiffany Miller: Absolutely, yes, on both sides. It's a very difficult situation to be in sometimes because you have a team of people who are in an already stressful situation of an implementation, and the whole time they're just wondering if they're biding their time or counting their days left in the department.
So really being able to coach your team through this and be open with them about what you've presented to upper management and having that clarity throughout the whole project is really important.
Royce Morse: Yeah, absolutely. So let's say that I'm a fairly new AP clerk. I've been working for you for a couple of years, and I'm pretty good at what I do. I'm not an old hand, so I'm not maybe the most fast or I don't have the greatest amount of insight into the process, but I do a good job. What would you tell me? Obviously, I'm going to be nervous because I'm a newer person, so I'd probably be one of the first ones to get laid off. How would you talk me off the ledge as it were?
Tiffany Miller: What I like to do, especially with newer people—or maybe not even newer people, but people who are specifically more worried than others—is to explain what we'll be doing after the fact, and have them start getting into that role, even during the implementation or prior to the implementation.
Now, not all things they'll be able to do because we don't have the automation available, but on things like streamlining processes, creating process documentation, analyzing and reporting, really looking into the invoices even in your manual process. Are you looking at the taxes, the sales tax, the use tax? What is the service for? What are the terms? Who are we paying this to? Why are we using this vendor? Could we be getting a better deal somewhere else? Can we consolidate this? Really start taking on that role of doing more than just grabbing the invoice, typing it in, and moving onto the next one. Really start to train people up in those areas so that they're feeling that they're a valued part of that team, and that there's going to be something for them to do after.
I'm constantly talking about "when we're done" or "when we have this report" or "when we have this," and what we're going to do after the fact, to really keep them engaged and feel like there's going to be something left for them to do. And not only is their day job of typing the stuff in going to go away, but they're finally going to have the time to do all of those things, because that part of their process goes away.
Royce Morse: So you sort of have to reframe their thinking: "Yes, this job is going away, but the job that you're getting is going to require more critical thinking and really utilize your mind more than what you're having to do right now," which, for a lot of people, would be exciting, but I'm guessing for some people they are just kind of in the zone and don't really want to have to do that. Have you run into that?
Tiffany Miller: I have. I've had very honest feedback. "My job was to come in here, do this stack of paper, and then go home." I don't want to come in here and do all of this analytics and reporting. So, yeah, there's a lot of conversations. There's a lot of training. But I think that some of that is also just an initial response and fear. It's the fear of the unknown, whether it's the fear of "I'm going to get let go," or it's the fear of "I'm going to have so much more responsibility that I don't really want." I think it's just kind of reacting to it the same way, knowing that it's just part of the process.
Royce Morse: Yeah. Of course, different people are going to react differently. Everybody is a little different, and people bring different expectations and have a different relationship with their jobs. That's very individual, a personal thing.
Assuming, though, that you end up having to let some people go because either they don't have the skills to some of the more analytical tasks, or don't want to, how do you manage through that?
Tiffany Miller: Well, we know very early in the process of planning AP automation what we're going to need after the fact. So if there are roles that will be eliminated, there's steps that we go through to find how we're going to handle that. The first thing that I do is talk to the team and the person. I'm not a fan of waiting until the end of the project to announce what we think the end result is going to be. If we're a team of seven, and we think that by the end of this we're going to be a team of five, that's going to be something that's in the open. If we're a team of 20, and we think that we're going to end up being a team of 10, that changes how you manage expectations and keep morale going, but it doesn't change the fact that I think that that all has to be very honest and upfront.
Secondly, I really like to use this resource reallocation not just within AP, but throughout the entire organization. So we start having conversations about maybe employees who are transferrable to other departments. I've done this a lot of times, where we have people who move into an accounting role, or we have people who move into a treasury role. We even have people who have become part of the front-office team in certain industries I have worked in. So we start by having those conversations and asking if there's interest anywhere else within the company, and then we partner with the other people and executives and team managers in these other places to see if there's a fit.
Any type of knowledge that you already have within the organization and understanding of the culture and somebody who wants to be a part of that, I always try and keep those people in-house somewhere and turn this into a growth opportunity rather than a staff reduction.
Royce Morse: I think that's absolutely spot-on. I commend you for approaching this in a humane and—what's the right word—compassionate way. I think it's awful—and I've seen it happen more than once in my own career, where there's just a surprise lay-off and you know it's coming, but you don't know if you're going to get the axe or not. I don't think that's fair to people. I also don't think that it's in the best interest of the organization, because people are not able to focus on their jobs when they're worried if they're going to have one.
So they're going to make mistakes, they're going to be flustered, they're going to be negative, so I think it's much better to let people know up front what your plans are and what your thinking is, and they can share their thinking, and then you can work together to come up with a solution. Maybe the solution is the person decides they're going to leave, but that gives them an opportunity to plan their next steps, rather than just hitting them with it, and their being afraid all that time when you're doing an implementation. Because as you said earlier, implementations take a while, so people know it's coming. If they don't know if they're going to have a job or not, that's going to be a year of being nervous and scared? You don't want that, do you? I wouldn't.
Tiffany Miller: No.
Royce Morse: I wouldn't if it were me.
Tiffany Miller: It's a horrible thought process when you put yourself in somebody's shoes, and I really try and do that often, really communicate with my team the way I've always wished that people would communicate with me. It shouldn't matter what your title is or what you do in the department. I think everybody should be treated with the same respect of knowing what's going on. And just like you said, if there is a situation where we can't keep the entire department, or there will be people who are laid off, I want to turn that into a situation where we can assist and we can help facilitate what their next step is going to be. It's a journey. It's an opportunity. It's a growth option. It's not, "We automated. Now all these people have to leave, and we don't really care what happens or where they go." We really want to be a part of what that's going to be for them.
Royce Morse: Mm-hm. Absolutely. And it also makes your company, your organization, a place where people want to work. Even the people that left, if they parted on good terms, will spread the word that, "Yeah, they're decent people, even though I'm not working there anymore." So I think it's just not in anybody's best interest to kind of spring it on them at the last minute. I commend you. I think it's a very smart and decent way of dealing with this.
And we know at IOFM that more and more automation is taking place, so this is not an unusual or rare problem. A lot of departments are having to go through this. So I think setting the expectations up front with both your staff and with upper management of what's going to happen during and after the implementation, and what your vision of the department is for when the automation is complete really kind of sets the stage so that everybody knows what to expect, and there are no unpleasant surprises.
Tiffany Miller: Absolutely. That's part of why I really love having these conversations, because I know that this goes out to audiences of AP managers who maybe are new as managers and are looking for guidance on how to implement a new system, but all of these other things that we're talking about as well. It can be a very nerve-wracking position to be in when you're new to it. We need to empower those managers to be able to come to the table and have these hard discussions. They're by no means easy to have, so it's not just about knowing what your team needs or knowing what automation product you need. There's another element of being able to have these conversations with C-suite-level executives and explain yourself and stand your ground and listen, but also explain and teach and educate along the way.
So really being able to partner with all of the management and senior management teams is a huge piece of it. These conversations and these skill levels have to be there as well.
Royce Morse: Absolutely agree. Well, thank you for your time. I think this has been an enormously enlightening and helpful discussion. I hope that the IOFM members who listen to it will find some solace here, some recommendations about how they can proceed if they are getting ready to automate (or are in the automation process) to mitigate the fallout and keep AP doing the work that AP can do, even though they don't always get to do it. Thank you so much, Tiffany.
Tiffany Miller: Royce, thanks for having me. I was really excited to talk to you and everybody else who is listening.
Royce Morse: Thank you for listening to "Meet the Experts," an IOFM podcast series. Remember, if you have a question for our guest (or any of our experts), be sure to log in to IOFM.com/ask-the-experts.