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6 Ways To Improve Accounts Payable Audit Readiness

Posted by Chris Cosgrove

Jul 11, 2019 8:05:00 AM

Audit Readiness in Accounts Payable is Paramount

Let’s face it...some things you have to go through that are just...the worst.

It’s part of life.  Anyone who has ever taken a kid with a sore throat to the doctor’s office for a throat culture knows the pain that awaits all in the room.  Similarly, accounts payable audits can cause the most resolute of people to experience panic attacks. Now obviously we jest, but accounts payable audits are no joke.  So it’s our goal today to explore the most common types of AP audits, some common challenges that most accounts payable organizations face when preparing for and undergoing them, and ways you can improve your readiness for them as you build the strength of your AP department.  Let’s dive in.


The most common types of Accounts Payable audits:


When it comes to audits there are quite a few different types of audits that can be invoked in most business though their scope, with respect to accounts payable, generally narrows in focus to a few types.  If you want a more exhaustive list of the full gamut of audits, check this article out.


Internally, companies can and should choose to run periodic audits to review departmental performance, controls, and accuracy in journaling expenses and getting vendors paid.  These can range from fairly informal exercises to more rigorous audit practices depending on the size and complexity of the company undertaking it. Generally speaking, the more robust the company (from a revenue perspective) the higher the likelihood there will be a more substantial audit process that unfolds.


Externally, there are several types of audits that can occur that we typically see.  


Financial Audits


Often businesses will contract their external accounting firms to run financial audits which essentially are health-checks on the performance of the business in the light of looking at the books.  These can be somewhat comprehensive and cover all areas of the business including accounts payable, accounts receivable and the balance sheet as a whole. Often, the way this manifests for the accounts payable department is that external auditors will work directly with departmental leadership to analyze specific or randomly chosen accounts for review.  In the case of accounts payable it’s common to see auditors home in on a specific vendor account and then select the invoices in question for a period of time to see how certain diagnostics are functioning, namely, how and why was an invoice approved (or not) and paid (or short paid or not paid). Deeper questions can move into the requisitioning process behind said invoice or a look into supporting documentation around the decision to approve (or reject) the payable.  This can easily get into tangential areas like the purchase order, the receiver document that supports the invoice, and the general ledger coding effort and / or the departmental approver(s) that are involved in approving the invoice decision from an authority standpoint.


Many different things can be audited by looking at the document trail, but in essence an auditor is looking to establish and verify the logic of why a decision was rendered and were sound financial controls in place when the invoice was approved and can the decision be backed up with documentation so that it wasn’t solely a subjective approval stuff!


Tax Audits

For starters, many businesses undergo a sales (or sales and use) tax audit periodically.  This is essentially an audit to ensure that the correct amount of sales tax funds are being assessed to the company’s client base though this is more generally centered on the accounts receivable side of the business than accounts payable.  Nonetheless, tax audits are essentially an accounting and reconciliation of the tax collection responsibilities of the business. In other words, Caesar wants to make sure he’s getting his slice of the pie and that tax is being collected and rendered to Caesar in accordance with the tax withholdings of the state in which the business being audited is operating in.  Obviously another component of tax audits is that the business can be assessed for it’s total tax obligation in the light of expenses vs. revenues. AP invoices therefore can directly be associated with the expense obligations of a business and thus relate back to the overall compliance with tax guidelines.

In either of these scenarios, whether a Financial or a Tax Audit, the accounts payable organization is on the hook for being able to produce troves of documentation around the payables themselves and the decision tree in how a payable was addressed, and equally importantly why.


Download The Four Keys To Maximizing The Strategic Value of Accounts Payable


Common Challenges Businesses Face During Accounts Payable Audits


The sticky part about AP audits is that they involve time and effort.  The other thing that is worth noting is that audits often tie up key personnel resources from focusing on their primary responsibilities as it relates to AP.  Where most AP managers and employees are content to work on processing invoices, whether through an automated system or manually, having to be pulled off focus into supporting the auditors.  This generally involves pulling paid invoices and any supporting documentation that was involved in the procurement, matching, or approval processes. We spoke to this a little earlier in the brief, but ultimately an auditor needs to assess the document chain for authenticity, accuracy, and adherence to controls.  This isn’t too difficult if you’ve been wise enough to pursue accounts payable automation and you have a shiny new electronic document management system as a core piece of infrastructure within your process. However, woe be unto you if you’re processing invoices manually! This means finding archived files and making copies and providing those to the auditors...essentially functioning as their shadow and getting them everything they need, which definitely gets in the way of doing your 9-5.

Other challenges that stem from accounts payable audits is the grim reality of what the audit uncovers.


In most cases there is typically an adhered to set of controls or procedures that have been followed to come to a decision on approving and coding an invoice or expense item.  However, if you happen to be undergoing an audit and come up short with respect to the thought process or the controls that the audit trail reveals you could be in for some sobering if not painful conversations about how that happened.  Then again, that’s essentially the function of the auditor, to uncover in a somewhat macabre fashion an autopsy of the transaction. So, one must ask rather than find out the hard way about what’s wrong with a certain transaction, what one can do to avoid the instance of confusion or lack of controls?

We would suggest that the best way to gain mastery over the process so as to avoid issues within the accounts payable audit cycle would be the following:


-implement an accounts payable automation system

-digitize invoices and related accounts payable documents (credit memos / statements / vouchers / check requests / expenses / etc.) at the process outset

-immediately timestamp the digitization of the record within a digital audit trail

-create workflows and validation processes that enforce organizational controls (matching / variance thresholds / exception routing / invoice escalation / etc)

-provide a catch all approver to review / adjudicate the process as necessary

-integrate your payment methodologies as a component of the invoice processing flow

While this is an easy list to draft in a blog format, the reality of bringing this vision to bear is obviously going to be a broader labor of love...nonetheless it’s something that will provide immediate and ongoing practical and strategic benefits to your business.


One of the other key terms you’re likely to hear when any discourse about an accounts payable audit comes to the fore is the definition of standard operating procedures.  Obviously, absents SOPs you’ll have processes that can derail or flex at the whim of an individual actor’s discretion, which is nonideal. So, with that said if you haven’t taken the time to establish your SOPs for your business, it would be a good idea to draft the rules and processes that you want to govern the process.  In many cases the logical way to do this is by creating an org chart with leadership roles / functions and roll-ups. Further, establishing clear process flows and the juncture points where there may need to be triage for invoices and expenses that are less clear would be key.  


This kind of foresight paves the way for a smoother and more efficient process and one that will invariably have less issues and significant events when it comes time for your AP audit.


One of the positive aspects of accounts payable audits is that they can be used to examine scenarios where the potential for fraud exists.  Unfortunately it’s been proven time and again that where there are gaps and lack of controls over financial processes that inevitably some maleficent stakeholder in a process will find a means by which they can exploit AP’s ability to process payments to skim for themselves off the top.  One need not search too far to find many scenarios of improper financial dealings and embezzlement and it’s a bit of a shame that it still occurs, but it’s really just reflective of the fallen state of the human heart and a process that doesn’t have tight controls enacted.


AP audits can be used to isolate sketchy payment approval scenarios or recurring patterns of approval or even payments within a tight threshold of an approvers maximum amount.  Often times would be ne’er do wells would grow in their hubris to be able to exploit their schemes with impunity due to lack of visibility into a process or their perceived ability to skirt controls.  In some cases they will pass invoices through just under the maximum capacity that an approver can affirm and in so doing stay under the radar of secondary or tertiary approvers and in so doing not create any suspicion about their actions.  Typically this kind of scheme involves the complicity of an external 3rd party such as one who could receive and cash said checks. Audits can be used to identify recurring type approvals like this and equally importantly be used as a measure to make sure there is a firm grip on approved vendors for most businesses.  Also, having secondary levels of control and oversight to all things financial is a key deterrent to such power-vacuums and creates transparency which typically leads upward.


So, with that said, accounts payable audits are not necessarily the most fun or earth-shattering activity under the sun.  However, much like an annual physical they are things that are proactive and typically helpful to the long term health of the patient or in this case business.  If you’re actively looking for ways to improve how audits go in your business reference the points above or check out our other posts on accounts payable automation with respect to visibility to get deeper insight into how much of a difference an electronic and optimized process can make for you.

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Topics: accounts payable audit

7 Common Accounts Payable Risks And How To Mitigate Them

Posted by Chris Cosgrove

Jan 10, 2019 12:47:11 PM




The good book states that "the heart of man is more deceitful than all else and desperately sick" in Jeremiah 17:9. Though that is somewhat unfortunate it nevertheless proves true day after day...just consider any of your local news reports. Generally speaking they're more tuned into the negative exploits that people perpetrate than the positive ones, primarily because negative news is sensational and boosts tv ratings. Not that this is intended to be a moral feature, but when it comes to accounts payable invoice processing, there's always an unfortunate subset of individuals who are willing to make poor moral choices and seek out ways to exploit the accounts payable process for wayward personal gains. Thus, we feel it's imperative to identify common accounts payable risks so you can prepare for them in advance and not get duped or suffer unnecessary losses in your business.


Seven biggest accounts payable risks to look out for:


  1. External Fraud


Fraud certainly comes to mind when considering accounts payable risks and there are a variety of ways this can occur. According to The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, fraud represents a 5% loss on average to most businesses , which suggests a $3.7 trillion dollar issue globally, when factoring the Global GDP.


External fraud that exploits the accounts payable process can be packaged a variety of ways:


Collusion - essentially accounts payable fraud at its worst, whereby an internal employee who has payment controls works in collaboration with an external supplier to arrange for illicit payments to the supplier. This can occur through a payment exploiting duplicate payments or entirely fabricated payments. Once the payments are received by the supplier, ostensibly, monies would be split in a twisted type of profit sharing endeavor.B.Overpayment (kickbacks) - in this ruse, invoices are overpaid, again to a willing co-conspirator, and the overage amount is siphoned off for personal gain.


2. Conflicts of Interest


This is also a major accounts payable risk and can occur when there is limited supervision or loose controls over the procurement and payment processes. Another juncture that can get exploited is in the area of goods receipt and payments. One of the essential structures that should be in place for all of these areas is a sound division of labor which creates a healthy set of checks and balances over who is ordering goods or services, who is receiving them, and who is ultimately paying them.


Another common way that this area can go sideways is when there are gratuities or gifts extended to someone on the requisitioning side of the business. Left unchecked this could mean that a favored supplier gets sweetheart deals that were other suppliers considered may have been more competitive. A healthy practice to deploy to obviate this risk is to necessitate multiple bids or offers prior to engaging with an individual supplier so some due diligence has been established and the selection of a vendor can be justified or audited from a sound perspective.


3. Internal Fraud


This may seem like a derivative of Number 1, but it’s worth separating as its own accounts payable risks. .Under the guise of making legitimate payments to a vendor, a phoney vendor is created and paid. Through this means, the agent making the payments is typically sending themself the money to a third party address or PO box that they access.




Additional Risks and Some Ideas to Mitigate Them


There are other types of internal fraud that can occur, such as those involving check fraud, whereby someone tampers with or intercepts a check payment and funds are redirected to personal coffers. Alternatively, ACH fraud is another ugly means by which unsavory individuals manipulate a business payment methodology to route payment funds to their personal accounts.


It's also prevalent that in these situations repetitive payments are made from an amount perspective, and often run under the radar from an approval threshold perspective. For example, if the amount of the fraudulent payment were to be increased, it may necessitate the approval and intervention of a higher level manager or executive within the paying organization and as such draw attention to the devious activity. As such, one of the ways to mitigate these accounts payable risks is to create visibility around payment issuers including payments history analyses by vendor, amount, and date and assessing for frequency and nearness to the approval threshold.


4. Errant Payments


Hardly as insidious as any of the aforementioned accounts payable risks that we've reviewed, but certainly equally painful, errant payments can be comprised of extraneous, duplicate, or overpayments made to a vendor due to a variety of reasons. It could be that invoices were submitted multiple times by recipients in Accounts Payable and by requisitioners, depending on how the invoices arrive for processing. While that is fairly innocuous, the unfortunate realities of the pains created by this type of error are nonetheless real.


In other situations it could be that the payments made are over the amount of goods billed or received due to flawed pricing information or some other kind of variance even down to fluctuations in tax and freight charge processing.


In a healthy accounts payable process and one that is leveraging accounts payable automation, it's possible to query out against previously processed invoices to prevent duplicate or overpayments before they happen, but for many businesses this type of visibility is limited. Often there is a strain on the invoice processors as they struggle with manual data entry and invoice reconciliation (2 or 3 way matching) that is enough of a struggle to keep up with, that the extra step of fraud detection is just too much to pursue in a manageable fashion.


Further, it's entirely possible that if invoices are being processed from a sheer data entry effort that data entered can result in payment amounts being off due to human error / negligence. Obviously this can be cured through the use of advanced optical character recognition for data conversion or even e-invoicing methods that digitizes the transactions and eliminates many of the error prone data fields from occurring.


In the few remaining items we're going to cover, we'll approach some accounts payable risks that don't involve outright nefarious activity, but rather inadvertent or somewhat negligent circumstances that can be avoided through better process insight and visibility.


5. Late / missed payments


One of the perennial challenges that accounts payable departments face is that of organization and maintenance of a sound payables process. If invoices don't flow smoothly into the processing funnel or take copious amounts of time to trickle in from outlying locations to wherever AP is actually processing the expense, all kind of things can go wrong.


For many businesses, a lack of organization around this juncture leads to invoices disappearing altogether which, as a result, causes the vendor to assess late payment penalties on top of the already owed invoice. For many businesses, this could be averted by getting immediate, up front insight to their stream of payables which empowers them to then take an appropriate action and pay timely.


Beyond the pain of having to pony up whatever the late fee is, the pain of having to go back and forth with the vendor's accounts receivable department and hash it out can place a strain on the accounts payable staff (in an already burdened role) and just create less than optimal supplier relations. As such, it would be our recommendation that accounts payable managers and finance executives consider ways to improve this process through accounts payable automation.


6. Missed accruals / errant forecasting


Another implication of a sloppy accounts payable process is the lack of clarity around the financial forecasting of spend. For many businesses, month end closing presents the challenge of having to accrue pending spend by department (or other criteria). If you don't have visibility with a high degree of accuracy into your process, then you're at best going to have to resort to guesswork to piece together accruals. This is doubly difficult considering point five, if payments are late or missed entirely since you won't have a remotely accurate pipeline of pending invoices.


As such, mitigating this through upstream conversion of invoices to data is really the only remedy as that becomes the enabling factor to creating dynamic insight within the process. Once this is resolved, the burden of having to go out and obtain accruals and forecasting by department is bypassed. This kind of reporting can be done virtually instantaneously through reporting and as such a tighter control is placed over the process which ensures a higher degree of quality from an accuracy standpoint.


7. Lack of an audit trail


When invoice processing is anchored in manual process and invoices and supporting documentation are moved manually or are bound up in on and offline methods of communication, it can be difficult to assemble an accurate picture of how a decision was rendered and why a payable was approved and ultimately paid. This can portend a host of issues for the paying organization and is something that should be addressed proactively. By not having solid insight into the approval chain of custody on an invoice, you are opening the door to issues, especially of the fraudulent type.


If someone is aware that there are poor controls over the process, they may be more likely to try to exploit them in their attempt to enrich themselves. As such, if you can bring visibility with a high degree of accuracy to this area, it will be more likely to discourage a nefarious actor from attempting something illicit.


From our perspective the best way to do this is to engage the use of an electronic document management system layered with both a business intelligence engine and workflow capabilities whereby you can route and escalate invoice approvals based upon your business rules (vendor segregation by approver / department, dollar amount thresholds, etc.). And in so doing retain the invoice history from the time it presents to accounts payable through processing, and then all the way through invoice posting to the ERP and ultimately reconciling payment information to the invoice, for an end to end lifecycle of the document.


When you have something like this, it's very powerful as a holistic view into the process and a safeguard from future fraud activities. Further it's the kind of bedrock data that an auditor is going to look for when assessing a process to make sure quality controls and safeguards are being adhered to and enforced.




There are many things to consider when assessing and curing accounts payable risks within your business. Hopefully this piece has given you some things to think about and we certainly recommend exploring the use of an accounts payable automation system to make enforcing controls and ushering in visibility to your AP data a reality.

Download The Four Keys To Maximizing The Strategic Value of Accounts Payable 

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Topics: accounts payable risks

The Top Nine Accounts Payable Metrics You Should Be Tracking But Probably Aren't!

Posted by Chris Cosgrove

Nov 5, 2018 11:18:45 AM

Monitoring accounts payable metrics is vital to transforming your process!

It's been said that a mind stretched by a new idea can't return to its original dimensions.

You can source that to Oliver Wendell Holmes or Ralph Waldo Emerson, depending on your search results, but the notion stands nonetheless. In the accounts payable automation arena, it's especially true and our brief today is primarily aimed at helping you understand the accounts payable metrics that you can measure and manage in ways that perhaps you previously couldn't. We've routinely heard time and time again from the various finance leaders we're consulting with that in manual accounts payable environments, they have little to no visibility or control over a given process.  At best it's limited visibility, which leads to suspect decision making and often times creates negative consequences to the business.

Here are some pivotal cases featuring accounts payable metrics you need to have visibility into:

a). Approval processes: when it comes to invoice approval processes, not having invoices in an automated electronic workflow means zero insight into where the process is at and who has responsibility over a particular transaction or set of transactions.  This could mean bottlenecking to a process if an approver must authorize a transaction and / or assign a GL code to it.

b). Payment dates: if you don't have a timeline for paying bills that is clearly visible and articulated in such a way that you can prioritize payment based upon due dates, you could easily be setting up to pay your vendors late and in so doing incur late payment fees that are both unnecessary and unprofitable.

c). Invoice status: if you're not assigning a status to your invoices, regardless of whatever stage they are at with respect to how you currently process them, it means that you can't explicitly identify exactly where they are at in the process.  This stinks, especially if you're having to manage vendor relationships and they call into you turning the heat up on you to provide them needed payment details.

These are just a few examples of some of the pains that literally thousands of businesses just live with despite the fact that there are automation technologies that can lift them above the mire that is manual accounts payable.

So what are some accounts payable metrics that you should be tracking but probably aren't?

It's a good thing you asked that and we want to devote the rest of this piece to addressing that to shed some light.  For starters, we want to start on things that have immediate tie-backs to efficiency and translate to fiscal impacts.

Insightful accounts payable metrics that will deliver immediate value to you:

1.  Time saved - When you can start to gauge how long things are taking to process especially by type of invoice you are processing you can start to gain perspective for what's moving quickly or slowly and then begin to analyze why.  Only once you understand the landscape for opportunity and benefit can you start to make the adjustments necessary to improve.
Invoices Processing in Days / Cycle Times - One of the top Accounts Payable Metrics to Gauge Productivity

Another of the accounts payable metrics that’s foundational is invoice processing in days as you can quickly see how efficient or not you are at cranking through your invoices from presentment to posting.  This also has obvious implications when evaluating individual processor productivity and can lead to establishing new standards for what’s possible per full time employee via accounts payable automation!

2.  Accounting Staff Productivity - This may be something that is more relevant in larger AP departments, but nonetheless if you have a staff larger than one it may be helpful for you to understand who is processing what set of invoices and how efficient they are at their job.  Additionally, tying into point #1 above, you can start to overlay the subset of invoices that they are responsible for as a consideration for their actual workload and as such, gain insight into why they may excel or lag behind in terms of efficiency. Essentially, you can use benchmarking and reporting within a robust accounts payable automation platform to give you the data you need to better manage your own staff.


3.  Discount Capture -  One of the easiest ways to flip AP into a profit center is through the capture of early payment discounts.  Far too many businesses do little or nothing in terms of pursuing these opportunities. For some it's a lack of awareness or tenacity to pursue them...for others it's lack of visibility into what's available and for others it's a lack of execution.  Jumbled systems and no insight into what's on the horizon for early payment discount opportunities means chances squandered. By managing a dynamic process against a dashboard interface factoring real time data, you can quickly assess what a legit opportunity to pay less and thus create dynamic savings for your business looks like.  Once identified it can be executed on and the max value for AP can be achieved. It doesn't take a ton of capture from a percentage of relative spend basis to offset the cost of an empire AP team, and we've seen these types of numbers scale substantially depending on the size of the business, making this an absolute gold mine of an opportunity.

4.  Approver Efficiency - Accounts Payable staff is by no means the only subset of people in an organization that can aid or impede the efficiency of a process.  For Non-PO based invoices approvers have their part to play. By getting insight into your stack of approvers and how quickly they are turning invoices in the system you can make strides to squash bottlenecks before they arise.  Advanced accounts payable automation systems will allow you to put hedges in place over a process by way of automated delegation in the event someone is sick or on leave so that invoices can flow to another approver for payment authorization.  Additionally you can use time-based escalation protocols to level invoices up to get to a decision maker that can take action before you lose discount opportunites or get jacked by late fees.


5.  Exception Rates - Again in line with understanding the core of a matter, getting to know how invoices are flowing through your process is key and more importantly understanding what types of invoices are kicking out as exception to the process is paramount.  This can help you isolate where the root of the problem is...for instances, if you keep getting line item and pricing mismatches on PO based invoices, it could mean you've got a sloppy procurement person on staff who needs to get their act together so the good of the team is promoted or it could mean you need to reach out to your vendors so you can get on page in terms of pricing or whatever the issue is.  Bottomline is when you can see what the exception rates are especially by type of invoice your processing or by vendor you can do a deeper dive and enhance the process on a go forward basis.

Exceptions are one of the critical accounts payable metrics you have to keep an eye on to boost performance!

Getting this kind of clarity into your accounts payable process via the visual manipulation of accounts payable metrics is massive, especially when looking to prove out business case justification for the gains of AP automation!

6.  Straight-through processing - One of the hallmark accounts payable metrics to get excited about...essentially it represents the subset of invoices that move through your payables environment with zero manual touches.  For anyone who is a manager of the ap process, this is one of the most common desires that we've heard expressed...less manual intervention, less keystrokes, more time saving. Well, the goal of accounts payable automation is obviously to move as many transactions into the sphere of automated invoice processing where the automation technology is driving invoices along their respective tracks and in many cases it's possible to push a large subset through when you have solid validation techniques in place and 2 or 3 way matching executing and validating itself.  If everything is netting together from either an invoice and PO document (or with a receiver on top of it), why would it need manual intervention. The higher you can crank this subset of invoices percentagewise the happier you'll be. It means you'll be getting more for your investment into automation and this becomes the real juice to transforming the front end of invoice processing.

7.  Percentage of suppliers accepting electronic payments - An additional insight that is crucial is tracking the number of vendors that are accepting electronic payments.  Why? For starters ePayments cost far less (check this post out on that front).  But also, integrated payables, and specifically virtual credit card payments represents one of the primary ways you can monetize your payment stream and literally flip AP into a sustainable and sizable profit center.  If you're not actively pursuing integrated payables you are behind the curve and suffering for it. This represents the lowest hanging fruit in terms of making smart and low risk decisions for improving AP and can be done before or after automation AP invoice processing.


8.  Percentage of invoices tied to a purchase order - This may not matter much to you but if it doesn't, it could.  It all depends on how you enact controls and what your comfort level is with getting requisitioning authorization front end in the process.  If that's something you want up front then this is a metric you're going to care about. Essentially you'll be tracking the flow of invoices in your businesses that have originated from such a process and thereby be harnessing this subset of accounts payable metrics to effectively gauge your level of control over your purchasing process.

PO v No PO benchmarks is one of the accounts payable metrics reflective of your degree of control over your accounts payable process.

Accounts payable metrics like PO vs No PO tracking is pivotal for gaining insight into the degree to which you have solid controls in place over your process to curb unauthorized spend or the potential for fraud.


9.  Accrual Reporting - If you're going through a month end machination by calling out to various department heads or approvers to get a lay of the land in terms of the invoices that they may be sitting on or know will be coming in you are living in the dark ages.  When you have all invoices converted to data upon immediate receipt into your process you've got the data at your fingertips and that entire effort of inquiry can be shoved off a cliff and with a higher degree of accuracy than what you may previously have known.  This is a massive win for any AP manager or controller who is doing this at each month end.


There’s really not a limit to the number of key performance indicators or accounts payable metrics that you can track when you have a digitized, automated process in place that gives you rich and dynamic reporting capabilities you can really unearth the gems that will help you attain better business outcomes.  From advancing tighter controls over the process, to driving internal accountability, to reducing cycle times, to monetizing your process and enhancing its strategic value the possibilities afforded through tapping into accounts payable metrics are limitless. We invite you to continue your learning by checking out the ebook below on the four keys to maximizing the value of accounts payable.

Download The Four Keys To Maximizing The Strategic Value of Accounts Payable

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Topics: accounts payable metrics

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