Making the transition to remote work for many companies can initially be a challenge. This is especially true for accounts receivable teams. Collections is a people-centric job. Collections professionals spend majority of their time building and fostering relationships with their customers to ensure timely payment, which makes moving to a work from home environment more difficult. At Lockstep Collect, our company was built on a remote work model. Many of our customers have been working from home for years. We spoke with our customers and employees to find the best tips we could to make your team productive, successful and help you master collections in a remote work environment. In this whitepaper, we will cover every aspect of moving to a remote work environment from how to set up your work space for success to how to best communicate and collect from your customers.
The first place to start when moving your accounts receivable operations to a remote work method is to ensure you have the right foundation. The building blocks of remote work rest on getting your infrastructure right. Once you have the right infrastructure in place, you can focus on creating a home-work environment that allows you room to focus.
Building a Remote Work Infrastructure for Accounts Receivable
First things first, your team needs to have access to a device to do their work from home. It’s not enough to assume every employee has a personal laptop that they can do their work from. Every employee should be given a laptop by the company that they can use daily to complete their work. Your IT department should ensure that every laptop is working properly before issued to each accounts receivable department employee. If your team doesn’t have laptops that are fast, up-to-date and loaded with all the programs they need, you will see productivity diminish.
It’s imperative that every remote work employee has access to fast and reliable internet when working remotely as an accounts receivable team. According to Buffer, 78% of respondents to their work-from-home survey said that their company did not pay for their Internet. Although this is not the norm, your company should consider offering to pay for employee Internet services, especially if the employee does not already have access. The ability to work from home should not become a financial burden on employees, especially since many of the tasks they are required to do need Internet access.
For accounts receivable teams, this is a big consideration. Most accounts receivable professionals spend majority of their day calling accounts that owe money and handling disputes over the phone. Does your team have access to field phone calls when they are not sitting next to their desk phone? One way you can move phone access remotely is to use an IVR system. All collections phone calls will be forwarded to individual’s cell phones and a key component of the collections process won’t be interrupted.
Another option is to use a virtual PBX system, such as Ring Central. This allows collectors to have an IP phone at their home that works just like their desk phone.
Access to Information
Consider the daily routine of an accounts receivable professional and the multitude of documents and information they need access to – invoices, aging reports, statements, sales orders, customer account and contact information, etc. In a remote situation, do they have access to the resources they need to do work? All these vital accounts receivable documents should live in a shared, online tool that every team member has access and visibility to. It might seem like an easy answer to use Outlook or Sharepoint, but files, folders and inboxes will get messy quickly. Although these tools are great, they’re not built for the accounting process. To successfully master at-home work for accounts receivable teams, it makes sense to consider a tool built specifically for putting accounts receivable online. Collectors will not have to switch back and forth between Excel documents and Outlook emails that are likely already out-of-date. A cloud-based accounts receivable platform keeps critical AR documents and communications stored in one place.
Ultimately, the first step to enabling remote work for accounts receivable teams is to get the right infrastructure and tools into place. Without them, your team will have limited visibility into their accounts and they will struggle to remain productive.
Creating a Productive Work Environment for Remote Accounts Receivable
If you’re typically an office worker and you’re venturing into the work from home space for the first time, the transition can take a toll on your productivity. If you don’t establish a good working environment at home, it can be difficult to get in the right mindset like you would in the office. We gathered up some of the best tips from customers and our team on creating a productive work-from-home environment. Here were the top five.
Create a Quiet, Dedicated Workspace
It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “If I get to work from home, I can work from the comfort of my couch!”. Often times, doing this will be your first step into lowering productivity. Once you’re on the couch, you’ll be tempted to turn on TV or check social media more often. When you’re fielding calls from customers or trying to collect on unpaid accounts, multi-tasking in this way can be detrimental to your collections productivity. Its vital to create a dedicated workspace that is separate from the areas of your home where you relax and gather with family.
If you have a free room to set up a desk and chair, that’s a great place to start. However, if you don’t have that type of extra space, get creative. Consider hanging up a curtain that separates your workspace from the rest of your home to give it a more dedicated feel. When the curtain is closed, this signals you to get to work!
Create a Transition Ritual
You may have heard people saying that remote workers never get out of their pajamas. Although some may not, we don’t recommend staying in pajamas all day. Just the process of getting dressed in your work clothes every morning signals to your brain “time to start the day!”. Maybe you want to stay in your pajamas, but you put on a work hat that says time to go. One employee at Lockstep shares that they make sure to get a shower first thing to start the day. This morning ritual helps the body wake up and your mind transition to tackle the day. As tempting as it might be to just stay in your pajamas, it could slow your transition into a productive day.
Create Boundaries for Family Members (and Pets)
Collections work can often involve detailed conversations on the phone with customers. When you’re working from home, customer might get distracted and miss critical information with children running around the house or dogs barking in the background. It’s important to take a moment to discuss with your family, partner, or roommates what working from home means and that you need dedicated time to work. One suggestion, if you have an office or room you’re working in, is that when your door is closed, this means you’re on the phone and unavailable to family members. Another idea is to use the stoplight method. Hang up a red piece of paper when you can’t be disturbed, yellow for when your kids should check first and green when it’s OK to stop in and chat. Young kids recognize and understand this concept easily.
For pets, it’s not as easy to explain the concept of working from home. Try using a baby gate to keep them out of your working zone during hours you’ll be on the phone. You can settle your pet into a routine by establishing good times to take a walk or pet. Help them transition into the new pattern of when you can play with them. If you have access to a doggy day care center, consider dropping them off for a few hours of socialization.
Identify Your Working Hours
Just because you’re working from home, doesn’t mean you should make your own hours, especially in collections. Your customers still have working hours they need to abide by and expect to be able to get a hold of you during normal work times. If you’re trying to work your way through your call list to collect from customers, you’re not going to have much success out of normal working hours. If your company’s office hours are 9-5, stick with that even when you’re working from home.
Create a break schedule for yourself. It’s great to be productive and get a lot done every day, but it’s also important to take care of your mental health. Take breaks, like ensuring you stop every day at noon to have an hour lunch break. Carve out 10 minutes in the morning to do yoga or meditation. Put these breaks on your calendar so you abide by them, and your co-workers respect your break time too.
Just because you’re moving to remote work, doesn’t mean accounts receivable productivity can decrease. Since majority of collections activities include phone calls, it’s vital to have a quiet, dedicated workspace and boundaries set with family, friends and pets to keep your workspace free of distraction.
Managing the Collections Team
There are two key parts to ensure you are managing your accounts receivable team correctly when everyone is working remotely: communication and social interaction. Communicating, and over communicating, are crucial to ensure everyone stays on task. Providing social interaction may seem secondary to properly managing your collections team, but studies show it contributes to having happy and healthy employees, a low stress work environment and more engaged workers.
How to Encourage Team Communication in Remote Accounts Receivable
A crucial task to overcome in remote work is communicating properly with your team. This is especially important in the accounts receivable department because communication among collectors is a key to your success. Your teammates need to know what is going on with your accounts to understand if escalations need to occur or if an account is being put on hold. This might be an easier task if you can take a short walk and stop by your coworker’s office, but when you are working remotely, a little more thought needs to be put in to make sure your team is communicating often.
Use Communication Tools
Make sure your team has access to tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams to easily send a message if they have questions on an account. Accounts receivable professionals tend to have very busy email inboxes, so sending team messages via email can easily get lost. Using tools like instant messaging make it just as easy as walking down the hall to get a response. Encourage your team to be active on the messaging app by making it a habit to open it first thing every morning and setting themselves to away or active so team members know when they can expect a response.
Hold a Daily Standup Meeting
Meet with your collections team every morning using video chat to check in and see how everyone is doing with their accounts. Structure these meetings to go over what each collector has completed and what their goals are for the day. Even if these meetings are only 15 minutes long, it will help keep everyone in the loop despite not working in the same location. It’s also a great chance to discuss issues that might be blocking collections so as to get resolution.
Gain Visibility into Collector’s Activities
Since it’s not as easy to stop by and ask your teammates where things are at with an account, using a cloud-based tool made for accounts receivable, like Lockstep Collect, will help give visibility into your team’s activities and results. This will keep you up-to-date in your reporting and forecasting. Additionally, it’s a good tool to continue mentoring and leading your collections team. With visibility into activities, you can make suggestions to individual team members on where they can improve and where they have exceled.
Share Information Across the Team
It can be a little more difficult to make sure everyone is on the same team when you are working remotely in accounts receivable. That’s why it is vital that you ensure your team is sharing as much information as they can regarding their accounts, whether this is during your daily standups or in a weekly email roundup. Not only should they be sharing it among the accounts receivable team, but with customer support and sales, as well. This is especially important if your business has multiple entities to keep everyone in the loop.
Whether you’re working remotely or in an office, communication is always vital in the accounts receivable department. It might take a little more effort to get communication started when you’re working from home, but once you get into a rhythm, the information will start flowing. Hosting regular daily standups, taking advantage of messaging tools and using a tool specific to accounts receivable to increase visibility will help your accounts receivable team to stay in-touch while working from home.
How to Provide Social Interaction in Remote Work
It’s key that you bake in social interaction to your daily accounts receivable work. Without it, productivity might decrease from employee burn out. We’ve included a few easy ways to increase social interaction, despite distance created from remote work, in your collections work.
Give your team a general area to interact that doesn’t have to do with work. This could be done using Slack or Microsoft Teams and designated a channel to random thoughts. Employees can share articles, life stories or other lighthearted thoughts that they would typically share by the watercooler. This allows your employees to keep in touch and get to know each other outside the confines of shop talk.
Adjust Your Meeting Agenda
Instead of jumping straight into your next online meeting, give your team a few minutes to catch up with each other. Make a point to ask each of your team members how life is going. Even if this takes 5 minutes of time at the beginning of every meeting, it gives your team a chance to get to know each other on a different level. When comradery is fostered on your collections team, you will see the team work better together, share tips and enjoy getting together for the meetings.
This is a great technique to encourage with customers, as well. The better you get to know your customers, the more likely they will put you at the top of their list of payables. Take the time to ask how your customers are doing, get to know them on a personal level and remember details you can ask them about before you start your next collection call.
Encourage all your team members to keep their video on during team meetings. This provides a level of social interaction because you can meet “face-to-face”, despite working remotely. Even if you only do a required video meeting once a week, it will help give your remote employees a sense of social interaction. One of our customers explained that she Facetimes with her teammate to work out collection issues, “Its kind of nice seeing their face since you miss the social interaction of the office”.
Using video during meetings is beneficial, as well, to ensure your team members are giving you their full focus. It can be hard for remote employees to “turn off” during meetings when they’re getting email notifications the entire time. When everyone is encouraged to use video, it helps the team to stay focused because it will be clear who is not giving their full attention to the meeting.
Schedule Virtual Happy Hours or Lunch and Learns
When everyone is located in one place at the office, it allows for a quick and easy way to all come together and enjoy some non-work activities that bring the team together. This doesn’t have to stop when you’re working remotely. Try scheduling a virtual happy hour on a Friday afternoon when everyone hops in an online meeting, turns on their video, enjoys a drink of their choice and gets to know each other a little better. You can even keep these accounts receivable focused by scheduling a virtual lunch and learn. Schedule the meeting over the lunch hour and encourage everyone to enjoy their lunch together over an online meeting. After a half hour lunch break, spend the next half hour covering a new educational topic for collection techniques.
Just because you are moving to a work from home model, doesn’t mean the social part of the office has to completely disappear. There are numerous ways you can continue to foster comradery in the accounts receivable department, which will lead to happier employees and increased productivity. Taking advantage of tools for video chat and chat communities are key to a successful accounts receivable team.
Communicating with Customers
When you and your customers are working remotely, you may run into communications issues that can delay payments. The best way to combat this is to anticipate these challenges by working proactively and allowing customers to self-serve their payments online.
How to Overcome Customer Challenges from Remote Accounts Receivable
Once a customer has moved to a remote work style, you might find that their phones are not forwarding to their home location or they can’t easily access a required signature for payment approval. We’ve pulled together tips from our customers and employees who have been working from home for years to help you navigate these new hurdles to getting paid.
A long-standing tip for getting paid quickly is to be kind to your customers. Your customer remembers who was friendly and is more likely to pay first those that they have a good relationship with. Be empathetic with your customers as they navigate this new method of working and give them grace while they settle in. Take the time to check in with your customer without asking for payment. Call them or send them an email just asking how they are doing and whether they are feeling comfortable in their new settings. This simple way of reaching out to customers will go a very long way in ensuring you get payment when it’s due.
Anticipate Potential Issues
Being proactive and anticipating issues your customers might be dealing with greatly reduces your chance of delayed payments. As your customer moves to a work from home environment, they may have issues accessing and finding the supporting documents they need for payment, such as purchase orders or contracts. Ensure that, without the customer having to ask, you’re attaching these necessary documents to every invoice you send out. You can make these available online for customers using a cloud-based accounts receivable tool, like Lockstep Collect. Customers can self-serve their access to critical documents.
Another common issue you can proactively anticipate is customers having difficulties gaining the required approval and signatures from their team to make payment. Send contracts, invoices and links for online payment to include supervisors of the payables team. Take the time to identify prior approval processes for customers and include those individuals on emails.
Expand Contact Methods
Consider that your customers might be facing issues having phone calls reach them at home or are struggling with email connectivity. Phone call and email are not your only tools in the accounts receivable department to get a hold of customers. Try tools like LinkedIn. Reach out and send a message to your typical contacts first. If those continue to go unanswered, start moving up the chain on LinkedIn until you get a response.
Even though you may have mastered your remote work processes, you customer may still be settling into their new routine. It’s critical that you make it as easy as possible for them to make a payment. By remaining empathetic, reducing barriers to payment by offering document self-service and expanding your contact methods, you will be armed with the tools you need to overcome issues that may arise from your customers moving to remote work.
Promote Customer Adoption of Self-Service
A simple way to make the collections process more efficient for both your accounts receivable team and the customer is to give them the opportunity to go online for payments, AR documents and disputes. Customer self-service takes a lot of time and energy off collectors and allows them to focus on the most important activities that brings in cash faster.
Collecting Cash Remotely
One of the biggest transitions for the accounts receivable department when moving operations remotely is figuring out how to deal with customers who still want to send their payment via check. When there is no one at the office location to send these checks to, who will be accepting them and depositing them? Instead of contacting all of your customers to give them a new address, contact your customers and encourage them to pay via credit card or ACH payments. You could even offer a small discount incentive to get customers to use one of these payment options.
Spend Less Time on the Phone
This may seem counterintuitive to the core activities of most collections professionals. A lot of your work relies on being on the phone with customers. However, there’s a difference between productive collection calls and simply fielding calls from customers who have questions. Moving your operations remotely is a time of transition for your customers too and they might have more questions than usual about how to remit payment or who they should be contacting. Keep your contact information and notices up to date online and include links in all your communications regarding access to this information. Additionally, give your customers the ability to communicate with you online, so you can answer these questions when it is most advantageous for you, instead of having to stop what you’re doing and answer the phone multiple times a day.
Let Customers Access Documents Themselves
A common remote work issue is where your customer documents will be stored and who will keep track of them. When a customer calls and needs access to a document, it’s important that your team knows where it’s located and can easily produce the document for them. Instead of trying to keep hundreds of folders in a shared file system, like SharePoint or Google Docs, it’s much easier to allow customers to self-serve their own AR documents online. Not only does this create one centralized location for all important documents, but it also reduces the amount of emails and phone calls you might receive from customers looking for access to a specific document.
Giving customers the ability to self-serve payments, AR documents, disputes and questions online takes a lot of the burden off of remote accounts receivable employees. Remote employees have to schedule their day to make phone calls when they have a quiet and focused workspace, so fielding calls all day from customers with questions will only reduce productivity. Customer self-service made specifically for accounts receivable, like Lockstep Collect, increases the time remote accounts receivable professionals have to focus on collecting cash.