Maximising business efficiency from supplier portals

With businesses working with hundreds of partners, supplier portals can maximise efficiency, but how can they deliver the greatest benefit?

The benefits of a well implemented supplier portal are unquestionable compared to the alternatives.  A properly implemented system can avoid many of the obvious pitfalls that can surface from communicating only via emails or manual data entry.  This can lead to increased human error and security risks for business data.  

Michael van Keulen, Chief Procurement Officer at Coupa, believes there are a great many benefits as it promotes transparency between buyers and suppliers, streamlines operations, and helps resolve conflicts quicker.

“With multiple users engaging in a purchase order or invoice, it’s easier and more efficient to collaborate in a centralised network where all parties can work on the same item simultaneously,” he says.  “This reduces the risk of errors by reconciling purchase orders, invoices, and payments.”

CEO of Vroozi Shaz Khan adds to this, as there are also benefits to the supplier by using a supplier portal.  “Frequently, suppliers resort to calling and posing the infamous questions, ‘Did you receive my invoice?’ and ‘When am I going to get paid?’ This accounts for 25% of accounts payable’s (AP) time,” says Khan.  “By utilising a supplier portal, suppliers gain visibility and can verify whether the invoice is in process, along with the payment status. This visibility significantly reduces the time spent by AP personnel, freeing up approximately 25% of their time.”

What makes a good supplier portal?

As with all business solutions, the ease of use and the intuitive nature of the portal is critical in making sure it can maximise business efficiency through the whole transaction chain. 

Shaz Khan explains why it is important to think about the portal through the eyes of the supplier.  “If you think about a supplier, in a lucky situation, they have a lot of customers. If suppliers have 10 customers, they have the potential to visit 10 different supplier portals and don't want to be trained on 10 different systems. To ensure a smooth experience, it is essential to give suppliers the information and actions they need so they can get in and out quickly. A simple, but powerful user experience enables any supplier user to support their customer without any training.”

It is focusing on the relationship all parties have with the portal that can be the key to making your portal a success, elaborates Michael van Keulen from Coupa.  “For both buyers and suppliers, a good portal is intuitive with a quick and easy process to create an account,” he adds. “It should offer multiple channels that promote interaction between suppliers – from email flip to CSP. These features will lend to widespread adoption, streamlining operations and increasing overall value.”

If some of these aspects are not properly implemented, it can leave a very different experience for all parties involved, as it can create friction during the onboarding process.

“A known problem with a supplier portal is the multiple logins that can be time consuming and frustrating to navigate,” says Shaz Khan from Vroozi.  “Ideally, you want a supplier to log in one time, and they can work with all their customers. Supplier portals in general, have kind of a bad rep because of that. However, if the portal adds value, then suppliers will be more willing to login.  Certainly a portal that is difficult to use and doesn’t add much value exacerbates the hurdle of getting suppliers to participate. Having a portal that is easy to use and valuable to the supplier alleviates this common hesitation.”

With modern supply-chains no-longer being linear, and a complex network of international partners, many older solutions can be labour intensive, ad-hoc and manual processes which are no longer fit for purpose in the digital age.  

A reliance on spreadsheets and email communication can be much more complicated, and mean poor visibility on a supply-chain, when more visibility is becoming essential through every tier of the chain.

“Portals must include a network system of record. Without it, data latency is high, resulting in out-of-date information that can wreak havoc in the supply chain,” says Keulen.  “A supplier network, like what we have at Coupa, enhances supply chain visibility for all trading partners and offers collaborative processes and analytics with a single source of truth.”

How can a good supplier portal benefit the efficiency of a procurement operation?

The value of a well realised supplier portal can come to the forefront when it comes to solving problems, identifying risk, and offering the chance to quickly adjust to real-time issues.  

“Supplier portals digitise the entire process via AI-driven technology,” continues Keulen, Chief Procurement Officer at Coupa.  “It can specifically be used to automate data mining workflows – bringing hidden contract language, clauses, terms, and other relevant information to the forefront. These tools and solutions are invaluable in procurement’s new reality and have allowed it to be positioned as a true leader during global economic disruptions.”

It is this real-time information and the use of notifications that can set apart an effective portal, from one that leaves potential benefits on the table.  “As a responsible supplier, it is important to perform as expected and update the customer as circumstances change,” says Khan. “Having a quick and efficient method to communicate allows suppliers to inform customers promptly if there are any issues or concerns with the order. There's the need for agility in this day and age of change. If there is a problem, we'll get to know about it and adjust.”

It is this agility that has come to the forefront during recent geopolitical events and the pandemic, as they are adept at surfacing information like material shortages, or logistical problems like port congestion.  Without this information, businesses may have to seek alternative suppliers at short notice to avoid disruption to their trade, and that can lead to higher costs and failure to meet the needs of their customers.

Maximise the value of a supplier portal

It may sound like a very simple question, but what is the point of going to the time and expense of implementing a portal if your suppliers don’t feel comfortable using it?  

“Half the battle of creating a functional supplier portal is getting suppliers to actually create an account and use it,” argues Keulen. “Because if they aren’t able to access an easy entry point to the solution, they’re just going to continue using email as their primary form of communication. The more users there are, the stronger the network becomes and the more value the portal provides.”

Khan agrees, saying “Ease of use is extremely important. Making it easy for people to engage in the process is crucial. Value to the supplier is important in the design process. You're only going to get a supplier to go in there, if there's something in it for them. There has to be some value to them.”

It is also then critical once the portal has been implemented to embrace a culture of continuous improvement by listening to those who use the system.  

“If a company receives continuous feedback on customer pain points within the supplier portal, that’s a call to take a hard look at what features can be enhanced or added to drive a quality user experience,” says Keulen.

The future of supplier portals

The future of these kind of platforms is forming networks in a true market place says Khan. “A marketplace signifies an enhanced level of interaction with suppliers. By fostering better interaction with suppliers, it becomes more logical to attain the desired level of engagement,” he says. “So what that means is, it can be a true marketplace where I'm not a supplier waiting on the portal for orders to come to me, but I should be able, as a supplier, to actually go out and try and get orders and make deals proactively. It shouldn't always be like a supplier waiting for the order to come in, but their active participation in the marketplace.”

That longer term trend is balanced again the march of AI powered innovations, and the rapid realisation of the potential they can have to improve performance.

“This could not have come at a more crucial time,” says Keulen, Chief at Coupa.

“Organisations are handling massive amounts of invoice data but often lack the resources to streamline their processes. AI enables companies to reduce reliance on manual, error-prone tasks and increase invoice processing speed with automation.”

The ultimate aim of a supplier portal is to streamline and standardise the relationships between the customers and the suppliers, to reduce frictions and make every transaction seamless.  The explosion in AI tech is providing an ever increasing selection of solutions that help maximise business efficiency at every step of the purchasing process.

“For supplier portals, this specifically applies to automating inputs for key information like address changes on invoices,” continues Keulen. “It may seem like a small detail, but having the correct information for each supplier can be the difference between getting paid on time or two weeks late.”

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