The trouble with bills: when poor understanding defeats good intention

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the difficulties I was experiencing with billing systems and invoices as I learned to navigate a new industry. At the time, I had paid some suppliers twice but missed payments to others.

Today I’ve encountered something similar – once again linked to invoicing, and once again linked to clear communication.

I encountered a system that might work well if my full-time job was to process and understand bills. But paying bills is a tiny part of my work – and one that needs to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible. Because I deal with multiple bills from multiple suppliers, I quickly forget the little quirks of each supplier’s system.

Today I found myself with an overdue invoice and a frozen account, feeling daunted by the work involved in figuring out whether the combination of invoices, credit notes, return requests and adjustment notices that I had clipped together actually matched up with the statement I had in front of me.

I had been avoiding the problem for some time; it’s easy to avoid paperwork problems when there are more immediate issues to deal with. But today was the day! And as I worked, I discovered that the source of my confusion was communication, rather than the quality of the service or the accuracy of the data.

Here are some of the things that caused my confusion:

  • I received each invoice at least twice – once with the product delivery and once via email from the accounts department. Because the invoices all look pretty much the same, locating the repetitions took some time.
  • The emailed invoices were sent as a PDF file, and the name of each PDF was a string of numbers. I assumed that the number string matched the invoice number. No such luck. Because there’s no link between the PDF name and the invoice number, locating the right invoice is difficult.
  • Each PDF invoice might actually include multiple invoices. But each page looks identical, with no clear beginning and end for each invoice. On a quick glance I thought that each PDF was just one invoice, not several. It took me some time to figure out where to find the missing invoices.
  • Adjustment notices and credit notes have a number, but are linked to the number of the original invoice. On the statement, they appear listed with the invoice number only.
  • Adjustment notices and credit notes are listed on the statement directly under the relevant invoice, not in date order. This means that I spent a few days waiting for a credit to be applied to the account, when it was already there – I just didn’t see it because I assumed that the newest credit would appear at the bottom of the list.
  • When multiple statements are issued for the same month (in my case because I requested a change), there’s no clear difference between the statements. Because I had printed out the statements (showing an issue month but not an issue date), it took me some time to work out which one was the most current.
  • The invoices themselves are initially confusing because any backordered items are listed within the invoice and then shown as a 0 cost. While this might be logical, it means that a quick reading can lead to the impression that any single item has been invoiced multiple times.

Each of these is a simple communication problem. And most were experienced by me because I was working too quickly and not paying enough attention … much like many readers.

These are also problems that exist within an accounting system, and would be difficult to change.

But from my perspective as a customer, they are frustrating issues that influence my trust of the company and my feeling of agency. I’ve reached the point where I am no longer confident that the information I receive is correct. It doesn’t take much for a customer to look for another supplier – unless, of course, the effort of finding another supplier is too great, or there’s ongoing concern that another supplier will be no better.