I’m in self-quarantine. To a certain extent, this isolation means that I am facing a lot more “that’s a you problem” experiences: working at home is something of a closed loop. But a law library is typically a mid-point in a chain. This can mean that process changes upstream at the publisher can impact our our operations downstream. A Canadian legal publisher has been struggling with fulfillment and a lot of those problems have been amplified by our work processes. We decided to shift the burden back upstream.
I’ll take a step back to explain. We still collect print materials. When we order a book, or have a standing order, we receive an invoice from the publisher. For a long while, we received one invoice with each item. Sometimes there was a bundle, but the one-invoice-one-item concept was fundamental.
The legal publisher decided that it would be more efficient to send fewer invoices and to disconnect them from the fulfillment component. Items that were expected to be shipped were invoiced at the start of a month. Invoices were now tens of pages long.
All well and good. Except for Net 30. An invoice is sent and a payment is due. In the past, when the invoice arrived with the item, this was easy. Acquisitions checked that the item was correct and forwarded the invoice to our finance people for payment. An item that was incorrect was fixed (returned, credited, replaced).
But what happens when you have 200 items on an invoice and they don’t all show up?
The separation of invoicing and fulfillment created a wide gap in process. It is easy to automate the delivery of invoices. It is much harder to deliver print material. Some legal publishers sell Canadian legal books printed in the US, which adds the complexity of potential customs inspections. But even just basic physical fulfillment can be hard.
That was our experience. One invoice arrived at the start of the month and it started to age against Net 30. Some items arrived but the month continued to expire and many more didn’t.
Additionally, we were experiencing order delays. One order placed in November 2019 wasn’t executed by the publisher until February 2020. That’s a calendar year budget issue, since we booked the purchase against last year’s budget but it will come out of this year’s because of the publisher’s delay.
Fittingly, I suppose, customer service was also delayed. Emails to get credit notices or to return incorrect items went unanswered. Even my email to our account rep wasn’t returned for weeks.
Identify the Problem and Solve It
You can’t make a legal publisher work the way you want to. The best you can do is adapt your processes to them. Ideally, when you let them know things are broken, they will respond.
But your people come first. In our case, our acquisitions team was struggling between getting the items documented and complying with the Net 30 expectations. The expectation from outside – the legal publisher – and inside, in our finance department (outside the library).
If you forward a multi-page invoice on which some items haven’t arrived, you need to continue to track that invoice. And each month, a new invoice will arrive with more things to track. The acquisitions department becomes a waystation on the payment process and things start to back up.
The solution we came up with is simple: don’t forward an invoice for payment until all the items on it are received. It seems easy and obvious, in part because that’s what we were doing with one-invoice-one-item.
The complexity arises around one-invoice-200-items. If the publisher’s fulfillment is broken, the invoice-to-payment period will no longer be Net 30. We notified both the publisher and our finance department that we would no longer be meeting any payment deadlines.
I let the publisher account representative know we would be holding invoices until fully paid. I let the finance people know that they would be getting calls from the publisher’s billing department asking where our payment was. This very simple change may have significant drawbacks for the publisher, who may now wait months for payment.
But it was a huge weight off our acquisitions folks. It dramatically reduced the complexity since no invoice moves forward until all items are checked off. If the publisher issues a second invoice with duplicate items, the duplicates are ignored. One item. One invoice entry. One invoice.
There is always a balance to be struck when you create a process. It’s important to revisit a process that is causing more work – and strain on your team – than it is solving. Sometimes when the changes that impact your work are out of your hands, you just need to work with what you can control.