PODCAST

It’s Gonna Get Ugly: Q&A With TouchCommerce Chair Jeff Stiefler

Jeff Stiefler, Chairman of TouchCommerce, is a former president of American Express and CEO of IDS Financial Services. He also was the CEO of banking outsourcer Digital Insight, now part of Intuit. Stiefler spoke recently with ECT News Network interviewer Blake Glenn about technology and the economy.

The financial crisis sweeping the U.S. economy will cut a wide swath of destruction that will include the fast-growing technology sector.

He predicts a tightening of capital markets, including both venture capital and debt financing; firms conserving their cash and reducing expenses to weather the storm; a significant rise in business failures due to the inability to access needed financing and a slowdown in purchasing by corporate consumers of technology services and products.


Listen to the podcast (18:13 minutes).


Changing Priorities

Firms across the board will be cutting back on technology projects and focusing on those that are mission critical and those that provide proven return on investment. Projects that merely streamline an administrative function, for example, most likely will be deferred, he said.

In fact, he suggests that the acquisition of technologies that increase sales, reduce costs or improve customer retention could actually increase.

When asked about the role technology can play in the crisis, Stiefler quickly points out that there is no technology solution to this crisis. However, the technology sector will continue to be a driver for the U.S. economy, he said.

Here are some excerpts of the interview:

E-Commerce Times: There’s a big elephant in the room right now, which is the financial crisis that’s going on that is impacting the entire economy. Because of your deep background in technology and your background in financial services, I just want to get, first of all, your general perspective on the financial crisis.

Jeff Stiefler:

I’m not sure I have any more information than anybody else who reads newspapers or watches news on television or listens to it on the radio. Clearly, we’ve gotten ourselves into a position where, for a variety of reasons, institutions have not been able to bail themselves out of credit-related problems and the government has had to step in in a major way to help them do that. It’s, I think, a very unfortunate turn of events, and it’s going to create a deep set of problems that we’re going to have to work our way out of as a country, but we clearly will work out of them, it’s just going to take some time.

ECT: From your perspective, what kind of impact do you think this crisis is having on the technology industry, whether it’s in terms of getting loans, or getting venture capital, or any other kind of impact? What kind of impact do you see happening right now?

JS:

Getting capital in any form is always challenging for firms, whether they’re younger firms trying to get venture capital or more established firms trying to raise debt. As a consequence of that, companies are shepherding cash, which means they’re not using their cash to expand in the way that they’d normally use, and they’re trying as hard as they can to reduce expenses wherever they can to help them use as little cash as possible. That’s true across the board, it’s true in companies of all sizes and in all industries. It’s probably more true in financial services than it is in other places because that sector’s been the hardest-hit, but it’s a condition that exists everywhere.

ECT: Do you think that this is going to cause a shakeout among some of those emerging growth technology companies that may have received some venture capital but may not have enough money, or have the wherewithal either to raise the next round of financing or the money to make it through this financial crisis. What do you see happening there?

JS:

I think there’s going to be a significant rise in business failures of all types, because again there’s very little access to capital, and buyers of the services of these venture-backed companies will often be cutting back on their purchases, so the cash coming into these companies will erode to some degree. So firms that need a lot of capital in order to be able to turn the corner and can’t revise their business models fast enough are going to fail.

ECT: What do you see as being the current state of the information technology and Internet sectors right now?

JS:

As it relates to the problems that the economy’s going through, the technology sector will clearly be impacted. Firms are going to cut back on investments everywhere, and they’re going to defer projects as long as they can in a lot of places, and they’re going to focus their investments on those areas of technology where there’s a proven and certain return on investment. They’re going to go through a very disciplined process, prioritizing the investments that they make. I think firms that provide technology that’s nice to have but not mission critical are going to struggle.

ECT: What are some of the technology areas that you think are going to continue to get some of the funding from the financial community?

JS:

I think technology that helps people drive increased sales or helps them reduce costs or helps them improve customer retention and generates higher revenues per customer are all things that will be really difficult to cut back on, and in fact, one could argue, may even increase in value. I think major systems changes that improve to some degree the quality of an administrative function are things that are likely to be deferred.

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5 Ways To Sustain an E-Commerce Business in a Recession

economic downturn recession

Talks of a possible global recession coming in the next months have been abound lately. Even if it’s not yet certain, the threat of a downturn is something that e-commerce business owners should prepare for.

In a recession, prices can soar. Supply chains can be disrupted. Customers will be buying less. How these would specifically affect your business can vary depending on the nature and niche your business operates in.

The 2008 recession should serve as a warning to entrepreneurs. Small businesses struggled during this period with many ending up shuttering their doors. As such, it’s important to strategize for sustainability in a harsher business environment.

Here are five ways to sustain an e-commerce business during a recession.

1. Prepare Cash Reserves

Having ready cash on hand provides the agility and flexibility to spend or invest when needed. But not all startups come with a stout war chest. Typically, this is where funding can come in.

“Funding isn’t just a hurdle at the start of an e-commerce business plan. Once your shop is up and running, you’ll need constant cash flow to order inventory, run effective advertising, optimize your supply chain, and innovate your products,” according to e-commerce funding firm 8fig.

A recession can compound this need. For instance, inventory and fulfillment costs typically rise during a downturn. Having extra cash can help absorb these price bumps readily.

The most straightforward way to shield a business against this is by saving to build up capital. Instead of spending profits on non-essentials, think about investing the money back into the business. Another idea is to sell some assets like machinery or equipment that may not be critical to operations at the moment. You can always repurchase them after things bounce back. Liquidate while you can.

Lastly, if external financing from investors or funding firms are available, consider those as long as you’re clear with the terms.

2. Adapt to Customers’ Needs

The pandemic emphasized how quickly businesses should adapt to the changes in customers’ buying behaviors and preferences. The lockdowns hit brick-and-mortar business hard. While many businesses failed to adjust, the ones that survived were the ones that were able to pivot quickly. Some changes were even quick to implement. For example, offering delivery services and curbside pickup options and accommodating digital payments.

“[T]he most adaptable marketers don’t do different things; they do things differently. In particular, they listen differently and they plan differently,” says Cassandra Nordlund, Director, Advisory, Gartner.

The same need for adaptability is true for e-commerce businesses. Put on your marketer’s hat and keep a close ear to what your customers are saying. Reach out and talk to them. Create a survey of what they would likely do or buy should the downturn happen. This should help to plan ahead.

For instance, a recession may compel customers to become more price conscious. If you’re in retail, you can tweak your catalog to feature and stock up on more budget items than luxury ones.

3. Become Lean and Mean in Operations

Aside from raising capital, you can also improve your finances by managing cash flow more carefully. Wasteful spending will chew away at your margins and capital.

It’s critical to streamline and optimize operations before the crunch hits. Review your business costs and see which areas you can trim. Some common sources of wasteful spending are uncontrolled use of office supplies, unnecessary technology (equipment and subscriptions), and unproductive workers. When making cuts, focus on these costs.

Keep in mind, however, that while you may be tempted to restrict spending entirely, this may become counterproductive. For instance, you may try to do away with some of the digital tools and subscriptions that you use to manage operational tasks. But if cutting them will seriously impact efficiency, it may be a bad idea to do so. Dive into the details to see how each line item benefits you before deciding whether to cut or retain it.

Remember that not all spending is bad. Opportunities may also arise even during turbulent times. Sudden market demand might make offering a new product or service profitable. If such chances do come up, consider taking the calculated risk. This is where having cash reserves also comes in handy.

4. Explore Ways To Deliver Added Value

Even with preparation, many e-commerce firms will likely still feel the brunt of a recession. A drop in sales can and should be expected as customers also tighten their purse strings.

When this happens, a common knee-jerk reaction for businesses is to compromise on price by offering discounts and price cut promotions to boost sales. However, be mindful that slashing prices can hurt margins and financial flexibility.

Warren Buffet once said about pricing, “If you’ve got the power to raise prices without losing business to a competitor, you’ve got a very good business. And if you have to have a prayer session before raising the price by 10 percent, then you’ve got a terrible business.”

Instead of slashing prices, consider other ways to offer value. Offer extended return windows or guarantees, free shipping, or loyalty points, and communicate these perks well to customers to justify your price.

But if you really need to attract the price-conscious, offer bundles rather than discounting per item. This way, you can promote your other products and services or move stagnant inventory while avoiding across-the-board price cuts.

5. Pivot the Business

Pivoting, or changing the direction of your business, can be a painful decision for entrepreneurs. But if things are looking grim, it may be a life-saving decision for your business.

For instance, many e-commerce entrepreneurs have made a killing using the drop-shipping business model. Drop shippers can keep operational costs down typically by not handling inventory and logistics. During a recession however, this might not hold true.

Without having a direct handle on stock, any supply chain disruption can easily stump drop shippers who are forced to reassure customers, when in reality they are at the mercy of their suppliers.

Foreign exchange rates can seriously impact the cost of goods. Transportation also will likely be affected. Both typically result in erratic prices and lengthy fulfillment times. Drop shippers would have very little control over these circumstances and could end up with dissatisfied customers.

Anticipating these changes, such businesses can reconsider their model and shift to one that will be more capable of delivering value to customers. Drop shippers can move toward more conventional retail e-commerce where the business acquires, stores, and handles stock. This action may require more capital — and work — but provides control and minimizes uncertainties involved in the drop-shipping model.

From Sustenance to Success

Building business resilience is critical during tough times. Making some sacrifices and tightening the belt in some respects should help weather the negative effects of a recession. What’s important is for a business to sustain itself so that it can live to fight another day.

Despite all this gloomy talk, recessions do end. Surviving a recession should put you in a better position to prosper in a better economic environment. Also, on the upside, e-commerce penetration is still seen to continue its rise globally. Shoppers are expected to continue preferring buying goods online.

Should the trend hold, opportunities in your market, niche, or locality can emerge despite the challenging times. A recession may even provide a chance for tremendous growth. Preparing well in advance can put you in a prime position to jump on such opportunities to thrive.

Ralph Tkatchuk

Ralph Tkatchuk is Founder and Operator at TK DataSec Consultancy, where he specializes in e-commerce data protection and prevention.

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Back-Office Finance Automation: The Foundation of a Solid E-Commerce Enterprise

accountant using e-invoice software

E-commerce retailers and direct-to-consumer businesses of all sizes are dealing with a ripple effect of business challenges. These include continued inflation increasing the cost of goods and squeezing customers’ disposable income, global supply chain shortages, increased out-of-stocks, and more demanding customer expectations.

Add to that, the Great Resignation has led to a mass exodus of vital frontline and back-office workers, leaving retailers understaffed and hard-pressed to provide the service that customers want.

Fortunately, new digital technologies continue to help e-commerce businesses innovate by expanding online shopping options, improving forecasting and inventory management with AI-powered analytics, upgrading customer service with RPA customer-service bots, enabling last-mile optimization systems for omnichannel experiences, and increasing customer buying power at the point-of-sale with services like buy now, pay later.

These are all incredibly important capabilities supporting the front end of the business. But there are also technologies that work behind the scenes. like AP automation, that can deliver important value and quick ROI by helping e-tailers and direct-to-consumer businesses streamline cumbersome finance workflows, improve controls and security, reduce costs, empower remote employees, and help offset staff shortages.

FAQ
What are the benefits to e-commerce companies of automating AP processes?

Automating accounts payable processes provides several advantages:

  • Faster, more efficient finance processes and workflows
  • Fewer errors and less manual effort required to correct them
  • More satisfied and productive staff
  • Reduced full-time equivalent (FTE) requirements and operational costs
  • Increased cash-back rebates from suppliers
  • Happier vendors better positioned to support supply needs
  • Better cash flow management
  • Reduced risk of fraud

Manual Processes Create Inefficiency and Hinder Growth

Businesses still receive a surprisingly high number (25%) of paper invoices, and 47% are not using any type of invoice workflow automation solution. E-commerce is no exception. In my experience working with e-tailers and direct-to-consumer businesses, many are still making more than 50% of their supplier payments via check.

AP staff at these businesses are wasting valuable time and effort opening paper invoices, capturing and entering data, emailing or calling approvers, printing and mailing checks, and responding to questions from suppliers.

It’s a problem in any industry, but it becomes even more complicated in e-commerce where finance teams tend to manage many supplier invoices. In addition, as supply chain disruptions continue, it’s important for e-commerce businesses to do everything they can to maintain reliable inventory sources. This includes getting key vendors paid on time.

The Power of AP Automation

Modern accounts payable solutions can automate the entire invoice-to-pay process by providing a single workflow to capture invoices, automatically sync data in ERP and finance systems, simplify approvals, and send payments however suppliers prefer to receive them, whether that’s check, ACH, virtual card, or even cross-border.

These solutions can address much of what an e-commerce business needs including vendor onboarding, invoice capture, coding, approvals, and supplier management — as well as payment authorization, execution, and reconciliation.

The benefits to accounting and finance teams are obvious, but they also provide important advantages for many other parts of e-tail and direct-to-consumer businesses. Here are six examples:

1. Streamlined Invoice Workflows

Many finance teams spend the bulk of their time on manual, paper-based invoice processes. Full invoice-to-pay automation captures and codes invoices with far fewer errors than manual data entry and significantly reduces time spent processing invoices.

2. Improved Visibility and Control

Intuitive tools and centralized reporting provide users with detailed views of days payables outstanding (DPOs), pending or past-due invoices, and other category reports. In addition, specific employees can be granted access to the same level of reporting to gain real-time insights into invoice processing.

These capabilities help e-commerce businesses make the right decisions related to payment timing to maximize working capital and take advantage of early-pay discounts.

3. Reduced Costs and Generation of New Revenues

AP automation delivers where it matters for e-commerce businesses: top-line revenue growth and a stronger bottom line. Eliminating paper-based processes and manual data entry and using e-payments can reduce costs per invoice by up to 430%. In addition, rebates from virtual card payments can generate significant new revenues delivering a complete ROI while funding other parts of the business.

4. Increased Staff Productivity

The time employees spend on manual payment processes could be spent on higher-value initiatives such as optimizing receivables, providing proactive support to suppliers, or developing new internal processes.

For managers forced to multitask, it means less time in the back office and more time focused on customers. When hiring back-office help is tough, AP automation helps e-commerce businesses grow without adding headcount.

5. Empower Remote Work

AP automation allows finance staff to review and approve invoices or pay suppliers from anywhere, using any device. Similarly, month-end closing and AP audit data can be accessed remotely, further minimizing the need for staff to be in an office or store.

6. Stronger Vendor Relationships

Brands, wholesalers, and other suppliers are the lifeblood of any e-commerce business. The industry is already suffering from inventory issues; the prospect of late or missed payments adds additional risk of disruption.

Improving the ability to pay on time builds better relationships, adds leverage to negotiate discounts, and minimizes the chance of additional supply chain issues.

The Right Strategy

E-commerce is built on digital customer experiences and processes. That same thinking needs to be applied to the financial back office. Automating foundational processes like accounts payable can provide e-commerce operations with proven methods to overcome key supply-side challenges and deliver far-ranging benefits that help all facets of the business.

Matt Friend

Matt Friend is VP, product and program management, at MineralTree, a provider of accounts payable and payment automation solutions.

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