EBSCO’s Guide To Building A Winning A/R Team For Long-Term Success

Carolyn Etress

Carolyn Etress

Director of Accounts Receivable
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Carolyn Etress is the Director of Accounts Receivable for EBSCO. She has been working with EBSCO information services for the past 13+ years . She is an experienced leader in the receivables management space with a focus on workforce development, leadership, continuous improvement and cash flow improvement.

Session Summary:

Takeaway 1
Key reasons why EBSCO is focusing on enabling an agile and efficient O2C team.
Key Points
  • Directly responsible to collect revenue for your business and maintain customer relationships simultaneously.
  • Instrumental in managing working capital and cash flow to keep your business afloat (especially during times of a crisis).
  • Can positively impact operations of other teams such as sales, marketing, customer service etc.
Takeaway 2
Key Points
  • Use of collaborative tools and desire for more automation in daily operations.
  • Availability of a global workforce: with teams working remotely, your next staff member could be from anywhere.
  • Workforce demand for increased flexibility: Almost 54% of employees in 2021 admitted to quitting because they were not offered the flexibility on where and when to work
Takeaway 3
Key Points
  • Invest in upskilling your team
  • Communicate your organizational goals and vision to your team
  • Help your team navigate complex customer behaviour and escalations
  • Act like a small company
  • Empower your team with automation

Heather King 0:00
Hello everyone and welcome to our last session of our virtual Radiance On the Road. I am sad that this is our last one. But I am gratified and everyone who has joined us today, if this is your first session with us, thank you so much, you are going to have a good one. If this is your second, third, fourth fifth session with us, thank you so much for taking some of your day and spending it with us. We really appreciate it. We’re thrilled to bring you this awesome content. And we’re just appreciative that people want to see it. Before we get started. A couple of housekeeping notes. If you’ve been doing this with us all day, I’m sorry to bore you. But I want to remind everybody that we want to make sure that you get your questions answered. And you can only get your questions answered if you ask those questions. So make sure that you go into the right hand corner with all of our boxes in there. There’s the question mark box for q&a If you want to stay anonymous. And then there is the room chat where you can lead people messages, say hello, give, you know, give some encouragement, what you’ve all been doing at the end of sessions. It’s been really beautiful to see. So thank you for that. Just remember everybody wants q&a. Everybody wants questions. There’s our speakers especially. So make sure that you give them what they want. Ask those questions. Also, of course, our prizes. So don’t forget, we’ve given away for already, we have one more to give. At the end of this session. Our trivia questions at the end of every session, the first person to answer gets a $20 gift card. I think we’ve had four different people get them right this time. So we’re spreading the love. So make sure that you stick around to the end of the session and be quick with your fingers in answering that those questions. Also, we are giving away an echo show the more sessions you come to, the more chances you have to win one session gets you one ticket five sessions gets you five, and everything in between. We will be announcing the winner of that echo at the probably tomorrow. So it won’t be at the end. But you do get that chance to win a trivia to I’m sorry to answer the trivia question correctly and get that prize at the end of the session. Also, don’t forget, we’d love to meet with you. If you’re interested in meeting with us in HighRadius we would love to know, give us a message and a little question box. It’ll remain anonymous to everyone besides us. And everybody who enters or who has a completed meeting with us is entered to win an iPad. So we hope to see a lot of you in the next couple of days and weeks. Oh, right. I think that that is all of it. If I forgot something, you’ll know better than me. So please make sure that you remind me. But we’re up to our last session of the day. Our leaders guide from EBSCO to building a winning A/R team for long term success with our speaker, Carolyn Etress. She is the Director of accounts receivable for EBSCO. She’s been working there and Information Services for the past 13 plus years. She’s an experienced leader in the Receivables Management space with a focus on workforce development, leadership, continuous improvement and cash flow improvement. Carolyn, I’m going to let you take the reins on this session and take it away.

Carolyn Etress 2:58
Thanks, Heather. Good afternoon. Good day, everyone. It’s so good to be here with you, after two and a half years of not getting together. So I’m a little rusty on presentations. It’s been that long since I’ve spoken in front of a group and seeing some of you so it’s good to be here with you and I I’m going to ask for a little bit of grace today. As we step through these points together. I’m looking forward to talking with you. I’d like for this to be an interactive session. So as Heather mentioned, if you have questions, please post those and and let’s make this a conversation if we can. Today I’d like to talk with with you about about building a winning A/R team. But first a little bit about EBSCO. In case you’re not familiar with us, we are a diverse company. We have our hands on a lot of different spaces, including insurance services and manufacturing and distribution and real estate. But the groups that I’m focusing on are involved in Information Services and publishing and digital media. EBSCO employs about 225 librarians. That’s an interesting point for us. And all those work within the Information Services group that I’m focusing on during our conversation today. And we have about 70 years of serving the information needs of institutions, mostly libraries. So for today, we’ll be focusing on that information services business that I mentioned. This includes subscription services and publishing database, discovering ebook products and Goby library solutions, which provides books, eBooks, and related content management services to libraries. And specifically today, I just want to talk with you a little bit about my experience managing large A/R teams and what has changed for us in the AR space and in my business in the last 18 months and five things that I think we should be doing as we move into 2022 and then we’ll have some time for q&a.

So first, let’s talk a little bit about my experience managing a large A/R team. There have been times when I’ve met with some of you that have been managing 50, you know, an organization of 50 plus HR people around the world. And that’s been so much fun for me at EBSCO. Currently, I am managing an organization that is just a little over 30 people in size. And we are servicing 35,000 Customers processing around 240,000 invoices a year, we are working within around 45 Customer purchasing and payables portals. And right now we employ five cash application analysts.

So my focus over the last couple of years has really been to continue to build that winning A/R team. I think that everyone who’s joining today, or most who are joining today, are aware or feel that order to cash is at the heart of finance operations. And everyone in the business needs us to succeed. We’re responsible for collecting the revenue to keep our business running. And we also have to maintain customer relationships simultaneously. I think that’s one of the most difficult balances to manage. We’re also instrumental and improving and managing working capital and cash flow to keep us afloat, especially during times of crisis, like we all saw in 2020. And we have the opportunity to positively impact operations of other teams like sales and marketing and customer service. So we we have that interaction with customers provide a really awesome experience that can have a positive impact elsewhere. And I think that’s unique to A/R. So let’s talk a little bit about what has changed for us. When I say us, I mean us in A/R and also to us at EBSCO in the last 18 months. So for me, from my perspective, talent management has changed completely, the COVID 19 pandemic, and then the subsequent remote working environment change the way that all of our employees work almost overnight or overnight. And so it’s really driven up the use of our collaborative tools like the video conferencing software and chat solutions and things like that to facilitate an effective remote workforce. And it’s driven our teams to actually have individuals on the team to have desire for more automation in daily operations. And the business also has more desire for automation. So it’s kind of leading to a surge in digital adoption across various teams. And we also now have access to a global workforce, which has been really cool. So with teams working remotely, our next staff member could be from anywhere, it doesn’t have to be local near our office or in the US. So that’s really a big change. For a lot of us, some of us are already working across borders, but but some of us weren’t. So it’s really big change, and the hiring process has changed completely. So today, when we have an initial interview or a meet and greet with a potential candidate, we’re looking for their level of digital savviness. And whether they can comfortably join a web conferencing solution that maybe they haven’t used before and how professional their appearance, including their background is, and that experience, because ultimately, that’s what their colleagues and your customers are going to be experiencing day to day. So there are things that we look at differently, where we saw those as teachable skills maybe in the past, we feel like they’re necessary today. And one of the interesting things that I’ll talk a little bit about is also the workforces demand for increased flexibility. So we know that when we all went home to work during the pandemic that that afforded flexibility, unlike most of our workforce had experienced in the past. And so you would think people would be overly satisfied with that. But that’s not what we’ve experienced. We’re seeing like more and more demand for flexibility. So very interesting.

We are leading teams in the age of the great resignation. So there are two focuses when this occurs, and one of them is rebuilding a really capable workforce, and one of them is retaining the talent that we need and want to retain, what can we do from here. So for improved talent retention, my experience is that communication is the key, and that it’s very important in this remote environment to really make space for one on one employee time. And with the right tools I believe their remote environment is working better for that. So I’m getting more FaceTime one on one with people who report directly to me than I ever did in the, in the in office environment. And the same is true for myself and my executive leadership, I get more one on one meaningful time with them in a remote environment than I did in office environment. The other thing that we’re doing in terms of communication is catching up with our teams daily to plan and align on priorities. So it’s because we’re not in the office, there’s no like manager visualizing what’s going on with a team, and knowing just by seeing or overhearing what’s going on what the team is prioritizing or struggling with that day. So having an intentional, quick check in daily is what we’re doing now, with our teams just, you know, two to five minutes to make sure we’re all aligned on priorities, and everybody has what they need to have an effective day. The other thing that we’re really focusing on, is just trying to keep our teams happy on a daily basis, making people feel valued, and helping them achieve work life balance and supporting their needs in that way. You know, I mentioned just a minute ago, that we have this desire for more flexibility, even though we’ve we’re working in a more flexible age, than we’ve ever worked in before. And we’re serving our employees periodically, and learning from their feedback. So not only are we asking meaningful questions and seeking meaningful answers, we are taking those meaningful answers and doing something with them. So that’s been a really interesting experience for us. And EBSCO has also implemented a instead of calling it a work from home model, we call it a work from anywhere model. And we mean that employees are able to work from wherever they want. So we have employees that travel to be with certain family members, or even just to escape their current environment, or maybe the harsh winter conditions and near Boston and the Northeast, and, and so they’re working from anywhere, and they’re really enjoying that. Um, okay, let’s see. Okay, I have a question here. And I think it’s directed towards, I think it’s directed toward EBSCO. I’ll start with that, and maybe get some clarification if needed. But how many of you are back in an office? So currently at EBSCO? Our offices are, oh, shoot. Okay. We’re just asking the group Great. I’m, I’m back in the office part of the time. So I attend the office once a week. How often are you guys going back into the office?

Heather King 12:40
So far? We have a few that are. I’ve done a lot of work in the workforce, kind of back to back to the office stuff. And I think it’s super interesting to see that already. Two people are back in the office full time. But actually, I’m curious to ask Oh, wow, okay, work from anywhere. Great. I’m curious, Carolyn, I might as well ask an interrupt while you’re in the middle here. What about productivity? And I asked it to everybody also, because I know, during the beginning of COVID, people found that I think generally productivity went up. But that’s because everybody was working all the time, because nobody knew what was going on. But we were home. And so our days were longer our productivity was up. And then you know, you started seeing there’s that burnout, you know, kind of curve and then more of a focus on work life balance that you mentioned. So for you guys at EBSCO. How have you kind of gotten to that, but that work life balance? And how are you seeing your productivity? You know, in response to that, and I honestly asked the same question of all of our attendees, and we’d love to hear what you say in the chat box.

Carolyn Etress 13:45
Really good question, Heather. And I don’t think that there’s a, like a solid single answer to that. But I do know that EBSCO we at EBSCO seeing what you talked about pretty classic, like increase in productivity with the transition to remote work back during the pandemic, during the really uncertain days, because there was nothing else to do but work. But as we’ve adjusted to this new normal, we have seen productivity return to more of what I would consider normal rate and then as the burnout occurs, we have struggled, some of our team members have struggled with productivity. And we’re just coaching those people one on one and promoting Healthier Work life balance in hopes that that will help them return to more of a normal productivity. Maybe our expectations do need to change a little bit for the time being but um, at some point, you know, we’ll want to achieve levels that we saw pre pandemic or better. So how do we get there? We are working really hard to try to be as flexible as we possibly can. We’ve even implemented more flexible scheduling at EBSCO in the remote environment, which is something that I never imagined we would do be 100% remote for most of our staff and then also allow you know, like for 10 hour days or something like that. Give them even another day off during the week. Um, so we’re trying a lot of different things right now to try to, to try to keep people happy and to promote a healthy work life balance. Awesome. Okay, I’m not seeing any more comments about, about Office versus work from anywhere. So I’m going to move on. So let’s talk about some things that we should be doing as we move into 2022. So there are five things that that I think are recommend that we should be doing as we move into the new year. And the first one is investing and upskilling, our team. And we also want to make sure that we’re communicating clearly frequently and in a meaningful way to our organization. And we want to help our teams navigate the complex customer behaviors coming out of the, the pandemic environments. And we kind of want to act like a small company and be agile, we want to be focused, but we want to be able to change course quickly if we need to. And we want to empower our teams with automation as much as we can. Let’s talk about upskilling our team when I say this, I am talking about refining and rescaling our current workforce to meet the current needs. So new ways of working is can be disruptive. So upgrading and revamping skills is necessary now, you know, it’s always something that we talk about when we plan, but it became necessary immediately with the onset or the big transition to remote work. So as a leader, we have to help our teams build these cognitive and social and skills and then help them be adaptable and resilient. In times of change, I think that we’re we’re going to continue to see like change and pivot and plans and strategies more so than we ever did before 2020. We also want to communicate our organization’s goals and visions clearly. So if everyone on the team is aware of like the larger overarching goal that they’re working toward, they can feel more effective, and they can work together to accomplish those goals. So one of the things that we have to do is help them understand what’s important to us as leaders into our business. And make sure that what we say is important is how we’re asking them to spend their time. So if we say that, you know, collections assists should be 65% of, of your job. And, and this is 65% of how we assess your performance, we need to make sure that somewhere around 65% of the employee’s time is spent collecting.

We also need to ensure that we’re approachable, especially when our team members are in crisis, which we all know is happened much more often in the last year and a half or so than it did prior to COVID. And we we need to lead by example. And in these challenging scenarios, we might want to share with our teams what we would do to solve a problem that they’re facing. And then we also need to advocate for our teams, both in front of internal stakeholders and people senior to us, and then also to external stakeholders. Sometimes it’s important to educate customers on what our team members goals are and how their success is measured. So that customers can understand why a team member is you know, perhaps really pushing them to give a date by which payment will be made or to to make a commitment to some sort of payment arrangement. And then we just want to promote an open, open culture where we can talk about our successes as well as our failures. And remember that in in the end failure is a step toward eventual success. So that’s something that we want to make sure our teams feel and understand as well. I don’t know about all of your businesses, but I would assume that your customer relationships have gotten more complex that COVID has added a couple of layers of complexity to that. So we want our A/R analysts to be champions for our customers while we’re champions for the analysts. So one of the things that we want to help our our analysts understand is how they can balance their internal goals against our overall customer satisfaction objectives. That’s difficult and more gray. It’s not as you know, it’s not as black and white as some of the other goals that we have. So we want to make sure that our customers remain satisfied while also meeting these KPIs for collections. And when there is an escalation, you want to stand with your analysts and help them understand how they could have done things better, but also support them throughout the escalation. And we want to train them on best practices, not only during customer interactions, but before and after, as well. How do we prepare for customer engagement? What do you what do we do to prepare ourselves for the best customer experience during collections engagement? And then, once we’ve finished engaging with the customer, we’ve had an interaction with the customer, what do we do to wrap that up? What kind of notes do we make? What do we what do we do to follow up Should we check in with a customer six months down the road to make sure that the invoicing settings that we established are working well for them, and then make sure that our teams understand while collections and reducing DSO and improving cash flow are important to us. We want to make sure that our analysts understand how important customer satisfaction is to us without retaining customers, none of that other stuff matters. So it’s really important that our analysts understand that and that we share that regularly. I think sometimes as leaders in the finance space, we can fit a fail to let our analysts know how important customer satisfaction is. Finally, we want to act like a small company. And by that I just be I mean, be agile and realign with a changing market conditions. Because as we all know, the conditions have changed so very frequently over the last 18 months. So we want to pivot according to those conditions. And one of the best examples of this that I can think of from the spring of 2020 was those companies who managed to transition to remote work seamlessly. Now, let me just say, I know I’m using the word seamlessly, I don’t think anybody transition to remote work entirely seamlessly if they were in office 100% of the time before. But if you if we could at least create that perception for on the outside, I think that’s a huge win. So hats off to you guys.

And then we want to help our teams break large problems into multiple small ones. At EBSCO, we had the expression. And maybe you do too, how do you eat an elephant one bite at a time. So we want to break bigger problems down into smaller problems as not to overwhelm our analysts. And then we want to guide them through complete follow through of addressing every piece of that larger problem. And we also have to ensure that we have clear governance and principles and structures, and we define how our teams operate at all times. I know that the teams that I’ve managed over the years, we have really placed tremendous value on process documents and protocols. And so we have all these things written and they’re not necessarily they may just be written documents, or like bullet points or steps that we step through, they’re not always like a pig, a beautiful pictorial of a plot a process flow with, like, you know, captions and bubbles and things like that. And I don’t even know that the availability of that of those documents is as meaningful as the process of defining the process and having a team come together to write to document that process, I think that’s more meaningful. And that’s how people commit things to memory. So so we have clear governance on how you know how different processes should flow. And I think that’s really helped. And then we want to be able to look, look out for new opportunities to create value. And at EBSCO for us, that means a couple of things. One of them is how can we monetize? Or should we monetize some of the services and things that we’re providing, from the finance perspective? And asking those questions internally and having those conversations sharing those ideas? How can we add increase our value to the customer? And is that something marketable? And then the third thing that we have to ask ourselves is, are some of the things that we’re doing today still a value to the customers? Would they pay us for those things alone for those services alone? Or for those activities alone? And if the answer is No, probably not, we should consider, you know, eliminating those steps from the services that we provide. And finally, we want to empower our teams with automation. This has always been important to me, but I think it’s important to us all today, now more than ever. Let’s see, I have a question here. Is there any disconnection between the skills that we hire for versus the skills of our current team? And I think that’s a question for all of us. So if you could share your thoughts in the chat, that would be awesome. Is there any disconnection between the skills that you would hire for today versus the skills of your current team? I can speak for EBSCO and say absolutely There is a disconnection. So we have some really long term collections analysts and we’re having to, or we are working with them to upskill them, and make them more comfortable with technology and remote work and automation. Where, whereas where we have openings and we’re hiring new staff, we’re looking for people who show up already equipped to work in this new remote environment. So it’s, um, it’s been very interesting journey to take some of our most skilled, most experienced analysts and and notice that they’re struggling with transitioning to the remote environment and helping them to scale that, that challenge. What about you guys?

Heather King 25:45
Remember, everybody, we can’t hear you, but we can read you. So feel free to answer your question or answer the questions or give your comments in the in the chat box. Since I cannot call on you and embarrass you, in person, like I might be able to on a zoom call.

Carolyn Etress 26:04
And I’ll go I’ll move ahead. But I’ll try to keep an eye on the chat box as well. And I know Heather will. So if you if you’re writing an answer when we see it pop up, we’ll we’ll revisit that. In the meantime, let’s talk about empowering our teams with automation. So what we really want to do is help our teams move away from those repetitive transactional tasks and let them focus on more strategic and value driven tasks. So any automation that we have available to us, we want to train our teams, and we are training our teams to use those to their fullest capability. And so that’s even more important, I think, in the remote environment. And we answer any questions they have regarding our systems and encourage them to try to find smarter ways to get get finished with the task at hand or to get the information they need. And also, we just got them, let’s say Robin. So Robin says that her experience has been the opposite, she had a young new person who moved from another position and was replaced with an experienced tenured person. So that’s really an interesting perspective. And I’d like to hear more about that. So Robin, were both of those individuals already within your company within your organization.

Okay, so the new person with a brand new hire from a different organization or maybe out of school or something. And so, that is Am I correct in assuming the newer person didn’t work out and that you were able to replace them with someone who moved from another part of the organization.

Okay, so she moved to another position. And then it was replaced with an experienced tenured person. So the experienced tenure person was already working in your industry or in your company.

That’s a good ending for the new person, they were able to move to another position within the company that was needed. So that’s really cool. A happy ending for everybody I think and, the tenure year person was with your company for many years. So it sounds like with the transition to remote work that AR was able to pull somebody in from another part of the business and train them on AR because they already knew how the business works and how your automation how your digital workspace tools were working. Oh, Robin says that’s working. Great. That’s a really cool story. Thank you for sharing that, Robin. Let’s talk about empowering our teams with automation. So I mentioned that we want to use existing automation to its fullest capacity. And one of the things that we really work on at EBSCO. And I’m sure you do, too, is helping your teams look at technology as an enabler and not as a replacement, you know, as Sashi from HighRadius says it’s humans plus machines, not, you know, humans versus machines. So, um, we definitely don’t view technology as a replacement to humans, but we view technology as an accelerator to our work. And we want the team to focus on more strategic tasks as automation takes over manual processes. And humans want to do meaningful work, not boring, repetitive work, they’re more satisfied at the end of the day, if they’re doing something that is meaningful. And then we also record those performance indicators and we can show the teams then how their performance is accelerated their individual performance is accelerated with the use of technology, and we can show them year over year numbers for their average days in arrears and their cost of capital and their day sales outstanding. things like that to help them understand, you know, how many more invoices and how many more customers are you able to manage because of this technology. So we do share those numbers openly with our team members. So an individual during a performance conversation, which takes place twice a year, typically at EBSCO, we’d be able to share with them what their KPIs are this year, and the KPIs for their same portfolio last year. So I think that really helps them understand where they are and where they need to be and what has to be done to get there. And an example of this, where teams have seen the benefits of technology is that cash application at EBSCO allowed us to reallocate two of our team members to more strategic tasks, and less repetitive tasks. So they’ve seen firsthand how technology can impact their work and allow them to do more meaningful work. So, um, some final thoughts that I have for you are that as a leader, we have to drive a I say here a people centric culture in 2022. But I think we actually need to drive a culture centric culture in 2022, and really be thinking about what we need and want our culture to be, and to create growth opportunities for our team members and have a strategy that keeps them motivated and happy at work, wherever work is taking place. But we also at the same time, how to maintain structure, and continue to enhance that structure to make sure our teams keep delivering. So I think that, um, being a leader in this environment is more challenging. Because we, have to maintain structure while also maintaining flexibility. And those two have always been at odds with each other in the past. But I think with the the tools that we have available for digital workspace these days that it is achievable. So what questions do you have for one another for me, for HighRadius about what we need to do in 2022? To enable an AR team?

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