The Payables Clerk (#306)

In this podcast episode, we discuss the key characteristics of a successful payables clerk. The job description is pretty simple – the payables clerk pays the bills. But, as I noted in the last two episodes, you need a particular kind of person for each accounting position. The ideal collections person is an outgoing negotiator type, while the billing clerk is an introverted process manager who doesn’t make any mistakes. When hiring for the ideal payables clerk, you need to look for yet another type of person.

The Personality of a Successful Payables Clerk

There are two factors that drive the personality of a payables clerk. One is the fact that they’re constantly getting crapped on. Somebody wants them to issue a manual check on a rush basis, and somebody else wants them to drop everything and issue an electronic payment, while a third person wants them to issue a payment to a favorite supplier, even though the paperwork isn’t quite all there yet. It can be a bit like operating in the middle of a hurricane.

And this is not a minor issue, because of the second factor, which is that the payables clerk is the last line of defense against fraud. This is the last person who really has a chance to dig through the supporting paperwork and verify that a payment is supposed to be made – and if not, to refuse to issue the payment, and tell the controller that someone is trying to force through a payment that shouldn’t be made.

So, you can see the problem. On the one hand, a payables clerk is under constant pressure to get payments out the door, and yet also needs to slow down and make sure that the supporting paperwork is correct. This calls for a very particular kind of person. A good term would be obstinate. The best payables clerk has an absolute knowledge of how the payment process is supposed to work, and is absolutely not going to deviate from it.

If that attitude pisses off other managers who want to get payments done as fast as possible, then that’s just fine – you have the perfect payables clerk. Of course, it doesn’t hurt if that same person has a reasonably polished manner when dealing with other people, so that he or she doesn’t really piss people off. Instead, the best approach is for the clerk to clearly state what the payment process is, and what paperwork is required.

As long as the clerk states exactly the same rules every single time with everybody, then eventually no one will try for a special exemption for a payment. At this point, the payables clerk will have trained the entire company in the procedure for getting a payment out the door.

A consideration here is whether you can really expect someone in a low-level clerical position to stand up to a department manager – or someone in an even higher position – about when to make a payment. No, of course not. But the ideal payables clerk will wait for approval from the company controller, and not just accede to every demand the moment it’s made. That takes the pressure off the clerk, and forces the controller to make the payment decision.

Characteristics of a Bad Payables Clerk

Based on this description, you can see what a bad payables clerk looks like. This is someone who’ll bend over backwards to accommodate anyone who needs to get a payment completed right away, even in the absence of the proper paperwork. Because of the need to please, any possibility of detecting fraudulent payments vanishes, which will eventually result in losses.

How to Measure the Performance of a Payables Clerk

Now, how can you measure the performance of a payables clerk to see if you have a good one? No, it isn’t based on the number of outraged managers bugging you about why the clerk isn’t issuing payments as fast as they’d like – though personally, I kind of like that one. The most quantitative measure is whether they’re paying suppliers exactly on time. Not too early, and not too late. In particular, look for early payments. A consistent pattern of early payments indicates that a payables clerk is suffering from that need to please that I mentioned earlier, and immediately issues a payment when anyone important badgers them about it.

So in summary, when I’ve been talking about accounting positions over the past few episodes, the focus has been on the ideal personality for each position. And there really is a difference. You could have a truly great collections person fail as a billing clerk or a payables clerk, because the personality type needed is different. This means that you should take the time during the interviewing process to spot the right personality type for each job. If you spend enough time on this, the effectiveness of your accounting staff should go up.

Related Courses

Payables Management