Offering a 360° view of supplier information, Esker’s automated platform spans the entire procure-to-pay process — equipping finance departments with AI and RPA technology and helping them effectively manage compliance, gain full process visibility and reduce staff workload.
We asked Neil Palmer, Business Development Manager for Esker’s Procure-to-Pay solutions, about his 24 year career at Esker, how the solutions have developed over his time with the business, and what benefits can be realised by organisations that are using Esker’s P2P solutions.
A discussion between Esker’s Head of Marketing, Sam Townsend, and Business Development Manager for P2P, Neil Palmer.
This discussion is also available as a podcast . Listen here.
ST: Hello everyone, and thanks for joining us again for another of our Esker On Air podcasts. I’m Sam Townsend, Head of Marketing at Esker Northern Europe, and I’ll be your host for this session.
Today I’ll be speaking with Neil Palmer, one of Esker’s longest serving employees of almost 24 years’ experience.
So, let’s get started.
Firstly, welcome Neil, and thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with me today.
NP: You are very welcome Sam, thank you, and good morning everybody, or hello everyone, it’s a pleasure to be here.
ST: Well Neil, having almost 24 years’ experience at Esker it’s certainly a great achievement, and definitely deserves some significant recognition. I’m sure that throughout this time you’ve seen a considerable amount of changes within Esker; the external marketplace, and personally, with where you are today as one of Esker’s senior business development managers for our procure-to-pay solutions.
I guess a good place to kick things off would be if you could explain where it all started for you working at Esker, and how this evolved for you over the years to where you are today in your current role.
NP: Yes no problem, well it’s absolutely, well it’s hilarious, actually. Only yesterday I was writing a LinkedIn post, and the first thing that I wrote on there was, “I had hair when I started!”, it’s been quite a journey! But it’s been a great journey. I’ve always considered it, it sounds quite cliché, but I’ve always considered Esker to be a family. It’s a great place to be, lovely people, and I’ve learned a lot over the years, but it has been a journey. I’ve done lots of different things throughout that time, and we’re going all the way back to 1998, so getting on for 24 years ago. I think that maths is right! I was a young lad of 19, and it was my second or third job after a failed attempt at kitchen fitting, and a little dabble with being a junior programmer. I got made redundant, and just speculatively wrote for a job at Esker. The old MD, Bashrat Din, he gave me an interview, I got on board with Wynne and his team in the Technical Department. So I started off back in 1998, my first role was actually answering the ‘phone, dealing with customers, and that’s always where my love has been; helping customers. We used to sell an emulation solution, so back in the day where you had a Windows PC on your desk and also a terminal; the software we sold effectively reduced the need for two machines on your desk, so it was an emulator that sat on Windows to allow you to talk to your mainframe system, that’s what we sold primarily, in fact we still do! There are still people that use that to this day. My position was to answer the ‘phone, when people had bought copies of the TUN Plus software, they got a serial number in the box, and they’d ‘phone me, and I’d give them the details of how to get the licence installed and working, and they could register their details. That gradually transitioned into a support role as well, taking first line support calls, and for the first few years that was pretty much what I did, and it was great. I made some great relationships with customers.
ST: Was that technical support then Neil, that you were doing?
NP: Yes absolutely, so taking any issues with the software, any connectivity problems, I’d just dive in there and try to help the customer to solve those problems, escalate anything to the senior guys if there were any particularly difficult ones, but most of that was interacting with customers, solving problems. I worked along-side Paul Scrivens-Smith who’s now moved on to our US Office, and he’s one of our other long-serving guys. So that happened for a while and I gradually moved towards internal systems, so I was also looking after printers, and installing new PCs. In fact I put in an old Sisco ‘phone system; I’ve tried my hands at a lot of things! This sounds like a job interview! And then also I did a little bit of professional services, so I went out to visit some customer sites, and I did some implementations of our solutions. So it was really nice because it was a very varied and diverse journey through technical solutions and visiting customers, so it’s always been changeable, there have always been lots of things that have kept it very interesting. And finally, back to 2009, 2010, I moved into the world of Sales! At the time I referred to that as the dark side, but it’s actually been a brilliant transition for me, and I think one of the main reasons behind that is that, is actually, as a sales person, to have the technical knowledge and the understanding of the solutions puts you in quite a good position. So it’s been really nice to serve customers and help them with the commercial side of things, but also with the technical; how does it work? So whilst I still need assistance from the pre-sales and technical guys, I’m quite self-sufficient most of the time to go and see customer, just on my own. Often you’ll get to a room of 10 people and they are like, “Who else is coming?” and I’ll say, “It’s just me! Here I am!”.
ST: So I guess where you are now, in your current role, you look after specifically procure-to-pay; solutions for procure-to-pay?
NP: That’s right.
ST: Could you tell us about that?
NP: So we’re split into teams here at Esker, so we have both the order-to-cash side and the procure-to-pay side. So I work on procure-to-pay, handling accounts payable, procurement, and all of the other parts of that solution such as expenses, supplier management, contract management, and it’s a really nice place to be. We’ve got a lot of very well known customers around the world. But it is a mixture of both helping customers to choose and buy their solutions, but also looking after existing customers and making sure things are working well for them. But it was a choice I made to go into P2P and I thought that it was an area that I, well, it just resonated with me, it’s a nice solution, there are a lot of benefits of the solution.
ST: Yes, I was going to come on to that and say, in different organisations, where there’s a focus on order-to-cash and procure-to-pay, and on the procure-to-pay side, what would you say are the main benefits experienced by an organisation?
NP: It’s quite wide-ranging of course, there’s a lot of different components to our solutions, and there’s various benefits that a company will gain. I’d say that if I had to pick a single one as the thing that really stands out I’d say it’s visibility. If you consider, before any automation, you have lots of companies, I mean really, looking at accounts payable as an isolated area for the moment, the amount of times that I’ve spoken to potential customers and they say we have an approval process for our invoices and we put them in a folder and we walk them from one office to the next. I went to visit a potential customer in London, and they had office juniors walking invoices from office to office, so if they ever had a query, an audit, they just didn’t know where the invoices were, they were just on desks waiting for someone to sign them, so there were late payments. So having all of those invoices in one place in a solution, where you can track where they are, you can see which user is approving them, you’ve got dashboards and charts and reports, it’s just revolutionary things. For most people, they don’t understand where a document is in the cycle, so that will probably be the biggest benefit that most people see when they get away from this manual handling of paper, even scanning them in and putting barcodes on them, there’s lots of manual steps required, so to remove the paper and give people control and visibility is just the number one benefit that I’ve seen for most customers.
ST: Thanks Neil, so yes that’s very interesting with visibility being the number one benefit, and I’m sure as you say there are many other benefits that a department can gain, and organisations internally, but what about externally? What sort of benefits are brought? I know these days everyone is talking about relationships outside of the organisation and strengthening those, and they talk about harmonious ecosystems. How does that work in terms of Esker and the benefits that that brings?
NP: Well I think you are right, automating something like accounts payable and the procure-to-pay cycle, you’re going to get benefits right the way across your company, with departments working closer together. I mean AP is quite a strategic part of the business anyway, I don’t think people really give it the full credit that it deserves, but outside of your company, we are trying to encourage a collaborative approach where we have ways of allowing your suppliers and customers to self-serve. We want to be able to have them accessing documents in the Esker portal. I mean Esker really sits as a front end to most processes, whether it’s order management or accounts payable, to get documents in, to have them processed and approved quickly and then flowing into the ERP system. But it’s getting users, suppliers and partners involved in that process, like, we have a conversation tool, for example. If you have any queries you can easily bat those off to the relevant people. In the old days, and before automation, you’d have lots of information in silos almost. Everyone knew what they were doing but there was no real concept of sharing. So a collaborative platform where you can process your documents but pull in all of the relevant approvals and documents, and even have your suppliers updating their information within the supplier management module, and that information can then be vetted and approved before it’s pushed into the ERP, so we can make sure that onboarding is very quick and easy, and that suppliers can really make the most of the communication that we bring, so there’s a lot of benefits both within a company but also out into the wider community as well.
ST: Yes, that’s excellent, and I guess leading on from that, that would have been a benefit during these tough economic climate times that we’re in, and a global pandemic and the like. How has that allowed for stronger business resilience?
NP: Yes the pandemic, well there’s a large topic. It’s changed a lot of things for all of us hasn’t it? From our working patterns to our day-to-day routines, everything has changed. Even in the early days of the pandemic, I have a customer in South Africa that I spoke to, and I did ask them directly, “How have things changed for you?”, and they were really grateful to have the Esker tool because they transitioned to home working really fast. The tools were there, they just need a web browser, and their connection to SAP is directly available to them within the Esker tool, so they could just push their team in a shared service centre out to home. They were working without any problems, without any configuration, it was just ready to go. So that’s really helped them to transition, and of course, we would all like to be back in the office, I am speaking to you from the office right now, so we are starting to see that process, but it feels like the future is the hybrid approach, with working from home and working from the office, so the Esker tools being cloud-based are perfect for that really because it gives you the flexibility, the choice, to work from wherever you need to, and all of the tools that you need to process your documents and handle the day-to-day tasks, they are all available at your fingertips. So it’s a nice way of bridging that gap that the pandemic has caused for us.
ST: Yes, that’s fantastic. And then, I suppose, as we move forward now, and hopefully as we get through this global pandemic, we can start now to think about the future, and understand what are some of the developments that we can really push forwards now. I know we talk about artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Is there anything on that side that you are particularly interested in or excited about for the future?
NP: Yes, well I guess this is where I show myself up as being a bit of techie, because I genuinely think that if I’m out there in the world, I don’t want to use the phrase ‘selling Esker’s solutions’, because actually we’re here to help customers buy, and that is a bit of a cliché, but it’s true. The techie in me; I absolutely love the solution that we’ve got, the way that it reads documents and the way we use artificial intelligence to learn what we’re doing, and to suggest things. I mean, it even , behind the scenes, it uses facial recognition technology to identify anomalous entries, for example, in the world of orders, if we see a quantity that we’re not expecting, it sits outside of the usual face, it flags an alert, and the technology is actually really exciting! It’s a pleasure to be involved in the development. All of Esker’s solutions are developed and rolled out in an agile way, so it’s constantly developing according to what our customers are looking for. We’ve got product management teams who are always driving the development of what the solutions are going to do, but it’s really exciting, with the technology and some of the ways that we’re trying to help automate processes for our customers, it’s really a nice place to be. And every time that we have a product release and we see what’s going to be the latest new features that are coming in, it’s genuinely an exciting time to see what we can take to our customers next, because there’s some great things coming down the pipe, some I probably can’t mention straight away. But one of the big areas of focus also, which ties back in with my history is that we have a Customer Experience (CX) Team as well, and this bridges the gap perfectly because we’ve got the solutions out there, in the world with our customers using them, and what we really don’t want to have is frustrated customers, if anything’s not working as it should do, or if they need extra training, and this is where the CX Team come in, because they sit with the customers and they understand the requirements, and they give training, and it just really helps them to get the most out of the solution and helps to improve their experience. So you know, yes, lots of things to be excited about at the moment. From a product point of view, there’s a couple of things that have come out recently, and I’ve mentioned this already, Supplier Management. That’s a really nice way of helping to onboard suppliers, and ensure that all of the documentation is up-to-date and that their information is correct, and it just helps to keep the data cleansed in the ERP. And also now Expenses. It’s an extra part we’ve added on into the P2P module, and that’s promising to be a really exciting thing that we’re doing. And of course it’s developing all the time, so lots to get our teeth into.
ST: Fantastic, sounds like there’s a lot coming!
NP: Absolutely, yes, there’s never a dull day, and also as a general point, every day is a school day, you know, we’re always learning from our customers, and trying to help them as best we can.
ST: Sure. That’s great! Superb! Thanks Neil. That was really insightful and it’s amazing to understand how far Esker’s developed its business from the early days of terminal emulation, and right up to the present day with it’s global cloud-based automation platform. And as you say, for managing an organisations’ order-to-cash and procure-to-pay cycles, so I really appreciate that.
NP: Yes, no problem, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you. Like I said at the start, it’s been a journey, from the days of doing terminal emulation, Esker have done a lot of things, even into faxing, postal mail delivery, SMS messages, you know, we’ve done a lot over the years. Of course, we’re fully cloud based these days, all of our solutions are available and all you really need is a web browser, we can pretty much talk to any ERP system, so there’s no real restrictions to what we do. I don’t want to keep using the word exciting, but it really is! It’s a great time to be involved in looking at solutions to help your business, so it’s a pleasure to be part of that.
ST: Fantastic, and I guess, fundamentally, although those technologies have changed over the years, the fundamental of the foundation, has always been putting the customer first, and understanding what the customers’ requirements are. I guess that’s sort of a take-away message and listening to the customer and putting into practice, and making sure that we get a good mix of understanding between people, process and the technology.
NP: Absolutely, you know I couldn’t have said it better Sam, I think the customer is always going to be king, and we’ve got to make sure that we are serving them as best we can, and that solutions are helping them in their specific industries. We don’t really target any specific industries, so we’ve got to make sure that we are listening to all the requests that we get, and that we’re heading in the right direction, but both from an account management point of view, support department, professional services team, everyone in the flow, all the way through the business, the customer is king, because without the customer, there’s no real point is there? If we’re not providing the service that we should be. It’s always been based upon helping people to automate various different processes, in their business, and just to provide a better experience for the user, rather than documents coming in and having to be manually keyed in and passed from desk to desk. It’s about helping the user to provide more value in their business really. We’re not trying to replace people, far from it, it’s about helping those people to do their job more effectively. I mean, we’re talking today primarily about procure-to-pay, but just going back for a moment to the order side, if you have typically people keying in orders in a business, and they are called the customer service team, how much customer service are they actually providing when they are keying orders? There’s not really much service going on, so if you take away the manual element of keying those documents in, then you’ve got a team who can then talk to customers and make sure they are happy, potentially upsell to them, if there’s chance to improve what they are buying or give them some ideas of promotion. So it’s just about giving the staff more time to do their job and, it sounds again quite cliché to say value-add, but that’s the point, give the people more time to get their job done effectively, remove or reduce the errors, and make sure that as a business, you’ve got people being assisted by technology, ultimately providing a better service to your customers, avoiding costly disputes and unpaid invoices. From end-to-end, you’re improving your business cycle and helping to improve your reputation, and keeping your customers happy, effectively, and that’s what we’re all trying to do.
ST: Excellent. Thanks again Neil for that, it was very insightful, and thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to join us today. So just to finish up, to listen to more Esker On Air podcasts, please visit https://www.esker.co.uk/esker-air/. Thanks again to everyone, and thanks Neil.
NP: Thanks Sam, thanks everyone, see you soon.
This discussion is also available as a podcast . Listen here.
Episode 1 in this series can be found here.