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December 1, 2021

Bill Pay Wars: The Rise of the App

By 
Richard Roppa-Roberts

Over the last few years, automation and cloud-based services have gone from being exciting and innovative to an expected minimum for most accounting applications. When it comes to bill pay apps, it’s no surprise that these same minimum expectations are shifting the landscape. 

The field has exploded to meet and exceed customer expectations, introducing new innovation, and possibly more importantly, choice to the marketplace. Gone are the days where Bill.com was the only choice for an ever-expanding and solution-hungry audience. 

So, what are the bill pay app options available to accountants? And what features should accountants really be looking for when making a decision? Let’s take a look at how accountants can navigate selecting the right bill pay app for their clients. 

THE RISE OF THE BILL PAY APP

With Bill.com's high profile success, many other companies have decided to focus on accountants, like Melio, Routable, Veem, Bill&Pay, and of course, Corpay one. Not to mention the other apps who have built some bill pay functionality into their services - (I see you QBO Bill Pay).

With more choice comes more opportunity, more innovation and specialization, but also more room for confusion. With the big valuations companies are seeing in Bill pay and Fintech more broadly, competition is going to be heating up and ultimately, you and your clients are going to benefit.

BEFORE YOU ENGAGE WITH A NEW APP

Know your problem.

This is the most important part of choosing a Bill Pay platform, but sadly the one most often skipped or over-simplified. Your problem is that bills need to be paid. You need a solution that takes care of that, and maybe a few other issues driving you to shop around. Before you do anything, ask yourself a few key questions.

  • Who is doing the paying? Do you have access to the client bank account or not? Are you paying on behalf of your clients or will they be paying? Both of you? Do you have staff? An outsourced service? Really think about who needs to be in the app, so you can get in the right frame of mind to understand how this will feel to the user - plus nailing how it really works.
  • Who is involved in approvals? Is this a simple situation with one approver? Or are there multiple GMs, department leaders or board members (as is the case with nonprofits) that need to be involved? This is a big differentiator between systems and should be considered as part of your buying journey.
  • Who is being paid? Are they just general vendors or are there some contractors and reimbursements in there? Are they all local? All based in your own region? Your own country? 
  • How are people paid? Are there requirements surrounding how your payees receive money? How fast do things need to happen? And how do people want their money? And what source do you need or even like to use to fund those payments?
  • How is information accessed? Once something is paid, where does the information need to live? Who needs to use it? What systems need to use it?  How does it need to be viewed?

Understand the big picture.

You’d be surprised how many people make assumptions about the basic features that will be available in every app.  As apps become more specialized, sometimes the basics get overlooked or even sacrificed to better serve a specific subset of use cases. So, take the time to think about what you like about your current process and make sure the app you are considering will meet your needs.

Know your functionality dealbreakers.

  • What are your critical tools? Quite simply, what are the parts of your workflow that you aren’t willing to change, even if you found the best solution for bill pay? This might be a particular app you are heavily invested in. Or, is it an integration you have between two tools that really makes your current workflow sing?
  • What are your ride or die workflows? It might not be a platform or app, but a particular order of events that is ingrained in your protocols, that you’d rather not have disrupted for your clients and your team. These are unique to your team and clients, whether it’s having the ability to see all of your clients from a bird’s eye view or ensuring you only ever see one client at one time. 
  • What are your client commitments and their use considerations? Depending on the amount of client involvement needed (see ‘Know your problem’ above), your solution might need to have capacity to handle your client’s critical tools and ride or die workflows as well as yours. Consider approval processes, diversification of payment protocols for different vendors, and even employee access needs.
  • What sent you here in the first place? What prompted you to begin looking for an alternative way to pay bills? Remember, you need a bill pay app that works for you and you shouldn’t have to overhaul your day-to-day processes to make it work. In this category, the Number One thing is: this bill pay app allows me to pay the bills I need to pay. It needs to pay the vendors I owe in the manner they accept and using the payment source I have. And, it allows me to monitor, cross-check, share and report about it in a way that works for me, my team, and my clients.

Know your budget.

Funny enough, people don’t think about what they’ll actually need to pay for the app that helps them pay bills and it can be tempting to pick the cheapest solution. But, even the cheapest solutions can become expensive in the long run in terms of time and effort - which always translates to money in the end. 

The price/value discussion is evolving now that many bill pay tools have business models that do not depend on monthly user fees, account fees or even variable transaction fees. Some companies make money on certain payment methods or offering a corporate credit card or from the spread in international foreign currency transactions. Different payment options and more diverse credit offers mean a lot of solutions can be offered to accountants and clients with no hard monthly or yearly costs. 

That said, budget is important! And everyone figures their price differently. So keep these things in mind: 

  • Are there base fees? 
  • Are there extra fees? Compare cost per transaction between the solutions after factoring in any additional fees. Or perhaps an annual cost per client is a better metric to understand and how this will impact your pricing and profitability.
  • What is the volume of bills I work with? By client? In general?
  • What is the pricing of the other tools I am using and are those prices affected by bill pay functionality? The last one is important because prices here might be affected positively or negatively by changes to your bill pay provider. In short, keep your budget in mind in terms of fixed costs. But also keep time and energy budgets for you and your staff in mind as well. 

SCOUTING THE FIELD 

Given all the thinking you’ve done, choosing a bill pay app just got a heck of a lot easier. I suggest making some kind of grid (like a spreadsheet!) to keep your needs and deal breakers top of mind as you browse around.

Check the price.

Even though I encouraged you to consider your budget (or your client’s) above, when it comes to shopping, I suggest you head there first, as a way to immediately rule out any solution that is wildly out of your price range. 

Check their requirements.

Some apps might have minimums, might require you to purchase things in bulk, or have some other way of pricing or engaging that doesn’t fit with your way of working. In short, try to determine whether they are the right fit for what you need. 

Read how they describe themselves.

It may be obvious to say, but is often overlooked. What does this app say they are? Who do they say they are for? What do they say is their value? Their best feature? What are they calling out? What’s missing? This can actually tell you a lot, and not just in terms of what is actually stated. Hopefully, it will give you a sense of what kind of company they are, what they care about, and how they interact with their clients. If it doesn’t, that tells you something too. 

Gather your necessary information.

With those out of the way, it’s time to start filling in that grid. I suggest searching on your dealbreaker items first. Hopefully, these are all things that are listed rather prominently on the website - like a particular integration. 

You may not be able to find all of the information you’re looking for in one place. Here are some good sources of information to keep in mind:

  • Head to Head Reviews. These can be biased, but they do tend to give you some insight into what differentiates apps. It’s also really helpful later on when you’ve narrowed the field and have done some testing. Ultimately, it can give you a heads up to things you may not have considered.
  • Informal Chat. By this I mean sources like peer communities and even the app’s own Help Center. Oftentimes, other people have asked the same questions as you. Peer communities or the Help Center might already hold the information you’re looking for.
  • Recommendations. If this feels awkward, let me reassure you. In my time working with accountant communities at Roundtable Labs, iI have found that most of our peers are more than willing to share information and insights regarding what has or hasn’t worked for them. There’s enough work to go around!
  • Informal Demos. If an app has offered a recorded demo, take advantage of it! And don’t forget to do a quick YouTube search for any demos by others in the industry vs by the app. These are often short, and focus on one or two specific features or solutions.
  • Live Demo. Finally, pick your favorites, head onto the lot, and let someone show you around the place. Live demos by the app are a perfect time to fill in any gaps in your needs/dealbreaker grid. And they are also going to give you a better idea of how the app approaches their clients and their own product - which can be very telling.

CAVEAT - Sometimes when apps are just coming into the marketplace, there might not be as much information out there in terms of informal reviews and chat. In my opinion, don’t let this dissuade you. Although new apps may have thin or even initially rocky reviews, especially in terms of features, they are often iterating at a much faster rate. Often they are MORE open to user feedback and collaborative solution finding as they learn more about their audience’s needs.


KICKING THE TIRES

It’s finally time. You’ve narrowed your search and are ready to take these apps for a test drive. A few things to remember:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for an extension. If their free trial or testing time only allows for a few days or a week or two, but you have things you are trying to verify, don’t be shy about asking for more time and help!
  • Set aside some time for testing. That said, don’t set aside so much time fooling around with an app that you are spinning your wheels. You are never going to get ALL of the eventualities covered in a testing environment. The open road is different from a parking lot.
  • Test with a small audience. Buying in and doing a live test with a small portion of your client base will give you a feel for the app in action. You’ll get to see the strengths and weaknesses of the app in scenarios you are likely to encounter on your own.. At the same time, the test will be small enough that you can really pay attention instead of being distracted by a new environment for your entire client base. You’ll also be less likely to ‘just go with’ a solution that isn’t really working simply because you’ve already onboarded everyone. Sunk cost bias is a real thing. Protect yourself!
  • Integration cross-checks. While testing the solution, don’t forget to connect all of the integrations you’ll need to use it with all your clients and staff out on the open road. It may be a pain, but it is SO worth it to find out all of the problem areas. You might even uncover some pleasant surprises!
  • Put customer support through its paces. Don’t be shy. If this app is truly your solution, that means they need to be the solution to an immediate problem or a fire you need to put out. How apps deal with support is a big deal! 

The world of bill pay is changing. Gone are the days of automation and cloud-based services being exclusive to one platform. As more options arise and competition continues to drive innovation in bill pay, these apps will only continue to bring more exciting features to the accounting industry.

Remember, these solutions aren’t just for your larger clients, they’re available for small and simple clients, meaning different pricing models, and ultimately, big benefits for the end user. Take a step into this new world of bill pay for your clients, there’s a lot to learn and get excited about.

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