Order to Cash – An Overview

A typical organization has different sets of business processes, sometimes referred to as cycles, which address different areas and functions of the business. A few examples are Procure to Pay (P2P), Hire to Retire (H2R), Quote to Order (Q20) and Order to Cash (OTC), sometimes referred to as O2C.

Order to Cash (OTC) stands out as arguably the most important set of business processes. Why? This is perhaps best explained with a true story.

While implementing a new ERP system for a Fortune 500 client, which included the entire OTC set of business processes, the implementation partner was told by the CEO that: “You might go over budget, and that will possibly be acceptable, we will probably pay for the overage if you can justify it. You might roll out the production system later than originally scheduled, and that will probably be acceptable, as long as you keep us up to date in a timely manner on changes in lead times. But if this new ERP implementation EVER stops us from shipping product out the door, we will throw you out in the street.”

This not so subtle message demonstrated the importance of OTC and how OTC represents the “heart of the business.” Think of the human heart providing life giving blood to the vital parts of the body, so the body can function. Now think of OTC as the heart of a business, providing information and revenue to the other vital areas of the business, so these areas have accurate information and resources to function.

Once an order is placed, the ability to deliver that order to the customer in order to receive payment for products or services plays a large part in the overall success of the company. If orders can’t ship, it’s as if the heart is no longer pumping blood, creating an adverse impact on other parts of the business, hence the CEO’s blunt statement.

OTC plays a large role in driving an organization’s relationship with the customer. On time delivery of a quality (no defects) product or service plays a large part in the Customer Experience. OTC processes impact operations throughout the organization, including Supply Chain Management, Inventory Management and labor. These other areas can experience bottlenecks caused by a sub-optimal, error prone OTC process.

Because of the importance of this process, OTC will always be a prime candidate for process improvement.

Question: How can organizations today improve the OTC process? Answer: Automation.

The Eight Business Processes of Order to Cash

OTC is a set of business processes that encompasses the entirety of a company’s order processing system. It begins when a customer places an order. It ends with the reporting of these processes.

Business processes that happen before OTC, therefore facilitating an order, are typically product development, branding, marketing and sales.

OTC consists of eight business processes, and within these eight business processes some organizations will have as many as 27 sub-processes, adding to the complexity of OTC.

Figure 1. Eight business processes in the Order to Cash cycle

The OTC process begins when an order is placed by a customer. Orders may be placed different ways, such as email, e-commerce, salesperson, fax or Electronic Data Interchange (EDI).

This step is arguably the most important step in OTC, as any errors at this point will create problems for all the other steps in the process.

If a company performs manual data entry of the order, the accuracy of the data being entered is crucial, as data entry errors in this step will cause mistakes and rework in other steps, impacting other areas of the organization and potentially straining the customer relationship.

Other departments are notified immediately upon an order being placed, and these notifications will kick off a series of actions required to ultimately deliver the order. The customer is notified that the order has been received along with the appropriate detail, including the expected delivery date (ETA) of the order, if available.

Credit management is a process that analyzes a customer’s financial health to determine whether to extend business credit. This process takes place immediately after an order has been entered. This minimizes the risk of issues later in the OTC process, for example Accounts Receivable with late payments or defaults.  

New customers are sent through a credit approval process, which determines if they are credit worthy. This process will also assign the new customer default payment terms and a credit limit, for example       $ 50,000. If this new customer places an order greater than $ 50,000, the order can then be sent to finance personnel for a more thorough review and consideration.

Existing customers go through a credit check. This process checks if the customer has recently been flagged as a credit risk, say from overdue invoices, and also checks if this specific order exceeds the assigned credit limit. Like the new customers, the order can then be sent to finance personnel for a more thorough review and consideration.

Once a customer’s credit has been approved, the order moves to the fulfillment step.

Orders to be fulfilled rely on a real time inventory management system, identifying when products are available to pick and pack in preparation for shipping. When the order was originally placed in the Order Management step, available inventory was checked per each line item in the order, and the quantity ordered was either allocated or back logged for shipment later, if the customer agrees to this.

The order is prepared for shipment and the appropriate shipping or service department is notified. If for some reason the products ordered are not available to pick, pack and ship as promised, the customer is notified immediately, given the option to cancel the order or to wait to receive the products at a later date.

Shipping label(s) are prepared in this process, and the order moves to the Shipping and Transportation step.

Shipping and Transportation consists of choosing a mode of transportation for shipping, the actual delivery of the product(s) to the customer, and notifications to the appropriate departments, the customer, and the shipping companies that are used for shipping, although some companies provide their own shipping.

The shipping team will plan shipments around a carrier pickup schedule.

The order is tracked for both outgoing goods and returns, so the location of the order is known throughout the process. Notifications with the shipping company and the customer continue throughout the shipping process in the event of changes in estimated shipping times.

This step requires constant monitoring, especially if an external company is used for shipping. In-transit inventory costs are considered in this step, and finance and accounting will determine how to account for the costs.

Fulfilling and shipping the order in most cases results in the next step, invoicing the customer. Automated systems eliminate the need for the Accounts Receivable department to check for fulfilled orders in order to generate an invoice. These same systems generate an invoice automatically and notify the AR department.

The invoice will contain all details of the order plus payment terms, PO numbers, freight charges, taxes, other fees, and billing and shipping information. Invoices are reviewed for accuracy before being sent to the customer, as the invoice serves as the request for payment.

The invoice will be sent to other departments and ultimately the customer. There are a number of methods of delivering the invoice to a customer, for example email with a PDF attachment. Note some customers have requirements for receiving invoices, for example logging into their portal and entering billing and invoice information.

If an order was not paid in full at the time of placing the order, it goes through the Accounts Receivable process, requiring the customer to pay the invoice within the agreed amount of time specified in the payment terms.

The Accounts Receivable process consists of tracking the invoice until payment in full has been received. This involves interacting with the customer regarding errors or disputes, monitoring overdue invoices and reporting to other departments, for example finance and sales.

This process directly impacts cash flow along with other important functions of the organization.

The Accounts Receivable department will in some cases work with the customer regarding overdue invoices, before sending the invoice to Collections. Some companies will put the customer on credit hold at the point they have overdue invoices, before moving to the collections process.

Before an overdue invoice is sent to collections, the AR department might choose to send notification to the customer, requesting payment and making the customer aware the invoice is overdue. AR might elect to send two or three notifications, allowing the invoice to lapse into 30, 60 or 90 days overdue before it chooses to send the invoice to collections, making the customer aware at some point that if the invoice isn’t paid it will be sent to collections.

If the overdue invoice is not paid within the payment terms and the past due notifications have not resulted in payment or a good faith payment arrangement, the invoice is sent to the next step, Collections.

Figure 2. Realized AR benefits from technology
PYMNTS.com, February 12, 2021

Collections, like the previous steps in the OTC cycle, requires data integrity, as incorrectly informing a customer they have been placed in collections will have an adverse impact on the customer experience and the relationship.


Some companies handle the collections process internally, and some outsource the collections process to firms specialized in collections.

Part of the collections process is to put the customer on credit hold, if this has not happened in the Accounts Receivable step. Interest and penalties are used as motivation to get the customer to pay, but not necessarily enforced.

Finance and accounting need to be notified on a timely basis of overdue invoices and invoices in collections. This helps them in required adjustments to cash flow and bad debts forecast. Finance and accounting is required to write off bad debts, impacting both the Balance Sheet and Income Statement. Under the direct write-off method, bad debts are expensed by crediting accounts receivable and debiting the bad debts expense account.

Reporting enables tracking performance data across every step of the OTC process. By monitoring and analyzing this data, business leaders can see the overall flow of their OTC process and how it affects the entire organization.

Bottlenecks can be identified with comprehensive, accurate reporting, and determine if issues and slowdowns in one area are adversely impacting other areas. Even small problems in one area can result in bigger problems in other downstream steps.

OTC reporting is actionable by providing visibility to OTC KPIs and in a broader sense, overall organizational goals.

Order to Cash Best Practices

1 – Real-time notifications to internal departments, the customer and third parties throughout the entire OTC cycle where appropriate.

2 – Automate the invoice entry process as much as possible. Research compiled by the Aberdeen Group determined that companies that excel at OTC require manual invoice data entry for only 16.2% of their invoices. Companies in the bottom tier of OTC efficiency require manual data entry for up to 80% of their invoices.

3 – Have a system in place to flag deliveries that are taking longer than expected, to notify sales, shipping, the customer and if applicable, the shipping company used.

4 – Measure the health and performance of the OTC cycle. Measure the end to end cycle, and also measure the individual processes that comprise the OTC cycle. At a minimum, measure Days Sales Outstanding (DSO), Average Days Delinquent (ADD), On time delivery performance and Perfect Order Performance. 5 – Use tools for automated assessment and cleansing of customer and product master data. A study by IBM showed this improves FTE performance for managing sales orders by 81% over companies that do not do this, 83% improvement for invoicing, 54% improvement for Accounts Receivable and 62% improvement for collections.

5 – Use tools for automated assessment and cleansing of customer and product master data. A study by IBM showed this improves FTE performance for managing sales orders by 81% over companies that do not do this, 83% improvement for invoicing, 54% improvement for Accounts Receivable and 62% improvement for collections.

Order to Cash Challenges

1 – Manually entered sales orders and invoices. Labor costs and costs for data entry errors are significant in companies with high volume transactions. Data entry errors on the sales order will adversely impact the following seven OTC processes, and data entry errors on the invoice will adversely impact the finance and accounting department and the customer.

According to a study by the American Productivity & Quality Center, top performing companies spends $5.11 to process a sales order, the median spend $24.21 by comparison, and the worst performers spend $40.87. The AQPC estimates that companies entering invoices the traditional way will spend $20.21 per invoice, while companies that use automation will spend $6 per invoice.

2 – Credit quality. If credit analysis for new customers is performed manually, approval becomes time consuming and subject to error. Due diligence in this step can eliminate downstream issues regarding the entire revenue cycle. Credit holds need to be real-time and coordinated. Setting credit limits accurately can include securing trade references, bank references, agency credit reports and customer financials.

In U.S. based companies in general, 1.5% of receivables are written off as bad debt, 93% of businesses experience late payments, 47% of credit sales are paid late, average payment terms are 27 days, actual payment period averages 34 days. Compare your credit statistics to companies in your industry and geography to analyze your organization’s credit performance.

3 – Non-integrated systems. An optimal OTC cycle would include systems integration of CRM, Order Management & Inventory and Finance and Accounting. If any of these systems are not integrated, customer and sales order are more subject to error and will potentially cause bottlenecks in the OTC processes. This also hinders the ability to track the progress of the entire OTC cycle due to disparate systems used the individual OTC processes. The impact of this on reporting is less actionable data to help take corrective actions.

4 – Manual cash applications. Entering cash applications manually involves re-keying remittances, reconciling and fetching data, and matching invoices, resulting in slow process times, high FTE costs and data integrity issues. Additional costs for bank lockbox key-in fees may also occur, making cash applications an expensive process.

An automated cash application system significantly reduces FTE costs and bank lockbox fees. Automated cash applications can ensure up to 95% straight-through cash posting rates.

5 – Reporting. Visibility to the entire OTC process requires optimal reporting tools, and effort in setting up the reports to provide actionable data, KPIs and other OTC related information. Reporting should encompass the OTC end to end process and all the individual processes within OTC.

Real-time accurate reporting takes effort and the right tools, but the payoff is big, as this is a way to objectively assess your OTC cycle, identify upcoming issues in time to prevent them, and provide visibility to challenges and areas of improvement.

How to improve Order to Cash with Automation

OTC is perhaps the most complex process in an organization. Any changes to existing OTC systems are expensive and time-consuming. So rather than change the existing system, a practical approach would be to simply automate individual processes in the OTC cycle without changing them, using proven automation technologies that are a good fit.

An example of this approach would be automating the first step, Order Management. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is a proven technology that would be a good fit for this step. RPA can emulate 100% the data entry that is currently being performed manually. RPA can be programmed to handle business rules for entering the order, errors and exceptions, and any other requirements for entering a sales order. Benefits include reduced FTE costs, improved data integrity (up to 30%), faster throughput (RPA types 2.5 to 4 times faster than a person), availability (RPA automations can be run 24/7/365), and freeing up your team for innovation, analysis, and more interaction with customers and team members.

Assess each of the eight processes in OTC, and determine which one is a good fit for automation for your organization. Drivers in determining this is time spent, data integrity, labor and other costs, issues (with the process and the potential impact on other processes downstream), attrition (someone performing that task may be retiring soon), complexity (if it’s your first automation, choose a lower complexity process), and input data (structured data is easiest to automate, for example a spreadsheet, as opposed to scanned images).

Note other cycles may be easier to automate but automating the OTC cycle will generally produce your biggest return on investment.

Figure 3. “How are you approaching RPA in Finance & Accounting processes?”
Auxis Survey, 2018

Order to Cash Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

  • Average time for Order Entry – Time from order received to entered into Order Management
  • Average time to Order Fulfillment (Lead time) – Step 1 – Order Management thru and including Step 5 – Invoicing
  • Average cost to process a sales order – Divide total cost to perform the process by number of sales orders placed
  • Total Order to Cash process cost as a percentage of revenue
  • Number of days between shipment and billing
  • Order to Cash cycle time
  • Days sales outstanding (DSO)
  • Perfect Sales Orders
  • Customer backorder rate
  • Total inventory accounting cost as a percentage of revenue
  • Annual inventory turnover
  • Days inventory on hand
  • Cases picked and shipped
  • On-time shipment readiness
  • Total accounts receivable cost as a percentage of revenue
  • Average days unapplied cash
  • Bad debt expense as a percentage of revenue
  • Average number of days until an invoice would be considered past due

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