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What is Supplier Onboarding? Meaning, Steps, and Strategies

Want to impress your onboarding suppliers right out of the gate? Explore expert-backed ways to bring your suppliers on board and help cultivate long-lasting relationships.
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New supplier onboarding or vendor onboarding can sometimes be a slow starter. Capturing payment information and tax details while getting new vendors up to speed on your systems, policies, and procedures can cause delays in payment processing, holding up your day-to-day business operations in ways you would likely prefer to avoid.

This article defines what supplier onboarding means and describes how to improve your process for supplier onboarding with automation.

What is Supplier Onboarding (a.k.a. Vendor Onboarding)?

Supplier (or vendor) onboarding is the process of collecting necessary information from suppliers used for procurement to set them up as approved sellers with your company. This process aims to help you do business together, buy goods and services and make payments to vendors.

Supplier onboarding is the process of collecting and analyzing supplier information in order to register that supplier in a company’s system, securely purchase goods from them, and ensure compliance. This process is specific to procurement, as it involves sourcing goods and services, not simply purchasing them. It goes hand in hand with the supplier enablement process, and is also an important pillar of business spend management.

What is the true cost of vendor onboarding?

Having a dedicated person on staff to walk new vendors and suppliers through your onboarding process is certainly one solution, but in today’s fast-paced business climate, do you have the time or the resources to allocate to this task?

When onboarding a new supplier, the flurry of emails and the ensuing questions are something that many companies see as an unavoidable cost of doing business. In an enterprise scenario, delays such as these can cost thousands of dollars. Small businesses also stand to lose, as the cash flow they depend on can be stuck in limbo while systems are put into place and the inevitable kinks get worked out.

Steps of the supplier onboarding process

The supplier onboarding process differs depending on whether you’re onboarding indirect or direct vendors. While the main steps of the process remain the same, the duration of each stage is different. 

For example, if you’re onboarding a vendor for a one-time transaction for a non-strategic need (an indirect vendor), the business and legal stages should not take very long. However, if you’re onboarding a vendor who will be the sole provider of an important strategic service or good to the company (a direct vendor), the supplier evaluation, business, and legal stages will most likely take longer.

3 steps of a manual supplier onboarding process are:

  1. Get supplier approval
  2. Vendor or supplier completes onboarding form
  3. Review the supplier onboarding form for completeness and enter the information into the ERP system

Step 1 

Typically, the supplier onboarding process, sometimes referred to as supplier onboarding, begins after the requestor’s purchase order has been opened, permission to onboard a new supplier or vendor has been granted, and the supplier they want to work with has been identified. This internal approval process often takes place over email and tends to be unstructured; it sometimes involves the requestor’s direct manager and other times it also involves a procurement manager. These managers must also determine whether or not the legal or security teams should be involved and assess any potential vendor risk.

Step 2 

With permission to onboard the supplier, it’s now time for the vendor to get officially onboarded to the company’s ERP system, possibly through third-party AP automation software via ERP integrations. For this to happen, the vendor completes a vendor onboarding form that includes general information (company name and address, company ID, tax withholding information, etc.); information about the vendor’s points of contact in the company (including their main point person, their finance POC, and the contact details for each); and financial information (default currency, bank account details, etc.). 

This stage of the process also involves different stakeholders in the company ensuring that the company can transact with the vendor from a legal, compliance, supplier performance, and security standpoint. 

Step 3 

Once the vendor submits this information, a member of the finance team at the company must ensure that the data is complete. With vendor onboarding forms typically including 50 or more fields, this stage often presents issues that must be sorted out with the vendor. Once the form is properly completed, the finance team must manually enter the information from the form into the company’s ERP system—a highly error-prone process that typically takes a long time. But once it’s completed, the vendor has been onboarded.

How do businesses automate supplier onboarding?

Self-service supplier portals may be part of a customer’s add-on AP automation software to streamline process workflows and manage and pay vendors in its supply chain. The best real-time supplier portals provide self-service supplier onboarding, followed by supplier relationship status and monitoring, including order delivery and payment status and reminders for renewals or updates required. 

A self-serve supplier/vendor portal is a viable solution that provides value for all stakeholders. It offers your vendors and your in-house accounting team a simple, easy-to-use web-based interface that they can access at any time, from anywhere.

A supplier/vendor portal that offers dynamic web forms that connect to your AP/AR software is even more valuable. It eliminates several steps in the onboarding process, creating a seamless experience for your vendors and providing your finance team with a more streamlined way to acquire the needed information.

Vendor onboarding portals are designed to let you collect the information and onboarding documents you’ll need from vendors, including their supplier payment process information. These supplier portals can help set expectations that vendors will be paid the way they desire. 

With process automation, vendor master data must only be entered once, and your system will be automatically updated with the new information. Guided self-service and automated supplier onboarding help you save time and money, as your staff can refocus their efforts on higher-value tasks.

Benefits of supplier onboarding with a self-serve portal

Advantages of supplier onboarding software with a self-serve supplier/vendor portal include:

  • More accurate data entry and data management
  • Get paid faster: invoices are available and can be managed in real-time
  • No redundancies or duplicates
  • 66 percent reduction in payment errors
  • More timely payments
  • Collect vendor master data once, update when needed
  • Suppliers can access their secure self-serve portal anytime, anywhere
  • Transparency in payment and order processing
  • Global payment solutions with support for 49 countries
  • 11 different languages supported
  • Current tax and VAT solutions reduce reporting errors at tax time
  • Support for SWIFT and IBAN bank routing
  • Built-in fraud protection
  • Optimize your payment systems
  • Boost your team’s productivity
  • Automate repetitive tasks
  • Customize with your brand’s imaging and identity
  • Web-based or API
  • Easy and intuitive self-service option promotes fast adoption

How to develop an effective supplier onboarding process

Analyze and flowchart supplier onboarding workflows in your business. Consider developing a vendor onboarding checklist or questionnaire to ensure all related business processes are covered. You may establish more extensive processes for strategic suppliers with significant potential impacts on your business if certain adverse events occur.  

Supplier onboarding processes and supplier management workflows are:

  • Getting vendor contact information 
  • Remittance information
  • Other supplier information
  • W-9 or W-8BEN tax forms for preparing 1099 forms
  • Validation of vendor data for fraud prevention
  • Due diligence
  • Risk assessment of prospective suppliers
  • Approval process 
  • Sourcing
  • Purchase order
  • Items
  • Pricing 
  • Quantities
  • Payment terms 
  • Order delivery
  • Vendor invoicing
  • Payment status with notifications
  • Vendor management metrics. 

In a typical vendor onboarding process, multiple departments must be involved, each with its own data requirements to support day-to-day activities. To be effective, you need a solution to facilitate collaboration and enable a timely response when needed. From international tax issues to legal agreements, purchasing, supply chain, logistics, fulfillment, accounting, and more, documents and data must be accessible to the appropriate people when they need it most.

Having a supplier portal with process management available simplifies these activities, giving stakeholders on both sides of the business relationship a centralized, barrier-free solution that meets business needs, reduces errors and payment and supplier risk, and provides value from end to end. The supplier portal enhances vendor relationships.

The most apparent advantage of a vendor portal is that the vendor master data is centralized, along with invoicing, order, and payment history. This eliminates potential data silos, lifting barriers and enabling teamwork across a global landscape. 

The supplier portal can be used beyond onboarding for global supplier management throughout the supplier relationship lifecycle. The automated portal can be used for updates and ongoing risk assessment monitoring as part of your company’s risk management program. 

As it relates to your accounts-payable and accounts-receivable software and processes, this translates to a more streamlined workflow that is labor-sparing and dynamic. It provides financial metrics in real-time, offering dependable business intelligence and affording your decision-makers the ability to move forward confidently. Taking advantage of opportunities when they arise is the key to growth. The faster and more efficiently you can get your new vendors on board, the more such opportunities will become available.

3 challenges in supplier onboarding

Now that we understand the overall steps involved in supplier onboarding, we can examine the main challenges companies most often face.

3 challenges in supplier onboarding are:

  1. Employees not knowing existing suppliers
  2. Only the business POC (point of contact) has a direct line of communication with the supplier
  3. The supplier onboarding process lacks transparency

1: Employees don’t know which suppliers the company is already working with

Larger companies often find themselves having way too many onboarded suppliers for the same service or good. When a company has twenty suppliers for the same thing—especially when that ‘thing’ doesn’t carry too much strategic value for the business—it’s clear that superfluous suppliers have been onboarded when there’s already one working with the company that provides the service or good needed. 

This concept is referred to as having ‘duplicate vendors.’ Onboarding duplicate vendors not only wastes time but could very likely cause you to end up paying more. When you have good supplier relationships you are able to better negotiate payment terms. Not working with the suppliers you already know and love could end up costing you well into the future.

There are a few reasons why employees don’t know which suppliers the company is already working with. For starters, the information lives in two different places:

  1. In the company’s ERP system, which the vast majority of employees don’t have access to
  2. In various spreadsheets that are managed by different employees in different departments, and which are oftentimes outdated

Because of this, employees don’t know where to turn to get updated supplier information. Without an easy way for employees to check which vendors the company is already working with, their next best option is to find and request that a new supplier be onboarded. The end result is a lot of wasted time when existing partnerships are already available to fulfill the same need. 

2: Only the business POC has a direct line of communication with the supplier

Processes involving the vendor and a member of the finance team tend to have the vendor’s business POC (point of contact), possibly from the procurement team or engineering department, sitting in the middle. This communication chain is highly inefficient when finance identifies an issue—for example, with the supplier onboarding form—that the vendor needs to address. 

While it would be much more efficient for finance and the vendor to work directly, opening that line of communication is also problematic. A direct line of communication with every vendor the company is working with can quickly overwhelm the finance team when they get flooded with emails pertaining to any question any vendor might have. 

3: The supplier onboarding process lacks transparency

Limited visibility into which vendors or suppliers the company already has business relationships with is one thing. But there’s a second transparency issue that relates to the overall vendor onboarding process, and the various “sub-processes” it entails. The fact that these processes take place in siloed systems is seriously limiting for the different parties involved. It prevents any one stakeholder from being able to easily understand where or with whom any specific process stands. It also prevents employees from being able to prepare for what’s in the pipeline, and from properly prioritizing their basic tasks. This lack of transparency also makes many of the people involved in the process blind to the underlying context in which the need for the vendor originally arose, leading to further inefficiencies.

Supplier onboarding is a crucial process that companies must manage in order to continue operating. But today, most medium- and large-sized companies are contending with an outdated approach to supplier onboarding that involves broken communication chains, unnecessary delays, and error-prone manual tasks. 

Fortunately, there are tools available to help businesses contend with these challenges and transform supplier onboarding into a modernized, more efficient supply process that alleviates the burden for employees and vendors alike.

Who do supplier onboarding challenges impact most?

The challenges surrounding supplier onboarding make life at work difficult for: 

  • The employee. For the person who’s making the original request to work with a new vendor, the potential supplier onboarding experience is, more than anything, frustrating. Without a clear understanding of which vendors the company is already working with, there’s a good chance the employee is wasting a lot of his, as well as his colleagues’ time just by requesting to onboard a new vendor. 

Assuming the employee’s request is approved, the lack of visibility into where the process stands further complicates matters. The employee needs this vendor urgently, and because of the disconnect between him, other employees, and each step of the process, delays are likely to occur. 

As if that weren’t enough, he doesn’t always know who to turn to for answers regarding where the process stands. This results in the employee bugging a lot of people in his attempt to get answers. Meanwhile, he’s getting bugged by the vendor who’s wondering what’s taking so long.

  • The procurement manager. For the procurement manager, whose considerations regarding new vendors differ from those of the employee, an effective supplier onboarding process is strategic. One of the procurement manager’s main responsibilities is ensuring that the company conducts procurement in an effective and cost-conscious manner. 

In the evaluation process, she wants to ensure that ideal prices and terms have been reached before any new vendor is given the opportunity to get onboarded. Ideally, she gets involved in negotiations early on. 

However, with the storage of vendor-related information and communication with the business POC happening separately, she’s often brought into the process later in the game than she’d have liked. This then creates double the work when she needs to be brought up to speed, and when the employee needs to provide information about his vendor choice or renegotiate terms.

  • The finance person. For Finance, supplier onboarding is time-consuming and error-prone. The work involved in manually uploading information from the supplier onboarding form into the company’s ERP often makes Finance the bottleneck of the entire process—especially considering that a standard supplier onboarding form consists of roughly 50 questions. 

More often than not, there’s an issue with at least one of these questions. This leaves the finance person needing to reach out to the vendor—whether directly or through the supplier’s business point of contact—in order to clear up any issues, sometimes weeks after the supplier originally filled out the onboarding form.

  • The supplier. Of course, we shouldn’t leave out the supplier, for whom the typical onboarding process with a medium or large business feels largely defeating. The supplier is interested in generating a good relationship with the company. His aim is to complete any required forms as quickly as possible, and receive a PO number so that he’ll be able to invoice the company when the time comes. 

But the delays and lack of transparency he experiences as part of the company’s onboarding process give him the sense that the company isn’t entirely committed to forming a positive partnership with him. Moreover, since it’s so difficult for the company to onboard him, the supplier may get the impression that other processes (like getting paid) will also prove difficult. With this in mind, it might prove most worthwhile to increase prices when working with this company, or abandon the partnership altogether.

Overcoming supplier onboarding challenges

So, what makes an efficient supplier onboarding process? And what are some supplier onboarding best practices?

Supplier onboarding best practices

For starters, businesses must achieve an up-to-date database of vendors. This is essential for achieving streamlined and informed supplier onboarding procedures. With an updated vendor database, employees can easily discover for themselves whether there’s a true need for a new vendor to be onboarded. This helps minimize the likelihood that the company will spend resources onboarding multiple vendors for the same service or good. It also keeps the business working actively with those vendors they’ve already chosen to onboard, fueling engaged, positive partnerships. 

Finally, by consulting the supplier database and confirming the need for a new vendor before making the request to onboard one, employee requests become justified, thereby simplifying matters for the procurement manager. This is a major time and cost saver.

Approving a new vendor in procurement

Once the employee has verified that the company isn’t already working with a vendor who provides the needed service or goods, the need for the vendor must get approved by a procurement manager—before the vendor is invited to work with the company. 

Approving this need prior to the requestor contacting a vendor can be remedied by requiring the procurement manager to approve it first. This gets the procurement manager involved early in the process, and also gives the requestor an organized platform for explaining the vendor need, and why this specific vendor was chosen. With this type of approval process in place, the requestor and procurement manager understand that they are working toward a valid end goal.

Digitize supplier onboarding processes with an automated platform

Next, we want to digitize manual, error-prone processes. This includes the forms and agreements the vendor must complete, as well as the finance team’s process of entering the vendor’s data into the company’s ERP. Beyond offering vendors and finance employees a much more pleasant onboarding experience, moving toward digitized processes minimizes errors and saves time. It also enables businesses to more easily collect valuable business and vendor data (such as other companies the vendor or supplier is working with) in order to enrich their supplier profiles.

Finally, all supplier onboarding-related processes and interactions must move out of emails and spreadsheets and into a centralized platform. Don’t let it sound daunting, an automated supplier management and spend management tool can help your organization do this seamlessly. 

Tipalti Procurement, for example, enables businesses to overcome the challenges that arise from relying on siloed systems for a comprehensive process like supplier onboarding. When you work to automate basic tasks, you easily reduce human error and mitigate risks of working with suppliers; whether it’s new supplier onboarding, prospective vendors, or simply supporting healthy supplier relationship management.

Businesses interested in bypassing the hurdles of supplier onboarding should look to procurement platforms and AP automation platforms that centralize, digitize, and make transparent every part of the procurement process—equipping employees and suppliers alike with the tools they need to achieve fast and efficient workflows. This modern approach to procurement and supplier onboarding enables every relevant party to easily understand where processes stand, and who’s responsible for completing the next step. Aligned with an organization’s ERP and other systems already in place, all supplier data is synced and easily tracked. 

Strategic vendor management is the key to ongoing success

In many industries, strategic supplier information management is the foundation that supports growth and innovation. However, effective communication in the enterprise is often impeded by data silos caused by multiple teams in many locations, some of whom may not use the same systems to collect and leverage data.

Takeaway – Supplier onboarding

Supplier onboarding is a process for implementing new supplier relationships, getting supplier data, communications, centralized documents, and status in combination with integrated vendor master and ERP software databases. Online software platforms like self-service supplier portals and AP automation software make vendor onboarding and two-way supply chain management more efficient and less time-consuming. Download our white paper, “How to Streamline Supplier Onboarding.”

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