5 Problems with Approving Invoices Via E-Mail

Posted by Cathy Ferro on May 6, 2020 1:33:15 PM
Cathy Ferro

In the rush to adapt their accounts payable processes to the “new normal” of having staff work from home, many businesses started using e-mail to get invoices approved.

Approving Invoices via Email

Some businesses directed suppliers to submit their invoices to an e-mail box.  Other departments had staff or third-parties scan paper invoices to an e-mail box from which staff could forward the invoices for approval.

E-mail approvals certainly beat letting invoices languish in a mailroom for weeks until employees get the “all-clear” to return.  E-mail approvals also are a step up from hand stamping invoices, slipping them into a worn interoffice envelope and sending them on to a manager to be signed.  E-mails also allow staff to send invoices to anyone in the world, and they do not require any special software. 

But approving invoices via e-mail is not a panacea, much less a long-term work-from-home solution. 

5 Problems with Approving Invoices Via E-Mail

E-mail approvals create significant problems for accounts payable departments:

  2. 1. Delayed invoices

  3. The typical business user receives nearly 100 e-mails per day, studies show.  The volume of e-mails has become so onerous that 42 percent of Americans check their e-mail in the bathroom.  When you consider this volume of e-mails, it is easy to see how e-mailed invoices can become stuck in someone’s e-mail box or delayed as business users methodically work though their e-mails and other priorities.  After all, e-mails requesting approval for an urgent purchase will be co-mingled with trivial messages about bagels in the breakroom, calendar reminders and ads for discounted airfare.  It is not unheard of for overwhelmed business users to purge their e-mail box periodically, with the thinking that co-workers will eventually re-send any important e-mails that may be deleted.  And there is no way for accounts payable to know whether a purchaser has acted on an e-mailed invoice.  Approval of an invoice could be delayed by weeks if a purchaser is out of office on vacation and forgot to enable the automated “out of office” notification on their e-mail account.

  4. 2. Lost invoices

    1. It is not uncommon for e-mailed invoices to be inadvertently sent to the wrong business user.  Unless the recipient notifies accounts payable of the mistake, or forwards the e-mail to the right approver, an invoice could be indefinitely delayed.  And accounts payable can never be sure where an e-mailed invoice is at any moment.  
  6. 3. Confusing business rules

  7. Many invoices – such as high-dollar purchases, purchases for professional services, or out-of-budget purchases – require multiple levels of approval.  This means that accounts payable is counting on purchasers to forward invoices to the next person in the approval chain.  But business users may not be aware of who must approve invoices next, requiring accounts payable to step in, adding time and unnecessary work.  And each time an invoice is forwarded creates an opportunity for a misrouted e-mail or delay; the next person in the approval chain may not recognize the urgency of acting on an e-mailed invoice.    
  9. 4. Missing information

  10. A lack of standards in the United States leaves it up to suppliers to determine what information to include on an invoice. It is not uncommon for the data on invoices to be incomplete or inaccurate.  In an environment where invoices are approved via e-mail, purchasers cannot easily access supplemental information related to an invoice.  This can lead to weeks of back-and-forth e-mails and phone calls to track down information.     
  12. 5. Risk

  13. E-mail is risky.  Phishing attacks and Business E-mail Compromise (BEC) schemes are on the rise because of the COVID-19 crisis, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and INTERPOL warn.  Sophisticated fraudsters can fool the most seasoned accounts payable professional.  What is more, it is hard to safeguard legitimate invoices routed for approval via e-mail.  It is easy to hack e-mails.  Invoices with sensitive data can be inadvertently sent to the wrong person.  It is hard to audit approvals done via e-mail.  Finally, the spreadsheets and other documents that many businesses use for e-mailed invoices can be easily corrupted.

Accounts payable professionals recognize the issues with approving invoices via e-mail. 

Twenty-six percent of accounts payable leaders admit that their current process for approving invoices – which, in many cases, includes e-mail approvals – makes them feel “concerned” or “overwhelmed,” according to research from the Institute of Finance and Management (IOFM).

Cloud-based accounts payable solutions are a better approach than e-mail to approving invoices, and that is true regardless of whether staff are working in the office, from their homes, or on-the-go. 

Cloud-based accounts payable solutions provide frictionless work-from-home invoice approvals:

  • No chance of invoices becoming stuck. Business users are automatically notified of invoices awaiting their approval and are reminded to act on invoices that are nearing their due date. Invoices that have been sitting in an approver’s queue for too long also can be escalated automatically.  And graphical dashboards show accounts payable managers the status of invoices in real-time.
  • No chance of invoices falling into the wrong hands. Invoices can never be misrouted or lost with a cloud-based accounts payable solution.  And comprehensive audit trails show accounts payable managers the actions taken on an invoice at each step of the way.
  • No need to guess at who must review invoices. With a cloud-based accounts payable solution, invoices are digitally routed for approval based on pre-defined business rules.  There is never the chance of delays while a purchaser determines who else must approve an invoice.
  • No more exceptions headaches. Cloud-based accounts payable solutions extract and validate data from invoices.  Suppliers are automatically notified of any missing or incorrect information.
  • Less risk of fraud. Cloud-based accounts payable solutions provide configurable access permissions, multi-level user authentication, chain of custody assurances, separation of duties, real-time reconciliation, and automated document retention and destruction.


Approving invoices via e-mail may have been a quick-fix for payables operations disrupted by COVID-19.  But cloud-based accounts payable solutions are a better way to approve invoices.      


Tags: Accounts Payable Processing, Invoice Processing, Cloud-based Accounts Payable Solution