Help me review and improve my company's invoices
November 17, 2006 2:20 PM   Subscribe

My company produces monthly invoices which are badly designed and over complicated. Our customers are confused, and it's generating large amounts of calls into our call center with questions about what's on the invoice.

I have volunteered to manage the process of reviewing and improving them.

My googlefu has failed to find me any useful resources on document or information design. So many of the resources I found were about web or software usability. I'm more interested in how one can present information in a document such as an invoice, such that it is easy to read and understand.

Can anyone point me to some great articles and resources that will help me out here?
posted by girlgeeknz to Writing & Language (11 answers total)
First question: when customers call in, what aspects of the invoice cause them the most grief?
posted by chrominance at 2:40 PM on November 17, 2006

While small businesses differ greatly from large businesses, almost every small business I have delt with uses Quickbooks, or generates invoices that resemble Quickbooks invoices.

Partial View

Obviously there is more to this question than being asked, because a normal invoice is pretty easy to make in a comprehendable way. Look at any recept for anything you buy online.

What is making yours so bizzare?
posted by SirStan at 2:48 PM on November 17, 2006

Best answer: AIGA just did a research study about billing & information design. Not kidding. I can't seem to find it on their site, but it was mentioned at a fundraiser of theirs.

You can gleen a ton of fact, principles and insights from the information design newsletter: Clear.
posted by Gucky at 3:01 PM on November 17, 2006

Response by poster: These invoices are generated by our custom built billing system. The main sources of confusion are that people don't understand what each line item means. There are usually charges for several different services on one invoice, sometimes prorated, and if they have a special offer or discount, there's a seperate item for a negative amount, but this is on a separate line, and it is not necessarily obvious which discount applies to which line.

I'm going to be sourcing a selection of invoices from other large companies, to see how they present them, and looking at a selection of our current invoices, to see how others organise the different elements on the page, including different line items.
posted by girlgeeknz at 3:04 PM on November 17, 2006

The approach for this will largely depend on the size of your company and the software you are currently using. Whatever solution you come up with will have to fit your software, printing capabilities, and pre-printed forms (if used). I don't know that a single program or website will give you all the information you need.

Billing of items or services that include discounts largely has to do with two things:
1. The way the contract or bid was submitted and accepted
2. The way the customer submitted the order for the products or services

If the contract/bid format or the customer's order format does not match your invoice format, I can see where there would be confusion. It is my experience that because of some of our customers' accounting software, they cannot pay invoices that don't match their order or AP information EXACTLY. If we invoice them for three separate line items, but their order has one line item that includes all three, they won't pay it - even if the total dollar amount is exactly the same.

If the problem is with the way your services are identified on the bill, speak with your billing or order entry department. Perhaps they could get with the IT people and update the descriptions that appear to the customer when the work order and invoice are generated. If the data entry person types in WR for 'wiget repair' and SR for 'sprocket repair', it does the customer no good to see 'repair' appear as the description of both items.

Also, if you are prorating items, do you bill like this?
Wiget Repair, 0.5 hours @ $135.00/hr --- $67.50

Easing some of the confusion with my comany's invoices has come from changing the way we show discounts. Instead of billing the customer for a $1000 item with another line item for their 10% discount of $100, just bill the customer $900 for the item, discount included.
posted by youngergirl44 at 3:35 PM on November 17, 2006

Response by poster: odinsdream: Possibly. I haven't yet begun my investigation into what is possible, but we have a team of development guys who handle our billing system, amongst other things.
posted by girlgeeknz at 3:36 PM on November 17, 2006

Is it possible to see an example of the invoice (with necessary information removed) that may include the descriptions of the items or services your company is invoicing? Or even just examples of what does show up in any 'description' field?
posted by youngergirl44 at 3:41 PM on November 17, 2006

The Non-Designers Design Book helps lead you through basic visual layout stuff.
posted by fvox13 at 4:19 PM on November 17, 2006

Before you make any changes in your invoice format, unless it is purely in a print control layer, I'd suggest you also go over and see your Accounts Payable people, and go through their payments application cycle, particularly if you generate variable discount, net terms, or routinely have payment consolidation issues from customers. In some business systems, changes in the invoicing sub-system need to be synchronized with payables, in order to avoid "hanging" invoices, or even sales order lines, in the system, between the time they are issued, and the time they are paid.

You might also want to enlist the assistance of your sales department in documenting any customer understandings about your invoices, before making changes. Some customers may have explicitly demanded discounts by line item, or a restatement of date terms with each invoice, and be feeding their payment processes with directions based on what is appearing on your existing invoices, along the lines that youngergirl44 has mentioned. Some of these issues might be resulting from your own sales system, which is splitting sales order lines for partial deliveries allowed by your customers, that then must invoiced according to their new, partial order logic. Fixing things for the majority of your customers could in fact break things for some established customers, so have a transistion plan for them, if that is what you must do. Worse, simplifying your invoices, if it breaks your company's flexibility in billing, will have immediate and tangible effects on your own cash flow.

One alternative that many medium sized and smaller companies are actively investingating, and migrating their transaction documents to, are EDI transaction sets. This redesign activity, which can provide some clarity in the present, and be a guide for future electronic invoicing and payment systems, involves looking at EDI transaction sets, and conforming your invoices to support and match those transaction set elements that are apporpriate to your business. EDI transaction sets vary with the type of business you operate, but there are a number of sample sources for the various EDI transaction sets online. The 810 transaction set I've linked above would be an appropriate invoicing set for an inventory based business, selling physical goods to customers.

The value of this excercise is that if you set up your invoices to be read by EDI systems, you're essentially making them consistent with the biggest commercial systems in the world. You'll have far more opportunities in the future for joining vendor and customer extranets, and you'll accelerate your cash flow and reduce your costs of billing and cash application significantly by doing this, as part of any redesign you attempt. And you may even smooth the path to ISO 9001 and higher certifications, by standardizing and documenting these important business processes. Finally, as part of this, you may want to inquire where your systems are in terms of being able to work with XML driven bill presentation and payment systems (these are bank offerings of payment and cash management systems, designed to speed payments and provide your bank with clear records of your cash flow in commercial factoring situations).

What you don't want to do, is go through some process of redesign of the print versions of your invoices, that confuses any of your customers, and doesn't leverage you moving into new business relationships with greater certianty and a possibility for faster payment. Good luck with your efforts; it's a interesting, but sometimes thankless job.
posted by paulsc at 4:47 PM on November 17, 2006

Hire more people in the call center.
posted by nyxxxx at 5:16 PM on November 17, 2006

If you have an accounts payable department (or know anybody who does A/P) you should ask them to give you some examples of invoices that they think are well-designed. They see a lot of different stuff, some of which is utter crap (as you well know by now) and some of which is very easy to use.
posted by stefanie at 5:53 PM on November 17, 2006

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