Tales from the pandumbic – part 7

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The perils of popping to the postbox

There are a number of different web-based portals for different industries that aim to connect suppliers with customers – be those customers end-users, or other businesses looking to use subcontractors. In the courier industry, there are several.

One of my clients is in that industry, and they use one of these systems. They regularly post jobs on the system for owner-drivers and other smaller companies to quote on and undertake.

Some of their own customers insist on a hard copy proof of delivery (or PoD) to support any invoices, so they themselves expect that to be supplied by anyone subcontracting – so PoDs need to be put in the post (obviously the subcontractors should keep their own copies in case they are needed). In order to expedite things internally, they also ask that invoices are posted; if the invoice appears at the same time as the PoD, it’s quickly and easily checked off and passed for payment.

(Whether it’s right, in 2020 – or in the current circumstances – for customers to insist on a signature on a piece of paper as proof of delivery is another matter. That’s the requirement.)

Sometimes, subcontractors using the system don’t read the job-spec properly, and don’t notice this requirement, so invoices and PoDs come in electronically. When that happens, the front office fires off a standard email to request these items in the post. In most cases, the result is an invoice and PoD in the post a few days later, and the whole process then chugs along smoothly, with those suppliers getting paid on time.

Sometimes, however, those emails don’t result in anything arriving in the post, and in due course the supplier (or their factoring company) ends up contacting the company asking why they haven’t been paid on time. Sometimes – indeed most cases – they have (that’s a whole different problem, right there) but where it turns out they’re right, and they definitely haven’t been paid, it’s almost always because of a lack of invoice/PoD in the post. The end result is usually a promise to do what they should have done in the first place – and as soon as the invoice and PoD arrives, it gets put through the system as before, but payment happens much more quickly because it’s overdue.

That’s in normal times. We are currently in the midst of a lockdown due to the SARS-COV-2 pandemic.

A subcontractor recently got in touch by email regarding several invoices from March that had apparently not been paid. I was at home, and on my Linux computer, so I didn’t have ready access to the records – but whenever I see such an email when at home (or when out and using my phone) I can usually check the remittance advice emails. These are sent from the accounts software on Windows to the payees, but I have them copied to myself so that I have a record I can check from any device on which I have the email account set up.

I mentioned above that sometimes these subcontractors have been paid; checking those emails is usually all I need to do to confirm that, and tell them the date they need to check on their bank account. This is actually the case more often than not! However, in this particular case, there was no payment indicated in the emails. There were other remittance advice emails to this supplier, though, so I know there was no issue with not having an email address on the system, for example. This almost certainly meant the invoices in question had not been received.

I sent them a reply along those lines, saying I’d check for certain when I’m next working there, but suggested they pop copies of the invoices in the post just in case – I was as sure as I can be that there were no unpaid invoices floating around from that long ago.

A reply came back in which they said that the the company behind the portal had issued some guidance to its users regarding the current situation, which included a suggestion that subbies don’t put invoices in the post and instead send them electronically through the system. And they aren’t the first subcontractor who uses it and who has said something along the same lines – though previously I’ve bitten my lip.

But not this time. In my reply, I said:

I don’t use or have access to [the portal], but is that really the advice they’re giving?

If so, it seems to me that they’re offering a bit of a knee-jerk reaction – especially given that they’re a courier network, connecting owner-drivers with customers, so that those owner-drivers can pick up parcels and deliver them elsewhere.

Unless you’re posting the invoices in the post office (registered or recorded or whatever) putting things in the post shouldn’t present any risk; you shouldn’t need to touch any external surfaces that others have touched by dropping things in a postbox. It’s less risky than undertaking deliveries, for example, or going to the shop, which involves going inside a building and touching things that other people may have touched.

If you’re in a situation where someone in the household is particularly vulnerable and therefore at greater risk, so are shielding, then that’s another matter of course. But if [the portal] is giving that as blanket advice… then whoever is responsible for it needs to be slapped with a wet kipper!

What we apparently have here is a web portal for owner-driver couriers – people who visit one site to collect goods, sometimes a small package and sometimes something larger, and then drive up and down the country (and sometimes continent) to deliver those goods elsewhere – advising these same people against going to the bloody postbox!

Note: I don’t know for certain if whoever runs the portal has given that advice, or if it has been inferred from something else they’ve said – which is why I’ve opted not to name and shame them. However, this supplier isn’t the only one that has said something similar, so I’m inclined to think they really have suggested their users don’t use the post, even though they’re undertaking physical site to site deliveries.