How the approvals process bottleneck's your business growth?

The approvals process is an important but often a time-consuming and error-prone task. Time spent tracking down who approved what means less time spent on your business. Which can limit your business’s growth. Host, Jake Jones and guests, Alex Ellis, Jacob Ross, and Tereza Yondemli discuss the approval process, what it’s really like, what solutions are out there, and how the approval process can bottleneck your business’s growth.

Tereza Yondemli
Alex Ellis
Jacob Ross
clock for run time of podcast

31 min listen

June 23, 2022

About the Episode

The approvals process is an important but often a time-consuming and error-prone task. Time spent tracking down who approved what means less time spent on your business. Which can limit your business’s growth. Host, Jake Jones and guests, Alex Ellis, Jacob Ross, and Tereza Yondemli discuss the approval process, what it’s really like, what solutions are out there, and how the approval process can bottleneck your business’s growth.



Welcome to Finance in the Clouds.

Modern finance is broken, forcing finance and accounting teams to work like it's 1985, the year Excel was invented. Here we talk about the struggles finance teams face in fast growing companies and discuss how they can spend less time catching up and more time in the clouds.

I'm your host, Jake Jones Multimedia Producer and Brand Influencer at Zone & Co and I'm joined this week by Alex Ellis, Global Accounting Manager at Q2, Jacob Ross, Senior Application Analyst at Q2 and Tereza Yondemli, Customer Success and Presale Team Manager at Zone & Co.

Thanks for joining me today guys.


Yeah thanks for having us. I'm excited to dive into some of these topics and kind of share with you what we've been working at Q2 and what we're looking for in a solution.


Glad to be here. I love talking about approval workflows and how we can make them better.


Same for me. I'm really excited to learn about our actual customers' experience and how we can better address it and what options are there. So thanks for having me too.


The approval process is an important but often a time-consuming and error-prone task. Time spent tracking down who approved what means the less time spent on your business, which can limit your business's growth. Today we're going to discuss the approvals process, what it's really like, what solutions are out there, and how the approval process can bottleneck your business. Alex and Jacob are vetting a couple of different options for an approvals customization solution with NetSuite.

And Tereza is going to walk us through some of the benefits of a solution Zone&Co offers for approvals within NetSuite. So, again, thank you guys for joining me. Alex, I'd love to just hear from you guys. What does y'all's approval process look like? Is it as frustrating as it seems like? I know I've some approvals I've had to do have been a struggle for sure.


I think for our process, the issue we have with the bottleneck is the constant change within the organization. We kind of have a preset way that everything is set. But as people leave the company and new people come on board, that's where we kind of run into issues and bottlenecks. Within my group, I oversee the accounts payable team and this is why this call is very pertinent to us because we get issues with invoices being stuck.

So let's say, you know, Jake's on our team, or Jake's, you know, in the approval workflow and an invoice sitting in his queue to approve. And then Jake takes time off or Jake leaves the company and then all of a sudden that invoice gets stuck. So we're constantly having to monitor the, you know, aging of invoices to kind of, you know, spring up, like oh there's issues.

And then we and then it's not necessarily very intuitive to try to move that invoice from Jake to another person. So that's kind of what we're looking for pretty much like a dynamic solution where invoices can move, have backup approvers, and things like that, where it could kind of self-manage itself. The thing I'm looking for too is if we can put it in almost like your H.R. type hierarchy, of how the organization works, and then maybe if invoice gets stuck after two or three plays, then it moves to the next approver type thing.

So then it kind of self-manages itself a lot more than how it works today.


Right. And I know that can be incredibly frustrating waiting for approval and that sort of thing. But I'm curious, how does that affect just the day-to-day for you guys? I know for me having to get certain things approved, it really just slowed down my whole process. And you know, sometimes I'd lose days of work, weeks of work. Has it kind of been a similar experience for you guys?


Yeah. I mean, there are certain things that you know, for instance, you know, we constantly look at metrics, right? So if we're being evaluated as far as how fast we can get things through the throughput to a workflow, and there are things that are being stuck in certain processes or certain workflows. Then it paints a different picture of how, you know, efficient, we're moving things through the workflow.

So it's definitely a pain point for us and something that we're looking to improve, improve. And like I said, I think having that dynamic option where things can move between different approvers would help. Because, a lot of times we start to see like, oh, something stuck. It's already affecting our metric at that point, right? Even though we can fix it, it's already affecting our metric. And then, you know, where our, you know, aging is getting worse than what it should be. Yeah.

I know I've often used the expression “I needed this yesterday” when sending things for approval. So I totally understand it. As soon as it's, it's late, it's really hurting you.

Jacob, did you have anything you wanted to add to that? Just kind of your experience with this approvals process and how it can bottleneck what you're trying to do?


Yeah, just a really reiterate what Alex is saying that I think most approval flows that I've dealt with, it's the lack of dynamics in it. Everything's so static. And even if it is somewhat dynamic and who it selects, like if, you know, at the department level, if it's this PO, for this amount, it's going to put this person in there. Well then, as Alex talks about, that person's on leave or that person leaves the company altogether, then you have issues of, OK, having to go back and either manually update and say, OK, switch it to this approver or something else. I think really there needs to be a further dynamic to it of just, even like groupings of, OK, this role or this like function of the business. If somebody else steps into that role, they automatically would be the person. They'd be a person who could approve that workflow.


Yeah, I want to piggyback off that point. I think that's very important, I think with the dynamic of workflows is not having something assigned to a certain person. So let's say if there's an invoice that's going through marketing. Instead of having one of the marketing managers, if there's three or four marketing managers. Having a marketing manager group that way, if that person leaves, the other three people can then see like, oh, you know, there's this invoice that still needs to be approved or there's some other type of approval that still needs to go through. 

To Jacob's point, when new people move into that role, you're not constantly looking at the whole schematic of everyone in the company, trying to figure out what invoice goes to which person. You're really grouping things together. And that, I think that piece of the dynamic is something that we're looking for. Because, you know, within our organization we have about 2,000-something employees. So to try to figure out within 2,000 employees, all the different workflows that need to go through.

I mean, constantly, daily there's things that are changing that's adjusting in people's lives that could affect the workflow process. So having that grouping option is very important.


Yeah, I love how you put that there at the end of just, you know, that these are people, they have things going on. The kid may get sick, you know, a family member may be sick, you know, or be hurt, need to divert. They may be taking vacation. There's a lot of unknowns when it comes to that human element. So having some backups and fallbacks is really a good plan. I like that flexibility. 

You've mentioned a lot of things that kind of you guys kind of solutions or things that would help your approval process. I just kind of want to ask it point blank. You know, like what sort of things are you guys looking for? Maybe there's something that hasn't really come up in our conversation yet, but like what would be an ideal approval solution process for you guys? Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, piggybacking off of what we said earlier about having those groups, having things be more dynamic trying to get away from any kind of manual adjustments.

Because, on our side of the house–especially from accounting, every time–so they'll want to see every time we do any kind of manual adjustments. Versus a system that's more dynamic and everything is running systematically, there's less things that they can, you know, pick and need to–like, if further clarification on why we went in and make manual adjustments. 

I mean, the whole, you know, accounting organizations, you know, throughout history, we're trying to streamline things where there's limited manual interaction or a manual intervention. That way they can you know, it's easy to point like this went from point A to point B to point C to point D. If it goes from point A to point B and then someone manually puts it back to point A, and that's when they have questions on, like, well, why?

You know, you know, it also from their perspective from auditors. It also, when you start having those manual interventions, that's when, you know, things could go awry, right? So just having that flexibility and dynamic solution set up where, you know, it might take some time on the front end to get everything and every instance and nuance of exception into that automated process. But, you know, schematically, if you put that together correctly in the beginning, then it kind of runs itself.

So that's kind of like the type of solution that we're looking for. Is that we can put it in place and there's not a ton of manual intervention.


Absolutely. Absolutely.

You've kind of brought up two directions, I kind of want to go with this. And, you know, Jacob, feel free to chime in here, too. 

We've talked about some of the things that complicate this process, right? People, kind of, the human element–what are some other complicators? You know, we kind of in-house have kind of described getting things approved is almost like detective work. You've got to figure out who who's supposed to approve who sent this invoice, that sort of thing.

And Tereza, I know you and I have talked about the four-eye principle. What are those kind– some other factors that complicate this process? You know, just again, from y'all's experience and Tereza, feel free to chime in here, too. But, you know, what does that experience - what - what else is complicating this process?


Yeah, I think for us, it's, you know, on my side of the house. It's– it's mostly the human element that complicates things.

I think, you know, also making sure that we think of everything in its future state. For instance, like, you know, within the organizations or sometimes you have reorganizations, right? So you might have set up the solution one way. And then all of a sudden there's a reorg where people are in new departments or we create new departments and things like that. And to be able to dynamically adjust how you set up the solution in the beginning based on current events and what's happening in the business today. I think that's a very important part of, you know, a solution that we're looking for. 

And one of the things that we always ask ourselves as we're putting things in a place like, well, what is this going to look like a year from now, two years from now? Like if we put this in place, does it help us get through, you know, 2022? Or can it get us to 2025, 20, you know, 2030?

I think that's the important thing, something that can pivot in a different direction based on how the business is actually interacting. Because, you know, typically companies, you know, even if it's a reorganization of like, you know, three different marketing departments versus having two and that kind of thing, like how does the system react to that, that real-time, you know,business operation type activity.


Yeah, and when you're in such a fast-growing industry or a fast-growing company, that changes. It's funny you mentioned, you know, can this get us through 2022? It's like can this get us through the first half of 2022? Sometimes it's the question even so. That's, that's, that's awesome that yeah. Flexibility like that is so important.

Tereza, I just kind of wanted to ask you this question. We've, we've talked about it. I think it may be obvious for some, but just to kind of have this question asked. Why are approvals so important for your business? I know Alex kind of mentioned audits, but, you know, just kind of what is the importance of that? This–why is it so important that this process is done just right?


So first of all, it's the business need for basically having predefined policies that are then put into place and they actually work. Because, this is what also complicates the process, is that when you are having some idea on paper how you want things to work and you are trying to take the solutions that are out there and adjust it, but you are not really taking into consideration what your stakeholders require from the solution. So lack of visibility of what is the internal process and defining your solution to that internal process is the key. So I always tell the customer, spend 80% of the time thinking about the solution and spend 20% of the time implementing it. Then rather in doing the other way because if you really jump to conclusions from the very beginning, then you are just postponing the process. You are not really addressing all the needs.

So think of all the exceptions. Because, you know there is the happy path and there's the not, uh, the not very happy path and you need to have a solution or answer to all of those other processes or what happens if. Obviously, different type of solutions will offer you different, let's say functions.

So you have mentioned many of these today, things like a reminder. The same way you remind your customers of making payments. You can remind your approvers to make you make a decision on time. You mentioned earlier what happens if my team, let's say, a family member is sick and I'm off from business for a couple of days, weeks, months. We need to have a solution that you can delegate the role effectively to somebody else. If I'm the manager of the team and I see that I have, you know, multiple pending approvals before it comes to me. I have to have a visibility into that. Who from my team is still missing and eventually having someone like a super approver that's, that's NetSuite terminology.

But think about someone who overrules everybody else's decision if needed in case of emergency. Of course, by some given logic, like I have to provide the reason I can't just do it because. I will want to, you know, have track of it and have the visibility. Visibility is the key, really. If you don't have visibility, that complicates your life in business pretty much.


Mm hmm. Alex, Jacob, anything to add on that, of just, like, why getting approvals right is so important?


I think to piggyback off our point. Another thing that I kind of left out is the importance for this to be seamless for our stakeholders, right? So when you're doing something like approvals like this touches so many people throughout the organization, and through our group, we're always very sensitive on what type of solution that we pick for anything that touches everyone throughout the organization.

And I think one thing that we try to look for is something that makes it simple for the stakeholders, right? Like we don't want to... We want the comp - the complexity on the back end, right? Where we can pull reports and do things like that we need to do for our perspective and for audit. But we also want to make sure that we're keeping it simple for the stakeholders and I think one of the things that we looked at is having the ability to be able to do approvals through email.

I think the way our solution is set up today is that we want to make sure that we have that flexibility, while people are on the go. That they can go and approve things through email and make it a lot more simple. Because, if you know you're trying to get something approved, someone needs to go and sit at a laptop, you know, to go through and log in to the system to approve it. Then that slows down time, you know, because someone could be on travel and it's like, well, I'm not going to be in front of a computer for three days, right? That kind of thing.

So I think, you know, having the simplicity and flexibility that we've kind of harped on that word a lot where, you know, it can work on the go, that's very important for a solution that we're looking for.


Yeah, it's funny. You mentioned, you know, laptop versus something you can improve on your phone because that just sounds so much like it's you know, it's time to catch up with the times, right?  It's time to catch up with where technology is now.

And because that's how we live our lives, right? We're all on our phones. We answer emails on our phones. We usually do Google searches and a lot of people can even work from their phone. So that's such an important piece of the puzzle, right, to try and find and figure out. So I kind of want to take another look back here at some of our previous podcasts we've been talking about,you know, kind of this idea of when do you start looking for a solution to some of these problems that you're having? 

Because, there's always kind of this edge that you're on, of–you know, we're making it with our current approvals process,but we're just on the edge of it–maybe being too much to handle and it’s really starting to affect our business.

And so Jacob, Alex, obviously you guys have mentioned you are looking for some solutions. You kind of already have a solution but I was wondering if you could kind of maybe point out some kind of red flags, if you will, that kind of signal to you guys, like, OK, we need to maybe find a better solution. There's got to be a better solution out there. Just kind of like what were some of those red flags for you guys?


I can say coming in a lot of times it's just when you have those opportunities of change. So I've only been at Q2 since January, but I'm kind of coming in as one of the new NetSuite admins. You kind of take a look at those processes and you know, you can take your previous experiences of things that have worked and haven't worked. And then you come in and you see a process like, OK, hey, this process should probably be updated. It might be a little bit more static than really it should be, especially for the size of the company.

And so you kind of just really get that opportunity with new fresh eyes. Kind of that new energy at the same time to be able to go look at it. And, you know, a lot of times just ticket errors or something that might be just OK. This is an issue that's popping up once a week, once a month, whatever. How is that affecting the time and effort that you have to put in for that? That you could be taking that time and effort to just go ahead and implement something, get that out of the way and it will save time in the long run. 


Alex, anything to add to that? Any red flags that you noticed that made you say we needed to get something to this process? 


Yeah, I think, to Jacob's point. Having the new fast team that he's on really made us step back. And look at all their, the folks on that team, the experience that they have and kind of the feedback they had of like, yeah, you guys are doing this in a way that most people aren't doing and wasting a lot of time. So having that candid feedback is helpful. Then I think also as you start to look at metrics throughout our organization. We start looking at, hey, you know, it's taking us X, Y, Z amount of time to approve this. And is–does that make sense? Or sometimes we'll even have feedback from, you know, a customer or not a customer, but a vendor that I'll say, hey, this, you know, this may have taken longer than what it should have. And then even –some of even the audit time, sometimes it takes because we're kind of having to come in and do a lot of the manual intervention. And obviously those are the items that they want to discuss in detail.

Like, OK, you have you know, this, these 500 transactions, but about 20 times you guys had to come in and manually go in and adjust these things. Let's go and break down the 20 times and, you know those additional costs, right? Because we're, you know, paying the auditors per hour. So we're having to go in and go over our 20 manual interventions every quarter. You add up that cost and it's like–does this make sense that we're doing this every quarter?

As an organization grows that 20 might go to 20 to 25 to 30 because you know, you’re just having more transactions in the system. So I think at that point you start to look and say like, does this make sense that we're, we're doing it the way that we're doing it? And should we go with a fully integrated solution that will kind of take us into the future? And obviously, like I say, getting feedback from a fast team of like, yeah, we could do this and it's not as not as much of a headache as you guys think it may be. We might spend the 80% upfront you know–like to Tereza's point, solutioning it out once we get there, then we're eliminating all of our headaches from now and into the future, so…


Wow. Yeah, we've kind of danced around this point, but you just said it so eloquently there of, like, I've kind of been looking at this as, you know, struggling with your approval process costs your people time, right? And you know, time is money, but you kind of brought up a really, really, really real point here, of it is costing you real money. To later on to have an auditor or sit there and manually do this and go through this.

So that's a really interesting point I hadn't–I hadn't thought of it in that perspective of it really can cost you to not have a smoother process for this. 

So let's talk about some other solutions that are out there. So obviously, Alex, Jacob, feel free to talk about some other solutions that you guys have found. But Tereza, if you could also just talk about what other solutions are out there?

Alex, why don't we start with you guys? What are some of the solutions you have found?


Obviously looking at Zone's solution and then we're also looking at SuiteApprovals. And there's a couple other ad hoc systems that we're looking at as well. Being a static solution, you know, and us talking about dynamic. I mean, that's pretty much the issue that we have now.

As our company continues to grow, we know we need something that's a lot more flexible than what we have today. So trying to spend, as Tereza said, that 80% time really investigating the solutions that are out there to make sure that we are choosing the right solution for us. And to also make sure that we are future looking as we pick a solution. And so we don't want it to work for the first half of 2022. We want to make sure that it's flexible enough if we double in size in the next three years that it can keep up with that growth.


Tereza, what are some of the other solutions that are out there and maybe even just some tips that you could give folks to help this approval process go through.


From the various conversations that I have with customers, especially in the pre-sales stage. So when they are basically considering even buying NetSuite. They kind of know what's in there and sometimes they even consider having external solutions. So there they just want to bring certain processes outside the ERP. Just because of the inflexibility that it has, especially expense reporting or PO approval process when it comes to the integration.

So being part of the NetSuite itself, solutions, the advanced suite approvals, that's usually the starting point. That's what if you implement directly with NetSuite, most likely you would be presented during the sales demo as the solution to go for. It's a good, good starting point. Then we have the suite flow function, but as I, as I outlined, you really need someone with a deep knowledge of the solution in-house as an admin or external as a partner that helps you shape it to the business need.

And lastly, we understood all this because we are also NetSuite implementation partners ourselves. And we had an idea that we created a SuiteApp that is meant for and the desired design for financial users. So you don't need to be admin to be able to define it. Almost like in the suite advance approvals. But you are actually building it, you know, in a matrix way. So I give you blocks of how to build your house in a way more defined level, but you don't need to do it with scripting. You don't need to do it with some more complicated workflow blocks like you would do with a suite flow. So the product ZoneApprovals is basically working as a, as a matrix.

I think you mentioned earlier that you would like to have–that you define different thresholds so you can set those thresholds as complicated as you like. So you can group to $500, 500 to 1,000, 1,000 to 5,000, 5,000, above 5,000. It has the visibility of the audit log. So at any certain point of time of your approval flow, you know where the–where the transaction is in, who's coming next and it gives you the flexibility to override needed, in case of need.

So I talk about delegation, I talk about super approving, reminders. That–that's something that is an essential part. What really helped us shape this product is the.. All the bottlenecks that we heard from our own customers. So we based on the experience our customers used to have with the previous two solutions. We shape it in the way they desired it. And we are super proud of the solution because we think that's going to be a big game-changer. For– well, it's a sustainable solution for any NetSuite customer, no matter the shape, size, industry, or country And it is basically designed to work on any transaction. 

You know, sometimes you will have a solution that is limited to only expenses or it's only limited to purchase orders. The solution you can easily reapply on any transaction in NetSuite that is currently supported.


Effortless and flexibility that's the name of the game there. One last question to kind of wrap up here. Maybe there's somebody who they're right on the edge– kind of what we're talking about here, of–they know they're struggling with their approvals process, but they aren't quite ready to make that jump. Just kind of an open-ended question to the room. What are some tips you would give those people?

I know Tereza, you kind of mentioned sending email reminders, stuff like that. Just little things that might, that could help somebody who isn't quite ready to make that jump but is getting closer and closer every day. What would you guys say to that?


We kind of point in the last question but I think really seeing what the cost of your current system is costing you. I mean, we luckily go back sometimes and look at, you know, how, you know, what we're spending on our audit fees and other kind of, like, even review. 

For instance, if you're doing something manual, we're working on a project right now where, you know, you start to realize like, hey, five or six people are having to touch this one thing for this, to go through this process, what does that actually cost us in real dollars? You know, if five or six people are touching it is taking them a half hour each and they're doing this every week.

We start, you know, as us, as accountants, you know, we start calendar-izing that like, well, that costs X, Y, Z a year. You know. Those are the kind of things I think when you're looking at is it time to revamp your process, you really need to get down to what the real cost and time of what having not a dynamic or efficient workflow is costing you. And then even just like the headache, you know, sometimes that wears on people when they're having to go in and do stuff manually that just, like, annoys them. So there's an annoyance factor that you have to calculate that out as well, I think really just getting down to the real cost of what an inefficient workflow costs you, it's really important.


Man, I'll follow up and I'll say just from a systems perspective as well, sometimes you kind of have to have that final push of, you know, an approval flow being deprecated. Sometimes that's that extra push that you can have to get things moving or, you know, if the headaches and everything else and the dollar cost doesn't get you there. Then sometimes that's the last step that's needed to go.


Actually, Jacob this is–this is the whole point of why we started with our app in the first place. So, all the money you have, I would always invest in the flexibility, in terms of giving the approver a choice to make the decision. How I approve, as you explained, I'm on the go. I need to have the flexibility, just reply from my email and that email registered the answer in NetSuite. You know, like we have these options with approving from email in the app So I would definitely always think in terms of as much flexibility as the solution gives me and as much visibility it gives me as a user. So I have to understand what I have in hand in order to be able to use it properly for all the use cases that I have without much assistance.


Well, guys, thank you. Again, we've had a great conversation just talking about the approvals process, and we've learned a lot about some interesting solutions that are out there. And it sounds like depending on the phase and level of complexity of your business or maybe the requirements of your process and your team, there's definitely a solution out there for you.

So just a really exciting conversation that we had today. Thank you, guys.


Yeah, thank you, it was an exciting discussion. I really feel like it was meaningful. I got a lot out of it.


Yeah, thanks for having us. It's a great conversation and good to hear a little bit more in-depth from other people's perspective.


Thanks Jake for inviting me. I'm always interested in learning, you know, new use cases and requirements, and this really helps us shape the product and services we offer. So definitely a very meaningful session for me too.


And now we want to hear from you. What are you looking for in your approvals process? Let us know by emailing hello@zoneandco.com. 

And if you enjoyed today's conversation, be sure to subscribe to Finance in the Clouds wherever you get your podcasts and we'll see you next time. 


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