ROBBIE DIRCKS, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY PRESS
Accounts receivable consists of monies due from customers as a result of an organization's normal business operations. The management of accounts receivable is an extremely important function since the collection of outstanding receivables represents the single most important source of cash for all organizations selling goods on open account. Because of the impact that accounts-receivable collections have on cash flow, it is important that responsibility for the day-to-day management of credit and collections activities be delegated to a single individual within the organization.
Accounts Receivable as a Current Asset
On the balance sheet, accounts receivable is reported as a current asset and is considered part of an organization's working capital. As a current asset, accounts receivable is expected to be turned into cash within the annual operating cycle of a business, which for most businesses is generally considered to be one year and corresponds to the twelve-month fiscal year used for financial reporting purposes. This, however, does not imply that it should take one year to collect individual receivable balances.
In the case of a university press, accounts receivable represents a major component of current assets, working capital, and cash flow. The other major components of a university press's working capital are cash, short-term investments, and inventory. As a component of working capital, accounts receivable must be carefully managed in order to be turned into cash as quickly as possible and to avoid becoming uncollectible. Although accounts receivable is reported as a current asset, it must be carefully valuated and reported because until the receivable is collected, it cannot readily assist with the paying of current obligations.
Accounts Receivable and Collections Reports
Because of the significance of accounts receivable it is important for management to receive periodic reports that both measure the effectiveness of collection activities and inform or alert management of problem accounts. Ideally, reports should be generated on a monthly basis, but depending on the size of the receivable balance and collections staff, the issuance of such reports may range from weekly to quarterly. This flow of information is necessary so that management and collections staff can determine whether current credit and collections policies and procedures are working, or whether any of the policies and procedures need to be changed to more effectively collect outstanding receivables. Additionally, the collections staff needs information so that collection activities can be prioritized, problem accounts isolated, and outstanding balances collected.
Analysis of Accounts Receivable and Collections
A number of methods are used to measure accounts-receivable balances and the effectiveness of collection policies and procedures. Some of the more frequently used methods to analyze accounts receivable and collections include:
- A/R at Year End as a Percentage of Total Sales. This ratio is computed by dividing the fiscal year-end A/R balance by fiscal year net sales. The AAUP Statistical Survey reported averages between 21.6%-23.0% for fiscal years 1992-1995. This ratio can also be computed at any time during the year; however, to get a meaningful ratio, the A/R balance must be divided by net sales for the most recent twelve months.
- Average Collection Period. This ratio is an indication of the average number of days required to convert receivables into cash. Ideally, the computation should use a monthly average of receivables and include only credit sales. A monthly average of receivables should be used in order to offset any fluctuations that may occur during the year. Additionally, only credit sales should be used in this computation since cash sales usually do not involve any credit risk. The computation of the average collection period is a two-step process. First divide total sales (preferably credit sales only) for the fiscal year by 365. This calculation yields the amount of credit sales per day. Then divide the year-end receivable balance (or average monthly receivable balance) by the credit sales per day. The result is the average collection period in days. The AAUP Statistical Survey reported average collection periods of 77-91 days for fiscal year 1995 and 80-95 days for fiscal year 1994.
- A/R Aging Schedule. This is a periodic report used to determine the priorities of collection activities. An aging schedule lists all customer accounts with outstanding balances as of the date of the aging schedule, one account per line. Across the line, the total amount due is broken down, or aged, by overdue categories. The overdue categories generally include current (not yet due), 1-30 days past due, 30-60 days past due, 60-90 days past due, and over 90 days past due. The aging categories may need to be adjusted to properly reflect an organization's terms of sales.
- A/R Aging by Customer Type or Payment Terms. This is a variation of the A/R Aging Schedule and can be used to more effectively target accounts that require the attention of the collections staff. A more focused schedule also allows comparisons to be drawn between similar accounts.
- Bad Debt Expense as Percentage of Total Sales. This ratio is computed by dividing year-end bad debt expense by net sales. The AAUP Statistical Survey reported averages of 0.4%-0.5% for fiscal years 1992-1995.
- Bad Debt Expense as Percentage of A/R Balance. This ratio is computed by dividing year-end bad debt expense by the year-end (or average) A/R balance. The AAUP Statistical Survey reported averages between 1.8% and 2.0% for the fiscal years 1992-1995.
- Credit Department Monthly Report. This is a summary report that helps management monitor the monthly accounts-receivable status and collections activities. A typical report would include current month and prior month balances for accounts receivable, total collections, and total net sales. Additionally, some ratios might be included, such as the average collections period. Bad debt comparison would include bad debt write-off for the current month, fiscal year to date, and last fiscal year to date. Finally, a summary of the number of accounts and balances in each aging category should be included. There is no universal, or standard, format for this type of report. For a credit department monthly report to be truly effective, it must be tailored to the needs and reporting capabilities of each individual press. The idea of this report is to provide management with a one-page summary of collection results each month.
The percentage ratios (A/R as percentage of net sales, bad debt as percentage of net sales, and bad debt as percentage of A/R balance) are only useful when compared to industry averages (such as AAUP statistics) or to historical data for your particular university press. Average collection period, on the other hand, has to be analyzed on a press-by-press basis because of differences in publishing programs and in the allocation of sales among types of customers that may have different terms of payment. An overall comparison to industry averages may or may not be helpful in analyzing a press's average collection period.
When analyzing accounts receivable it is important to remember that there are no universal standards for measuring accounts receivable and collections. Each press must evaluate its own situation and develop individual internal trends and goals. It is, of course, helpful to review AAUP averages to assist in your internal evaluation. However, one must remember that AAUP and other industry averages are only averages and should never be considered the ideal. Also, when performing internal analysis it is important to take cyclical sales patterns and unusual events into consideration and to take caution to measure accounts receivable and collections results with similar periods.
Credit Management and Bad Debt
Press management and the collections staff also need to realize that it is impossible to reduce accounts receivable beyond a certain point, nor should an organization strive for no bad debts. Each press must develop its own level of satisfaction and its own comfort zone in order to know when and on which accounts to concentrate collections efforts. Likewise, each press must develop its own level of comfort in determining when to sell to new accounts. It is important to expect some level of bad debt, because with no, or a very low level of, bad debts, the press is not maximizing its sales potential. Presses have to be willing to take some chances to increase sales, while at the same time understanding that not all chances taken will yield positive results. Presses that are more aggressive in granting credit must make sure that an adequate reserve for bad debt is maintained on the balance sheet or budget for a possible increase in bad debt expense.
Proactive Credit Management
In addition to analyzing accounts receivable and reviewing internal trends and past performance, and organization must be as proactive as possible to maximize collections. The organization that calls first will usually get paid first. To keep on top of collections it is important to have written collection policies and terms. These written policies must have the agreement and support of management, marketing, and the collections staff. Written policies should be reviewed annually and updated as needed to incorporate any changes that are taking place in the press's publishing program.
Having policies and procedures in writing should eliminate discrepancies in what customers are told by the collections, customer service, and marketing staffs. This will then give the customer one less excuse for delaying payment. Additionally, when all members of the press staff are knowledge able about the press's credit and collections policies and are aware of how past-due accounts are handled, they can more effectively work together to maximize sales and minimize bad debt.
The analysis of accounts receivable and collections performance should be used to assist the press in setting goals for future performance. However, accounts-receivable analysis will not be of any real benefit unless the press has a proactive credit and collections program in place that has the support of press management and is communicated effectively to all press departments and customers.