Recently, I read a blog by Samantha Ryan about accounts payable automation, "Are we really no better than Trained Monkeys?" which I thoroughly enjoyed. So much so that I felt the need to respond because I truly agree with Samantha…but I also sit on the other side of the fence.
Our invoice capture and approval automation solution, iCompleat, was designed from scratch to automate up to 90% of the account payable function and is probably the most disruptive software ever to impact Accounts Payable (AP)…
The importance of accounts payable staff and management cannot be understated as it is critical to ensure that both our staff and our key suppliers remain engaged with the business, especially when things go wrong or when we encounter the unexpected. When that happens, human intervention is critical. We gave a name to these instances; we call them the “exceptions” and Samantha’s examples below are all excellent examples of just some of them.
So, how would accounts payable automation help with these?
[Samantha] When a process goes wrong, a supplier isn’t paid or employee expenses don’t get through in time for a payment run, the business needs someone to help, understand and find solutions. This can sometimes be volatile and at times even emotional. Show me a monkey that could handle this.
None – good people are essential. However, it would be helpful if AP could instantly access all the information they need, such as when was the invoice received? Where is it in the approval process? Is it under query and if so, why and who have we discussed it with? Is it approved and posted to the accounts and just not paid? The same applies for expense claims. The ability to be able to instantly access ALL the information relating to the transaction helps to deliver the fastest, most informed resolution, founded on 100% auditable information.
2. Creative Thinking
[Samantha] It’s Friday afternoon and most people have left for the day. Someone comes to you and tells you if a supplier does not receive payment by close of play, the event that the CFO has been organizing for Monday will be cancelled (don’t these things always seem to happen in the highest profile situations). The supplier isn’t set up, and we have never seen the invoice before. We have to find a way to get that payment turned around and out of the door in the next hour. There is no time to follow the end-to-end process, so it is up to us to find the best solution fast whilst still ensuring we have all the approvals required.
There are times when good commercial sense means breaking the rules, often because of last minute unexpected issues (or more often, somebody acting at the last possible moment and expecting everyone else to accommodate them!). But having broken the rules, it would be comforting to know that there are fail safes to protect against the consequence; a common one for this scenario being duplicate payments (been there, done that!).
3. Customer Service
[Samantha] We can interact with any part of the business through paying suppliers or expenses. Understanding the needs of our customers is essential to ensuring we can serve them effectively. Speaking to people, understanding their issues and offering support is a big part of what we do. Providing great customer service requires a level of emotional intelligence … need I say more?
Most accounts payable departments spend up to 30% of their time dealing with customer or supplier and staff queries. Never-ending credit control calls and dealing with the queries and managing supplier credit limits. This is especially true when your business is growing. But the fact of the matter is that it takes human intervention to build relationships and trust. It requires the time to be able to do it well, and it is also dependent on being able to demonstrate that you are 100% on top of things. Again, the ability to be able to see a supplier account on demand, the exact status of every transaction in one place, nudge slow approvers, highlight outstanding queries (irrespective of who is managing them) all contribute to building that trust. If you can do this (and always pay on time), you build suppliers that want to keep your business, and they refocus their time to chasing their less trustworthy customers. Getting best value pricing and higher credit limits naturally flow as a result of this.
4. Common Sense
[Samantha] We see a notification from a supplier to change bank details. The logo on the letter doesn’t look quite right. We see their invoices every day, and it catches our eye. So, we compare it to an invoice and it is similar but just not the same. When we check the email address and phone number they have quoted it does not match our records. When we phone the supplier to question it we find it is fraudulent. We have just saved the business from sending out a payment to fraudulent details. Sometimes detecting fraud is a gut feeling that something doesn’t seem right.
This one is becoming ever more important, as fraud is no longer just maverick individuals, it is organized crime and they are getting really good at it. Every notification to change bank account details should be checked directly with the supplier by phone – every time. But it would be equally good to check the emailed PDF invoice is being sent from the right email account, the bank information on the invoice matches what is held in your accounting system, that all invoice lines are grossed up, and net, VAT and gross totals are checked against the invoice values (fundamental for MTD for mixed VAT invoices), that the invoice format has not changed, undertake automated duplicate invoice checks and a number of other validations. But that would take a lot of human time. Thankfully, automation allows for it to be fully automated to take place in nanoseconds.
Accounts payable automation is about removing all the manual labor that is generated from dealing with paper invoices and the associated invoice approval process. It is about automating general ledger coding and selecting the correct approval process where this information will always be the same for a given supplier, whether at invoice header level, or even at invoice line item level, usually between 60% - 80% of all invoices received.
It is also about giving everyone in your organization access to the real-time information about their suppliers. Every invoice, every query and even the payment status, so they don’t have to ask you questions and when they do, you are looking at the same information.
But most of all, it is about creating more time to deliver all the benefits of that critical human touch that builds the relationship, both internally and externally, that makes your business really stand out.
So, Samantha, we agree – it is all about people and through accounts payable automation, giving them the real-time information and tools to become truly outstanding.
Our guide, AP Automation - How to bring accounts payable into the future, addresses how automation is changing the face of accounts payable. Learn the what, why and how of AP automation by clicking the button below.