Christina Bowe Regional Director, UKI, Perceptive Software
Doing more with less is the mantra of today’s business world.
Once you’ve gone through an efficiency drive, streamlined operations and automated processes within your business, a common question is often ‘what’s next?’
Nowhere is this truer than the finance department – as an organisational cost centre it’s frequently one of the first areas of a business to be put under pressure to cut costs and do more with less.
This process often starts with accounts payable (AP) – often the most admin- intensive operation within the finance department and indeed perhaps the whole business. For many organisations, the volume of invoices being received, tracked, processed and paid requires significant time and resource to run smoothly. Automating this process and being able to scan, track, process and store invoices automatically streamlines day-to-day operations, leading to fewer errors, reduced document storage requirements, faster processing and a more efficient use of human resources. Rather than spending considerable amounts of time on processing invoices manually, AP staff are freed up to deal with out of the ordinary issues and queries and improve the service they offer.
For many organisations, the automation of AP is a fait accompli. They have been there, done that. But, an efficiency drive shouldn’t stop here. The question is where to go next for the finance department.
The answer lies in the vast amounts of data that come through the finance department. Invoices, remittance advice, PO numbers, supplier correspondence and contracts all contain valuable insight, whether it is held in a structured form (i.e. within a fixed record) or an unstructured form (i.e. it has no defined structure).
The business insight that can be gained from this mountain of data is of great importance to the finance department. It can be used to generate greater efficiencies and identify new opportunities. Not only can this have a direct impact on the department’s own operations but it can bring wider benefits to the entire organisation, and beyond to its wider ecosystem of customers, suppliers and partners.
So, what insights can be gained and how can this be used?
As the old saying goes, ‘garbage in, garbage out’. The speed, accuracy and quality of information for reporting, planning and forecasting purposes is key to the finance department. With AP automation, many of the issues arising from manual data entry, where errors can creep in due to human error, are gone. It leaves the team able to focus on the strategic elements of their roles, providing focus for the direction of the business, rather than having to spend time checking numbers for accuracy.
But data accuracy is just the first step on the road to analysis and insight.
The increased availability and quantity of invoice and supplier information, combined with document workflow practices, supports a business’ compliance requirements. When the data can be searched, identified and found easily it can reduce the time spent on audits from several weeks to just a few days in some cases. One Perceptive Software customer compared the costs of audits with a largely manual AP process versus audits after automating the approval process. With automation, the auditing costs were 90 per cent lower and the director of AP spent less than three days on the audit compared to 30 more with the manual processes.
Accessing data typically held within invoices can provide in-depth analysis into vendor payment practices. Armed with this knowledge, the finance department is better placed to make decisions around payment options that can improve cash management. Often they’re able to increase the days payable outstanding (DPO) whilst still preserving their relationships with suppliers.
Building on this, data from invoices allows for the capture of information about discount terms. The ability to analyse these terms and then apply rebates, dynamic discounts and early pay discounts helps to optimise cash flow. It can also help to analyse problem areas, where disputed invoices may be leading to late payment charges. Being able to identify common bottlenecks or issues often leads to faster resolution. But looking further afield this insight can help to develop purchasing policies, which provide additional benefits to the business as a whole.
In fact, the purchasing team is perhaps one of the biggest winners when the finance department can provide more advanced data insight.
For example, it can use valuable data insight into supplier importance, terms and conditions to review supplier relationships and then use this knowledge to negotiate better contractual terms moving forward.
It also allows the department to monitor buying practices by having insight into the routing and approvals of invoices. The visibility into such transactions ensures organisational compliance with corporate standards. It also means non-standard purchasing practices can be quickly identified and proactively addressed for a more uniform approach across the business.
Even outside of the organisation there are gains that can be felt by a much broader business ecosystem, such as customers and partners.
With the AP function automated, there is faster payment and query resolution but also the data and analysis obtained can be used to evaluate relationships and adapt commercial terms where appropriate. This can lead to better, stronger relationships with suppliers and partners.
Customers can benefit in a similar way. Analysis into their dealings with the organisation, both orders and payment practices, provides better insight into the ongoing relationship opening up opportunities for negotiation and the development of improved offers where appropriate.
So, to summarise, across finance teams in many, many organisations, the easy steps to efficiency have been completed with the automation of the most admin-intensive and transaction-based tasks in the department, AP.
Now comes the hard work – harnessing the vast amounts of structured and unstructured data captured, analysing it and using the insight for the good of the businesses. The benefits of this are not limited to finance but can be felt much further afield. They elevate up the finance department and out into the wider business, and even to the broader ecosystem of the organisation, to benefit customers, suppliers and partners alike.