Accounts payable automation: How smaller institutions can compete

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1 Accounts payable automation: How smaller institutions can compete By Jan Skinner, Vice President of Business Development, AvidXchange Two interesting phenomena recently have converged, causing smaller financial institutions to take advantage of technologies that historically have only been available to larger institutions. First, today s competitive business environment is driving institutions to reduce costs and increase efficiencies wherever they can. Often these organizations look for additional revenue sources but have overlooked the operational, or non-interest expense, items as being insignificant to the bottom line. Yet in this era of slim net interest margins, a reduction in noninterest expense can have a significant impact on a financial institution s profitability. Simultaneously, cloud or web-based solutions, otherwise known as Software as a Service (SaaS), are being rapidly adopted as a cost-effective means for smaller institutions to employ enterprise level functionality, which historically has only been affordable for the larger institutions. Accounts payable (AP) is one functional area where smaller institutions are adopting SaaS solutions to raise their game. Throughout the country, AP automation is a tool being used to lower non-interest expense and make operations more efficient by eliminating scanners and paper invoices, and by replacing them with intelligent technology to more effectively compete against peers. The goal of this white paper is to answer two basic questions: 1. Why have smaller financial institutions been slow to adopt AP automation? 2. When should you be looking to automate your AP system? A historical perspective Larger institutions have historically taken advantage of AP automation due to economies of scale. They were driven to improve their manual AP process as a result of being flooded by the costly inefficiencies related to the paper invoice process, and were forced to make a change. With tens of thousands of invoices arriving every month, large AP departments manually processed, coded, datakeyed and filed paper invoices. Additional checks and balances were scattered throughout the approval process, adding yet another layer of cost on the organization. By streamlining the processes of these paper invoice factories, AP automation brought tremendous cost savings and efficiency to a century old accounting standard. 1

2 Some enterprise financial systems made the decision easier by offering AP automation as an integral part of their financial suite. In other cases, institutions chose best-of-breed solutions targeting AP automation. Installations of these technologies would typically cost in excess of $250,000 for the on-premise software and took six to 12 months to implement. Although such an approach was comparatively expensive for smaller firms, the larger firms were able to justify these costs, basing their return on investment (ROI) on replacing the substantial cost of the large AP staff manually performing data entry tasks with technology. SaaS solutions have changed all that. By making AP automation affordable and available with a relatively short implementation period, SaaS has finally become a cost-effective solution for smaller institutions. ROI is easier to achieve because the client has no cost outlay for hardware or additional software. In addition, the configuration and setup is relatively simple, and firms can often be live in 45 days or less. Many SaaS pricing models let clients pay for what they use instead of requiring a substantial up-front investment to purchase a software license under the old user licensing models. As a result, SaaS solutions are much more affordable for smaller institutions, allowing them to ramp-up usage over time as needs expand. Recent survey of the market In a report recently published by Paystream Advisors, Invoice Automation Adoption 2011, 80% of the executives surveyed had either launched an invoice automation initiative or planned to do so within a year. The study classified companies into three groups: small companies with revenues less than $500 million; medium companies with revenues between $500 million and $2.5 billion; and large companies with revenues over $2.5 billion. The study reveals the adoption rates of for various phases of AP automation by company size. 2

3 The report further reveals that small companies are beginning to adopt elements of AP automation, with front-end imaging taking precedence over back-end imaging. But more small companies are embracing automated workflow over either of these processes. What is AP automation? Having worked with thousands of users, we ve found that AP automation means different things to different people. To easily convey how AP automation impacts an organization, we have found that pictures speak a thousand words. So let us walk you through a graphical diagram of moving from a paper-based system to an automated AP process. Paper-based process This represents a typical paper-based AP process: An invoice comes in. It s opened. It may or may not be matched to a purchase order (PO). It s routed. It s coded. Invoice amount may be compared to budgeted totals. It s approved for payment. It s entered into the AP system, then posted as a journal entry to the general ledger (GL). A check is printed and sent to the supplier. 3

4 The paper invoice is filed somewhere either on or off site. Does this look like your process? We have found in talking with thousands of users, that it s pretty standard. Automated AP process With an automated process, nine of the previous manual process are either eliminated or replaced by AP automation technology. Invoices are received electronically (in various formats), so there is no more opening the mail. Invoices are automatically matched to a PO and sent to the appropriate approvers, using business rules and an electronic workflow. Coding and approving are still controlled by end-users who can also check budget limits electronically. All invoices flow into the accounting system without anyone having to manually enter them into the AP system.once invoices are approved for payment, they can be paid using two methods: 1) cut checks as you have always done using your accounting system, or 2) have your AP automation vendor complete the automation process by automating the payment and paying the bill on your behalf either through check, ACH or credit card. In some cases there are guarantees against late charges, which can come in handy on invoices with hairtrigger invoice cycles like utility and telecom bills. So as you can see, 25% of this process is still manual yet if you ll notice, coding and approval are critical business decisions that you still control. 4

5 AP automation makes the process better, faster, more visible and easily reportable. It doesn t eliminate AP functions--it just eliminates the repetitive tasks easily performed by technology. Just to recap, when you move from paper to AP automation, you no longer need staff to open the mail and enter invoices into the system, and no more scanning and filing of paper invoices--those tasks are completely gone. Why are community financial institutions slow to adopt AP automation? In my opinion, there are three primary reasons why smaller institutions have been slow to adopt AP automation: it s too expensive; some don t know what to do with the free time ; and there is a lack of understanding. Too expensive This camp believes that automation will simply be too expensive. This may be the case, but we have found that most organizations have never taken the time to determine what it actually costs to process an invoice. So they really have no basis for determining what too expensive means. If the average cost to process an invoice for a company is $14.89 (based on the study outlined below) and a small institution processes a minimum of 300 invoices a month, the company s annual savings could be as a high as $30,000 to just process the invoices. 5

6 Those savings simply account for the cost from invoice receipt to entry into the accounting system, and do not take include actually paying the bill. Another study by the Aberdeen Group in 2010 showed the cost to process a paper invoice was $ But when you add the cost of processing a check, the total cost from invoice receipt through payment could be as high as $22.04 per invoice. Automated AP systems have been shown historically to reduce these processing costs by more than 50%. Using this math, that same financial institution that processes 300 invoices monthly could easily reduce the cost of processing their bills by more than $80,000 annually. That would result in potential savings of more than $40,000 annually. With the advent of SaaS solutions, the cost of technology to support AP automation is more affordable than the enterprise systems of the past 10 years. Additionally, SaaS solutions enable customers to buy only as much as they need, making the pricing of the solution more in line with the appetite of smaller organizations. Finally, smaller financial institutions can build ROI within the organization for improving back-office processes, thus adding the savings directly to their bottom line. What do I do with the free time Institutions in this category have typically expressed that AP automation seems like a great idea and may have even investigated various solutions. However, the stumbling block appears to be in answering the question of what to do with the extra time that will be made available to staff once automation is in place. Most of these institutions have one or two people that perform multiple functions, and AP is simply a part of their job. So they find it difficult to re-allocate their time. Because of that thinking, these institutions may be missing opportunities for growth. 6

7 In these tight economic times, the organizations that are growing have already adopted the idea of using technology where it s smart. They are leveraging their staff to use technology to make decisions, rather than being forced to maintain tedious, overlapping manual processes based on an old, paper-based system. That extra free time is being used in more valuable, productive ways, moving the AP department from a cost center to a more strategic gain-share center through the ability of their staff to accelerate payment discounts or reduce audit fees. Lack of understanding These institutions have either not been exposed to the types of technology available to them or may not understand how tech would impact their institution. They are laser-focused on maintaining high levels of compliance to keep auditors off their backs, or trying to deal with the latest regulatory requirements streaming out of Washington, D.C. So let s explore what is out on the market today. Current AP automation solutions AP automation vendors all ultimately process invoices for payment, but they do it in lots of different ways. This muddies the message to customers and compounds the problem of clients understanding what is available today. Having attended several regional and national financial institution conferences over the last year, I would group the AP systems into three buckets: Basic AP systems People often misinterpret these types of systems to be AP automation. Yes, it is software that helps your team manually enter AP invoices and cut checks. They usually store 1099 information and provide the ability to process them at year-end. They provide after-the-fact visibility to invoices and typically are manually intensive. In some cases, your staff can store an electronic copy of the invoice--but first you must buy a scanner. And you still have to deal with all the paper-related requirements of opening the mail, routing the invoices via paper, scanning the paper invoices, and in some cases filing the paper documents. Some savvy financial institutions ask their vendors to send invoices as a PDF via but someone still has to open the , put it into your AP system, and enter the header data into the AP system. These institutions think they are already automated but if paper invoices are still part of the process, guess what: they re not! 7

8 Document management systems These systems are terrific solutions for eliminating certain types of paper documents and are often dressed up to look like AP automation. However, the primary focus of these products is to turn paper into electronic documents. They are not really built to make your AP process more efficient. In theory, it sounds like it would be a great idea for AP, but like anything when you get a one-size fits all tool, you have to make adjustments for specific needs. When implementing an AP solution using a document management system, the setup is a bit more cumbersome as fields, workflows and reports typically have to be built from scratch. These systems are great when dealing with things like mortgage documents, contracts, etc. But an invoice has unique characteristics that regular documents simply don t have, and as a result these systems are analogous to placing a square peg in a round hole. Finally, you really haven t eliminated the paper as your staff is still opening and scanning the documents. AP automation tools Specifically built for the purpose of AP, these vendors focus on AP. Their primary goal is to extract as much of the manual labor out of the AP process as possible, yet leaving control of approval and coding in the hands of the user. One example of labor savings, a hot topic in the AP automation space, is the use of electronic invoices to remove paper from the process before it even reaches the client. You no longer need a scanner to open the mail or scan documents. You also don t need to open an from a supplier, open the electronic image, or drag it to another system. This is all done behind the scenes for the client using real electronic invoices in various electronic forms such as PDFs, vendor portals, scan-to-queue, or EDI-like technology direct from the supplier to the client s portal. When should you be looking for an automated AP system? To determine if you should consider AP automation in your future, here is a list of the top eight things to look for: 1) Still process paper invoices If your institution is still receiving paper invoices and performing any of the manual processes such as opening, scanning, or entering the data into your financial systems, you may want to explore AP automation. 2) Growth if your institution has already acquired several branches and is thinking about how to handle the additional load of paper invoices, you may want to consider employing technology to make the existing process more efficient rather than adding head count. 8

9 3) Process 300+ invoices per month These institutions will typically see enough of a reward to at least explore the process. 4) $500M+ in assets - Most financial institutions greater than $500M in assets or quickly growing to that number can easily justify automation. 5) More than 10 locations Having invoices distributed to many locations increases the stress from paper invoices that get lost or cause late fees. Consider the additional checks and balances your firm has put into place simply because you re still dealing with paper invoices. 6) Hold more than four audits per year Set up your auditor with read-only access and let him or her find their own invoices. No more wasting your team s time pulling invoices and having to re-file them or track down that one elusive invoice that someone simply miss-filed. You may even be able to reduce your audit fees. 7) Late fees If you experience a recurring problem of late fees, AP automation has been shown to reduce invoice approval cycle times from 30 days to less than three. Improving cycle times will ultimately eliminating late fees. 8) Your AP team spends more than 1 hour a week taking vendor calls to answer when will I get paid? Locating the status of invoices in order to answer a vendor s question can easily be replaced with electronic retrieval of data. No more lost invoices or wasting your staff s time in researching an elusive invoice. If you meet three or more of the 8 criteria, I would encourage you to explore your options for automating your AP systems. For more information For more information on determining your Cost per Invoice (CPI), please contact AvidXchange at or 9

10 Published by: Financial Managers Society, Inc. 100 W. Monroe, Suite 1700 Chicago, IL

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