The world of Accounts Payable is changing.
The 2020 pandemic saw 88% of global businesses having to rapidly shift their teams over to remote work operations. It required finance leaders to take a fresh look at the tools and processes they’re using to manage and control finances - including the crucial roles of invoice processing and accounts payable (AP) management.
As more accounts payable teams work remotely, fundamental problems caused by traditional manual, paper-based approaches have been brought to the forefront.
A recent survey by the Association of Certified Accounts Payable Professionals (ACAPP) identified the top two challenges facing AP teams:
- Invoice expectations causing delays (78%)
- Too much manual data entry (72%)
To tackle these limitations, Finance Directors are turning to digital solutions and automating the process for a more agile and remote-friendly operation.
So how do you choose and implement the best automed AP solution for your business? Let’s take a look: This guide helps you to make this change. We will be looking at:
- What is AP automation
- How to choose the right solution
- How to manage implementation
Understanding AP Automation
What is AP automation?
Accounts payable automation refers to the use of digital technology to streamline the invoice management process.
This is done with a software system that combines digital AP management, real-time data, and artificial intelligence to eliminate manual tasks. Resulting in an AP process that requires no keying-in or manual entry of invoice data.
Ask yourself: Is AP automation right for my business?
The three key benefits of AP automation apply to companies of all industry and size. They are:
Submit faster payments and reduce unnecessary admin
Minimise number of errors and improved checks
Security and compliance: AI analysis/alerts
An automated solution can reduce admin time by up to 84% versus the traditional manual approach. It is important to keep in mind that your business should balance the benefits of an AP system against the costs.
For example, a manual AP process may still be effective for small, in-person organizations with low volumes of POs. But as that organization grows, the limitations of this approach are likely to be exposed, necessitating the move to an AP system.
Can an AP software work for remote teams?
An automated AP is perfect for remote or hybrid teams. The digital process removes the need for a physical office to act as a central information hub. A digital solution allows all data to be accessed from wherever an employee has an online connection.
This means remote or hybrid finance teams can:
- Digitally submit and approve purchase orders
- Instantly access incoming invoices
- Share and collaborate key information
- Receive real-time notifications
- Keep track of process using reporting tools
What types of AP automation are available?
There’s a wide range of AP solutions available. Each solution provides slightly different features and approaches to invoice management. There are two main options to choose from:
1. Standalone software
This is a dedicated solution that’s designed to handle invoices and accrual-based purchases - nothing more. It will typically connect to ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software and any other relevant accountancy suites.
- Greater complexity
- Need to manage integration
- Advanced features
- Better customization
2. Procure-to-pay (P2P) suite
This is a solution where AP automation is part of a larger suite that covers multiple aspects of procurement. Invoice management often takes the form of an optional module that can be added to the standard software package.
- Basic features
- Less flexibility and customization
- Simpler integration
- Reduced implementation times
What are the typical features of AP software?
1. Invoice scanning
This automates the handling of incoming invoices. Suppliers send their invoices to a dedicated email address. When they arrive, an automated system uses OCR (Optical Character Recognition) scanning to extract the relevant data and convert it into a digital format.
Systems can handle invoices received as attachments in a wide range of digital formats including:
- Electronic doc (DOCX)
Paper invoices can also be managed by converting the physical document into a digital format using a camera or scanner. This can then be scanned in the same way as any other invoice attachment.
There are several different forms of Optical Character Recognition (OCR). The most effective uses machine learning to improve the accuracy of the data extracted. This method is often referred to as Intelligent Character Recognition (ICR) or analytical OCR.
Removes time lost and errors caused when AP teams have to manually key in data.
2. Approval routing
An automated approvals process simplifies AP workflows. They ensure incoming invoices are sent to the correct approvers. Some systems provide automatic routing of invoices determined by company parameters, such as:
- Purchase order
For example, invoices over a certain limit can be sent to more senior approvers and department heads are shown costs relevant to their teams. Many systems also provide full admin controls over the level of access that each user within the system has. It helps to keep data secure and to ensure robust data privacy compliance.
A fast, paperless, remote-friendly approach that reduces processing times and risks.
3. Automated checks
Automated checks help to identify errors or potential fraud attempts by analyzing invoice data and looking for irregularities. Data is monitored for any inconsistencies such as:
- Mismatching POs
- Bank or vendor detail inconsistencies
- Duplicate data and costs
The automated checks operate in real-time. Permissioned users will receive an instant alert when a potential issue is flagged. An automated approach catches small errors and discrepancies that can be missed by the human eye.
Benefits: Improved shield against errors/fraud. AI is better at spotting data inconsistencies than humans.
4. Coding & categorization
AP software automates the way that classifications and General Ledger (GL) codes are applied to each vendor invoice. By configuring the system to match your company’s needs, the correct details can be auto-filled for data such as:
- Invoice category
- Product line
- Country code
- Freight details
Benefits: More time can be saved as more invoices are generated. Resulting in a more efficient way of generating accurate GL data.
AP systems will automatically prepare everything needed for fast and accurate supplier payments.
With a standalone solution, the data is sent to a connected payment system, typically using a secure API. A Purchase to Pay (P2P) service, will handle payments within the same software suite.
A digital process provides considerable flexibility on how payments are made, whether it’s:
- Smart card
Benefits: Better supplier relations and less risk of penalties imposed for late payments.
How to choose the right AP solution
Six key considerations
Solution providers often have a variety of packages designed to suit different sized businesses and requirements. Care is needed when comparing these plans to make sure you understand any restrictions or limits that may be lurking in the small print. The most common pricing plans are:
- Monthly/annual cost
- Cost per user
- Cost per invoice
Many providers adopt a flexible approach to pricing and will quote prices that are based on your exact requirements. This offers some room for negotiation with both sides able to find an acceptable price point. Keep this in mind when shopping for an AP software provider.
Does your automated AP system need to fit into your existing tech stack?
If so, for a standalone system, this means checking how compatible the software is with the rest of your tools and applications. The most effective way to ensure compatibility is with an API (Application Programming Interface).
Either way, this might be one of the first questions you may want to ask when evaluating system providers.
It doesn’t matter how great an automated AP solution is if nobody can figure out how to use it. This is just as true for suppliers as it is for your AP team.
If the justification for moving to AP automation is that it simplifies the process (it is), you need to make sure that it’s being delivered. A few ways to achieve this are:
- Requesting a demo
- Checking out system tutorials
- Assessing user feedback reviews
- Getting internal feedback from your team
Tip: Assess user-friendliness from the perspective of suppliers, invoice approvers, and finance managers.
4. Fraud Prevention
When choosing a solution, you need to look at the ways it can help to shield your business from potential risks of administrative errors and invoice fraud.
The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners has estimated that $7 billion is being lost each year to fraud and a large chunk of those losses come from falsified and fraudulent invoices.
An effective solution will provide active protection with real-time monitoring that triggers an alert whenever data anomalies are identified. Three of the most powerful features to look for are:
- PO and Invoice matching
- Vendor or supplier detail checks
- Invoice or data duplication
An effective automated AP solution is more than just software. It is also the level of support, training and expertise that a provider can deliver. Checks to make include:
How much support is provided to help get a system running and to configure it to your needs?
What happens if your AP team needs help? A good supplier will offer multiple contact points including phone, email, chat and video chat.
When are support services available and what happens if your AP team needs help outside of these hours?
Is support local? Do they have specific knowledge of the issues and business environment in which your finance team operates?
What knowledge resources are available? A good provider should provide a full range of guides/FAQs/video tutorials etc.
How frequently is the software updated/fixed/improved? Check the recent software update history.
6. Custom Configurations
The ideal solution is something that exactly matches the needs of your AP process. But unless you’re developing your own software, that’s a rarity. So a trade-off needs to be made between flexibility and usability.
More advanced automated AP software will provide configurability, which is likely to require more knowledge and support to set up and maintain.
This links to customer support and how ‘hands-on’ a provider is during the implementation phase to make sure the system is set up how you want it. So you may want to have a look at their support and customer service feedback when researching reviews.
How to Successfully Implement An Automated AP Solution
Create a roadmap
Set out in clear steps how the changeover will take place. This can be a phased approach: Initially working concurrently with the old system. Or it can be done as a clean switchover with new replacing old on a set date.
The roadmap should define:
- What do you want to achieve?
- When do you want to achieve it?
- What are the key deliverables?
- Who has ownership of each task?
Build buy-in and user adoption
Any kind of change can create pushback. Some AP professionals will be anxious about moving away from their known methods and processes. And the less they know about what’s happening, the more of a challenge this can be.
To reduce these risks, make stakeholders a part of the implementation process. Inform them of upcoming changes, why it’s being changed, and how they’re going to be supported throughout the switchover. This includes:
Your internal users, like AP teams and procurement, will be the primary stakeholders who will be using the tools. Consequently, they should be consulted throughout the process. The more involvement an AP team has in implementation, the fewer fears they are liable to have upon the initial adoption period.
For vendors and suppliers, automation means a faster and more efficient payment process. But any changes to invoices need to be effectively communicated. Typically this will simply involve providing them with a dedicated email address for invoices.
One strategy to help build ‘buy in’ is to appoint a ‘champion’: A member within the team tasked with helping colleagues get to grips with the new AP system. And offer users friendly and personable training with minimal disruption.
What’s a typical implementation and how long does it take?
Implementation roadmaps and timelines will vary depending on your provider and the specific requirements of your AP setup. Here’s the typical six-step implementation process that’s used for Webexpenses Invoice Processing (WIP):
Step 1: Project Scope and Planning
Initial discussions with the client to find out about their current processes and challenges to gain an understanding of how WIP will need to be configured.
Step 2: Integration
WIP is connected to the client’s accountancy package to ensure that datasets are consistent and, where possible, direct data transfers are created.
Step 3: Configuration
The provider will then configure the system to set required features, processes and behaviors. This includes implementing automated checks, notifications, and duplication alerts.
Step 4: Quality Assurance
Thorough providers (like Webexpenses) will perform a full cursory check on the approvals process to ensure that correct workflows are in place and all possible automations have been identified and implemented.
Step 5: Testing and Training
With the system in place, training is available to cover all aspects of the system. Sometimes this will include a testing period for the AP team before the system ‘goes live’.
Tip: When evaluating providers, check to make sure that training is included in your purchase.
Step 6: Full Roll-out
You’re ready! It’s time for full roll-out to the user base.
Implementation times may vary depending on your provider. For example, Webexpenses Invoice Processing system typically takes between two to four weeks to implement, from first discussions to full roll-out.