AP Automation Challenges and
How to Overcome Them
Elizabeth Allen July 31st, 2023
As technology advances and we continue to hear terms like artificial intelligence and ChatGPT bandied about, it becomes clear that automation is not only on the horizon for all industries- it’s here. In fact, companies that aren’t currently employing automation to drive their AP processes have already fallen behind.
Regardless of company size, the amount of manpower that goes into invoice processing costs an organization significantly each year. To automate those processes is to not only save money spent on manual processes and storage, but it also gives your accounts payable professionals an opportunity to focus on initiatives that will only improve your company’s bottom line.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- What is AP Automation?
- Traditional AP vs. Automated AP Process
- AP Automation Challenges Infographic
- The Benefits of Automating AP and Invoice Processing
- The 10 Biggest Automation Challenges
- Best Practices for AP Automation
- What to Look for in Accounts Payable Automation Software
- AP Automation FAQ
What is AP Automation?
Accounts payable automation is the technology that shifts the onus of tedious, traditionally manual accounts payable tasks from human team members to intuitive software. Typically, accounts payable automation software takes over tasks like receiving invoices, invoice processing, getting approvals from responsible parties, managing documents, noting discrepancies, processing payments, and more. Regardless of what steps it handles, an accounts payable automation tool exists to help streamline processes.
The automation of your accounts payable process serves to remedy a host of headaches experienced by finances professionals. Whether it be the monotony of manually entering data, searching for missing invoices, physically routing paper invoices through the office, being delayed by slow approval times, having no visibility into status, and struggling with processing errors, automating your AP process is a trusted solution to outdated manual accounts payable operations.
Traditional AP vs. Automated AP Process
It’s not just the number of steps. It’s how involved each step is and how many points of error each step can potentially introduce. In traditional AP, there are so many moments in the process where something can go wrong- a typo can occur, an invoice can be missed, an approval can get lost. Some of these issues are simply a pain to fix. Some can be downright catastrophic to your business. When automating your AP process, you’re setting up a series of automated workflows that ensure there are fewer touchpoints. You get closer to straight-through processing, ensuring higher quality data and quicker processing times, with accounts payable automation software.
- Manually receive and upload all incoming invoices
- Route invoice for approval
- Review and approve invoice data
- Record approval and post update to the system
- Assign GL coding and key ACH batch
- Print checks or ACH batch
- Review checks or batches and authorize the release of payment
- Sign and scan checks
- Send payment
- Receive invoice
- Workflows triggered submitting invoice for data extraction
- OCR exceptions reviewed (as needed)
- Route invoice based on automated business rules
- Approver receives notification and approves/purchase order matches
- ACH file/check batch automatically created and submitted to bank or cloud printer
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There are many noteworthy benefits that come with the automation of your AP process with a solution like MHC NorthStar. Workflows become more automatic and intuitive while your valuable staff is freed up to perform more value-added functions that will improve the financial health of your company.
1. Saving time
Accounts payable automation leads to significantly faster invoice processing—particularly if you’re using optical character recognition (OCR) software to scan invoices and sidestep manual entry of invoice data. In fact, the Institute of Finance and Management’s (IOFM) 2019 Efficacy Benchmarks report found that accounts payable departments that implemented automation processed roughly twice as many invoices per full-time employee compared to organizations that had less automation.
That sort of time saved means teams have more capacity to work on more complex and high-value work. Our cloud-based automation solution, MHC NorthStar, boasts intelligent invoice capture that speeds up data extraction while training itself to ingest and understand less legible files. Whether it be digital or paper invoices, MHC NorthStar’s intelligent document processing powered by machine learning will save your company precious hours.
2. Reducing errors and data redundancy
Errors and data redundancy are inevitable with a manual accounts payable process. Indeed, researchers have documented that people’s error rates range between one and four percent for spreadsheet data entry. Software like MHC NorthStar that automates accounts payable can drastically reduce mistakes since it eliminates the need to manually key data from invoice headers and line-item data.
3. Easily locating and tracking payments
If you’re dealing with physical invoices, all too often, those papers get lost in the shuffle and are nearly impossible to track. SaaS accounts payable automation software like MHC NorthStar incentivizes organizations to digitize and go paperless. As a result, all invoices and data will be in one place, making it easier than ever to locate and track them.
4. Accessing invoices from anywhere
Another result of the shift to digital documents is that accounts payable team members and other employees can access those documents from their home, office, or just about anywhere. Such accessibility streamlines workflows, saving even more time, and avoiding headaches. With MHC NorthStar’s easy-access approval processing, you can allow authorized users to approve invoices, regardless of where they sit, what time of day it is, and what device they’re using.
With recent events, it has become evident that SaaS-based solutions are the most effective solution for corporations. And with work locations changing to remote and hybrid models, it is imperative that AP team members be able to access and process invoices regardless of where they are. Our cloud-native solution, MHC NorthStar, gets companies away from a reliance on desktop applications and offers the freedom to be just as productive from your office, your home, or the beach.
5. Saving money
All of these other benefits—easier access to and tracking of invoices, fewer errors, and less time spent on data entry—often add up to lower costs and actual discounts. By automating accounts payable processes, you’ll spend less on labor and save on the high costs of missed, late, and duplicate payments.
You can also take advantage of early payment discounts that may potentially save you hundreds, thousands, or even millions, depending on your company’s invoice volume and size. Automation solutions like MHC NorthStar often offer pre-built AP workflows and the ability to view outstanding payables at a glance, allowing for straight-through processing and eliminating overdue invoices that result in costly late payment fees.
But What Could Go Wrong When Implementing an AP Automation Solution?
The industry is confident that automation is where all AP teams need to head in the near future. But as with implementing any new process that will impact staff and suppliers, there are considerations to be made. However, identifying and keeping an eye out for these typical hiccups as you enact an automation solution will already mean you’re a step ahead. Mary Schaeffer of APNow joined us in April 2023 and had some insightful thoughts on the biggest challenges to moving to automation and what you can do to sail over those hurdles.
The 10 Biggest Automation Challenges
Automating your AP process is well worth the effort. But there are some curveballs that might be thrown at your team as you move your operations to a more tech-forward model. The benefits outweigh the costs (in time, energy, and money), but staying ahead of any issues by knowing what to look out for will make a huge difference in the success of your AP automation solution implementation.
1. Failure to involve all impacted parties
“ Include everybody. Listen to everybody’s insights. Everybody looks at things a little bit differently. So, it’s nice to be able to get all these different points of view. “
As an AP team, it’s easy to feel siloed when making decisions about your process. It is, after all, your process. However, anyone who has worked in this function realizes just how many touchpoints are involved in the processing of each invoice. Just how many people outside of accounts payable contribute to getting those payments out the door. So, if you’re in the process of implementing automation software, you should avoid isolating participation to just AP.
Whether it’s purchasing, procurement, treasury, accounting, or IT, companies should avoid starting down a path that might not be sustainable for everyone in the long run. Getting buy-in from all involved parties not only reduces delays in implementation and eliminates unfortunate surprises once the solution is up and running, but it also makes everyone champion for the platform and the new process. Success in addressing AP automation challenges must involve everyone.
2. Requiring Suppliers to Jump Through Hoops
“ If you require them to either set themselves up in a portal or deliver the invoices to a special place or make any change whatsoever, you’re going to see your utilization drop because they’re just not going to want to.“
It’s easy to only consider how many interactions and relationships you need to maintain as an AP professional. But have you considered just how many payables teams your suppliers are engaging with on a daily basis? The answer: a lot. And if every payables team has wildly disparate processes to get paid, the day simply does not have enough hours. Therefore, it becomes understandable that suppliers are always looking for the easiest, most straightforward process that will require the least amount of work on their end.
According to Mary Schaeffer, the simplest solution to this AP automation challenge is for everyone involved to designate a single email address for the delivery of all invoices. Not only does that offer a simple, easy-to-follow process for your suppliers, your team members won’t end up spending precious time tracking down which random person to which the supplier decided to send the invoice this month. Solutions that have the capability to ingest and process emailed invoices are the platform that will make life easier for everyone… and your suppliers don’t even have to know that you’ve implemented an automated AP process. However, if your chosen automation solution does not offer that function, identify a process that changes and requires as little as possible from your suppliers. Otherwise, they simply won’t do it and your team will still be stuck in manual process hell.
3. Not Anticipating Staff Reluctance and Needs
“ If you explain to the staff what you’re doing, how it will impact them, how they’ll benefit from it- you have much greater chance of them going along with it. Not dragging their feet. Not bad-mouthing the project all over the organization“
Lead time is crucial when implementing an automation solution in your AP process, especially if your current process has been in work for an extended period of time. People are creatures of habit and it’s difficult to turn on a dime and still be productive. Managers should begin a genuine conversation with their team members about how this new solution will potentially change their roles.
The move to automation can be a complicated and intimidating process. But all of its benefits are well worth the work. MHC and AP Now’s Mary Schaeffer have some thoughts as to some issues you can expect to run into and how to approach those issues with strategy and forethought.
Understandably so, team members might share concerns about the security of their jobs. Engage with them sincerely and explain to them how they’ll be even more of an asset to the company once they’re freed up for more value-added tasks.
Technology is a very real and understandable fear for a lot of people. Especially for those teams that have maintained the same manual processes for decades. Offering your team members in-depth training on the new technology and giving them the time to truly grasp how the new process will work will only ensure that operations proceed smoothly once the solution is live. And as Mary Schaeffer warns, don’t let team members quickly glance through the training materials and feel that is sufficient. Make sure that team members have a deep understanding of not only how the solution works, but how it’ll impact their day-to-day processes.
In the end, automation creates less demand on AP team members for the manual processes that currently take up so much of their day. Ensuring that your team understands how this new technology will benefit them is paramount. They will be more eager to understand and master using the solution if they feel that they’ll be freed up to do the things that leave them more fulfilled.
4. Not Expecting Suppliers’ Technology Challenges
“ You have no control over your suppliers. You cannot make them do anything. So as much as possible, try and select a solution that’s intuitive.“
While you can make training on the new automation solution mandatory for your own team, you obviously have much less control over what your suppliers do. Sometimes it’s difficult to get them to agree to email invoices to one email, nevermind forcing them to become well-educated on a solution that isn’t even maintained by their company.
Making the change to automation as seamless as possible to your suppliers is the only way to ensure adoption of the new process. Build a process that only requires the supplier send the invoice to a single email. If it is required for the supplier to access the new system, offer them a point of contact that will be available to assist with any technology issues, password resets, etc. In her presentation, Mary Schaeffer pointed out that 15% of all automation solutions run into an upgrade issue every year. So when it is time for a solution upgrade, make sure that your suppliers are supported and experience a painless transition.
5. Not Planning for Growth
Most companies have a growth mindset. They are constantly strategizing to expand the company, whether it be organically or through various mergers and acquisitions. The issue is that not all organizations anticipate the unintended consequences of these positive occurrences. They don’t think about the impact individual departments will feel. In the case of accounts payable, the acquisition of a company could result in thousands more invoices on a monthly basis. Companies need to be prepared for all manner of organizational growth… whether it is planned or totally unanticipated.
To get around this AP automation challenge, select an automation solution that allows for easy scaling. Be it the number of invoices you can process each month, the ability to customize workflows, and even just the number of users that can access the platform with your current license, it is vital that your chosen automation solution can accommodate the evolving needs of a growing organization. A solution that is inflexible or doesn’t offer scalability could become useless to your company.
6. Not Providing Adequate Training for Staff
“ I will never forget a professor who said if you ask a question, you might feel like a fool for a minute. But if you don’t ask that question, you’ll be a fool for the rest of your life. Encourage your people to ask questions. And there’s probably someone else sitting in the room who has the same question. “
Your automation solution must be user-friendly, but not just for accounts payable. While they tend to be the focus when pursuing a move to automation, all end users need to feel comfortable with the technology to ensure the highest utilization rates. Make sure you offer all end users robust and informative training that will minimize confusion and frustration when the solution goes live.
And most importantly, continually revisit that training. It may seem like overkill, but unconfident users can not only reduce your utilization rates but can also lead to resentment and eventual misuse of the solution. Provide training on a regular basis to ensure that end users feel comfortable with the new processes and that any questions they might be too timid to ask have been addressed adequately.
7. Not Involving IT Early in the Process
“ Keep in mind that if most of us are accounting people, finance people, accounts, payable people, we see the world from our standpoint. But we don’t see the technology issues. We don’t even know what the technology issues are. “
Mary Schaeffer has spoken on the importance of engaging all parties, not just accounts payable, when pursuing an automation solution. However, there is one team that seems to be overlooked when it comes to matters of an organization’s financial operations. Never underestimate the importance of having IT involved with this process from the very start.
Nobody wants to get to the tail end of the implementation of an automation solution and realize… it’s simply won’t work. Whether it has to do with ERP connections or other more technical reasons, no organization wants to invest the time and money into an automation solution only to learn that it is untenable technology. Involving IT early on not only ensures that you don’t miss these unpleasant surprises, but that you receive IT’s buy-in about the technology itself. They can end up being a champion for the solution, increasing utilization and overall success.
8. Expecting 100% Utilization Rate Quickly
“ This goes back to unrealistic expectations, expecting 100 percent utilization quickly is just not going to happen. 20 percent of people reported that they can’t even get people to send invoices all to the same spot. It just doesn’t happen. It’s going to take time. “
It would be wonderful to snap your fingers and have the entirety of your team and supplier roster adopt your new automation process. But it simply isn’t possible. Even with the most easy-to-use process and people who are excited about the new process, it is highly unlikely that you will reach 100% utilization. Setting a realistic expectation for your team and for management will reduce disappointment and will allow you space to discover ways around some of the bigger obstacles to take invoices from receipt to payment.
When working with human beings, it takes time and effort to get people to accept, to become eager about, and eventually to correctly use the new system. However, it’s often the things that take time that are the most worthwhile. And that is absolutely true for converting to automation. Slow and steady wins the race so by holding the hands of your team and suppliers, you are more likely to get as close to full utilization as possible. Ensuring the process is simple and user-friendly while offering training and patience will speed up the process and result in high utilization rates.
9. Not Preparing for Potential Staff Roadblocks
“ There are roadblocks you can anticipate but there will also be some who you don’t anticipate. They tend to be the people on staff who are either afraid of the technology, don’t know how to use it, or are afraid they’re going to lose their job. You’re going to have to be a little bit more of a Sherlock Holmes if you want to figure out who these people are and make sure that you address their problems. “
Sometimes the obstacles to a successful automation implementation aren’t something techy or logistical. Oftentimes, it’s the very people that will be using the solution. Sometimes you’re able to identify right away who will push back on this new technology. Or who will feel uncomfortable with having to learn a new skillset. But occasionally, the challenges come from the people you least expected.
Having engaging conversations about the tech, how it works, how it might impact their day-to-day lives (both for team members and for suppliers) is imperative to an implementation with fewer stumbles and hiccups. Including parties outside of accounts payable, like purchasing and procurement, will ensure everyone involved is on the same page and has the same understanding of the new process. Making training on the solution mandatory, while it might be a pain for some team members, makes sure that they feel comfortable with the new process once it’s time to take it live. And if you get all parties eagerly participating in building this new way to do business, it’s more likely that they will end up as champions for your cause.
10. Failing to Regularly Monitor Usage and Errors
“ Is there something we can do to change our process so we don’t make certain errors on a regular basis? What do we need to adjust? What can we improve by making these little spot changes in the beginning? Answer those questions and you are well on your way to having a successful program.“
If there’s one piece of advice that any AP team should enact after they have taken their automation solution live: COLLECT METRICS. It is vital to know how well the process is working, where there are bottlenecks or issues, and how to work around those challenges. On top of identifying errors, this is an opportunity to better understand your utilization percentage. What users are avoiding the solution, which ones are bypassing the new process to keep doing things the old way? Understand who is using the solution and how and you’ll have a better idea of what tweaks need to be made.
In addition to collecting metrics, have continual conversations with team members and suppliers about how they find the new solution. Are they running into any challenges that are making their jobs more complicated? The stats will expose many issues, but sometimes you need to hear from the users directly what their experience is and how it can be improved. Ensuring that there is a process in place that doesn’t cause undue burden to your most important asset (your people) and create bigger frustrations down the road.
Best Practices for AP Automation
In Mary Schaeffer’s April 2023 webinar hosted by MHC, a poll was taken about the number of duplicate invoices AP teams struggle with correctly processing. An astonishing 29% of the respondents reported 6-20% of invoices received being duplicates. This kind of insight into the challenges AP teams face daily gives us insight into what kind of AP automation best practices should be adopted as you set out on this journey.
1. Set Realistic Expectations
Communication. That is the key to ensuring that all parties understand how this change will impact them and their own role in making in a success. Hold organic conversations with your team and be honest with them about how their role will look after you have automated your AP process. This will ensure that they feel like an active, important part of the team and will give them opportunities to share concerns or fears about the changing landscape.
“ Setting expectations with management might be the hardest thing to do. They attended a talk and someone told them automation forced them to get rid of their whole AP staff. You need to bring them back to reality. “
2. Recognize the Issues.
It is an undeniable fact that you will hit roadblocks in your move to automation. Sometimes it will be stubborn staff members or suppliers and sometimes it will involve logistics that need to be worked out to ensure efficiency. Staying alert to the vibe on the team, how people feel and how they’re interacting with the new technology will give you a heads-up when there is an issue that needs to be addressed. Identifying these issues and making moves to sort them immediately is what will keep a small problem from snowballing into something much larger and disastrous. And in doing so not only will you avoid painful mistakes but you’ll likely turn your team’s naysayers into the new solution’s biggest missionaries.
3. Require as little change as possible from the suppliers.
Remember that old adage: K.I.S.S. Keep it simple… (for) suppliers. If done right, it’s possible that your suppliers might not even realize you’ve moved to automation. All they’ll notice is that they’re getting their payments quicker and with fewer mistakes. By creating a simple process (a single email address for invoices, a single point of contract for any issues), suppliers will be more likely to follow that process consistently.
“ The more change you require, the more things you require they do differently, the less chance you’ll have that they’re going to comply. And the lower utilization rate you’ll have.“
4. Mandatory training for end users
Obviously, this is easier to accomplish when it comes to staff as opposed to suppliers, but requiring training on the new solution will reduce a lot of the headaches that simply come from inexperience and confusion. End users should feel comfortable walking into the new process so there are fewer hesitations and mistakes that could result in costly late payments or impaired supplier relationships. In addition to training on the technology itself, your team should be instructed in how this will impact the nature of their role going forward. People gain immense confidence in simply knowing what to expect.
How Much Can AP Automation Software Do for Your Company?
of people see a quicker approval of invoices when using automation software
of people see reduced errors when using automation software
of people see increased employee
What to Look for in Accounts Payable Automation Software
A solution’s ability to evolve right along with your company is imperative in this ever changing financial and work culture landscape. Selecting an AP automation solution that won’t make you predict the future by anticipating shifting priorities will ensure that any changes to your company won’t create an untenable situation for your AP team.
2. SaaS/cloud-based access
It’s a fact that the face of work life has changed. Many companies have remained remote or hybrid after the unprecedented days of COVID-19. Organizations realized they were limiting their talent pool solely based on geography and have leaned into allowing employees to continue to do their job regardless of location. Having cloud-based accounts payable automation solution offers the flexibility that companies and staff now require.
3. Role-based dashboards and reports
It’s important to always be able to identify any issues or bottlenecks that are occurring within the system. Choosing an AP automation solution that offers the visibility of graphic dashboards and reports will give you an at-a-glance view of how the transition to automation is going and where certain adjustments need to be made.
4. Intelligent invoice capture
In Mary Schaeffer’s presentation, she extolled the virtues of having a single email address for invoice receipt. This makes the entire process much easier for suppliers, ensuring that they’re more likely to utilize the new automated system. With intelligent invoice capture, your AP automation solution can ingest invoices via email, process those documents, and send them through the payment process.
5. Easy-access approval process
Getting approvals seems to be one of the challenges a lot of AP teams face. Before automation, staff were required to email or manually walk invoices around to the various approvers before being able to pay the suppliers. This often results in delayed payments that could potentially impact your relationship with suppliers. Accounts payable automation solutions that allow you to route invoices through all necessary parties regardless of where they are or what device they’re using eliminates those risks.
6. Speedy auditing
The ability to audit the history of every invoice that comes through your department is essential. Whether it’s for internal or external purposes. AP automation solutions give you a full detailed history for each document including workflow steps, user actions, dates, and comments.
AP AUTOMATION DEMO
AP Automation FAQ
In an environment where making payments correctly and timely is of the utmost importance, three-way match is a vital process within accounts payable. Using a process of cross-referencing the purchase order, the receipt of goods/services, and the vendor’s invoice, you verify the purchase process from request to payment. Make sure you never pay an invoice in error – whether it be under/overpaying or duplicating payments.
Optical character recognition (OCR) is a method to scan, digitize, transform, and store handwritten or printed text documents into your accounts payable system. Eliminate manual intervention, as employees no longer have to physically type in invoice information. Ensure that the data is accurate, and time is saved utilizing technology that learns with repeated data exposure to improve its ability to read, clean, and translate incoming data, capturing data like product numbers, prices, and payment dates.
Simply put, digitizing all data within your accounts payable system encourages greater accuracy in the recordkeeping and transcription process. Without manual intervention, it is less likely that data is entered incorrectly from the very start of the process. Streamlining your workflows and incorporating more comprehensive documentation of your data makes for fewer audit risks and potential complications.
In any company, a change in process will introduce some natural complications, and pushback from employees can bog down the move towards advancement. However, our proven customer service and support team is well known for our ability to guide users through the process, clearing up any confusion and providing them with the tools and knowledge needed to make accounts payable automation a success. Best practices developed over time will reduce stress on your overall process as you take a step into the future of accounts payable.
Currently, in a traditional AP workflow, invoices are generally emailed to each approver through a complicated process that can easily experience bottlenecks. Whether it be approvers who are out of the office or whose inboxes are simply overflowing, from end-to-end in the invoice approval process, there are several steps that can cause disruptions and delays. However, with automated invoice approval, the process begins with paper and digital invoices being intelligently captured. From there, you have the freedom to craft and manage your own workflows, identifying alternate approvers and triggering separate workflows if discrepancies are suspected. Removing the physical capture and routing of invoices through your organization saves time, money, and manpower.
Automating your accounts payable process using AP automation software avoids duplicate payments. Auditing features search for erroneous payments made, including duplications. By cross-referencing internal information and making sure they’re completed after the payment has been made, duplicate payments made in error are all but eliminated.
It’s hard to avoid, manual processes simply open you up to fraud. When manual intervention is required, it’s easy for malicious parties to be able to game the system. AP automation removes those human elements, ensuring that fraud is all but impossible. AP automation software allows for audits wthat will identify any signs of duplicated, incorrect, or invalid payments that could be seen as fraud.
Integration with other accounting systems widely used with your company are vital to enhancing the efficiency of accounts payable automation software. Ensuring that all information flows from a central location helps reduce errors, minimize delays, and maximize your work hours. With a couple of decades of experience, MHC has simplified and perfected the integration process with major ERPs such as Infor, Oracle, etc.
In the end, your vendors and suppliers simply want to be paid on time (or early, if at all possible). Each time a payment is made late, you lose the trust of your vendors… vendors you rely on to be able to run your business. Automated workflows within accounts payable automation software greatly improve the invoice-to-pay timeline, making sure that invoices aren’t stuck with an approver who happens to be out of the office or waiting on an exception.
It’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason. Time is money. By automating your AP process, you’re not only saving on precious manpower (freeing your employees up for more value-added tasks), but you avoid late payment fees and can potentially take advantage of offered early payment discounts.