Levvel Research research reveals the average cost of manually processing an invoice can be as high as $20, versus $3 for automated Accounts Payable (AP) invoice processing. The payback period for investment in an AP Automation Solution is short, ranging from 6 to 18 months on average. A proven problem with proven solutions, AP process automation software is a low-risk investment.
The vast majority of Accounts Payable invoices are still processed by routing paper invoices throughout the organization or scanning and attaching the electronic invoice to an email which is then routed around the organization. Once complete, users in AP then manually key information from the approved paper or email routed invoice into the Corporate ERP/Finance system to then process and pay. Time wasted on paper-driven and manual tasks such as data entry, manual routing, manual follow up, Excel spreadsheet tracking, filing, retrieving, faxing, copying, mailing, and looking for invoices that have been misfiled or lost typically represents more than half of the cost of invoice processing, significantly decreasing productivity levels and increasing the cost per invoice. Investing in AP invoice automation software can result in eliminating some of these processes that slow down productivity.
Benefits of Accounts Payable Invoice Automation
Hidden costs associated with manual AP processes can really add up—and because they are not easy to quantify, their damaging effects may be underestimated in current processing scenarios. These hidden costs most often lurk in manual processing, where the same invoice may be handled multiple times, even before an approval decision is made. In addition to contributing to escalating labor costs per invoice, these manual and invisible invoices increase the chances of missing favorable payment terms due to lengthy processing cycles.
Automating the entire AP invoice process can be a key challenge for Finance departments, but if done well it can improve overall accuracy, speed, efficiency, control, and visibility, while optimizing the company’s biggest asset…CASH. With the visibility that AP invoice automation brings into invoice and payment data, controllers can analyze and understand expenditure, perform budget variance analysis, and spot possible fraudulent behavior.
The Results of Accounts Payable Invoice Automation
Immediate and ongoing results you will experience with AP Invoice Automation include:
- Capturing and normalizing incoming information no matter the source – paper, email, attachments, fax, EDI, and XML.
- Elimination of 80% to 95% of data entry.
- Automating the approval, coding, matching, and exception processing of various invoice types (PO/Non-PO, direct/indirect, merchandise/expense, goods/service, contract/recurring, etc.).
- Promoting “touchless” processing as much as possible.
- Eliminating up to 90% of the time it takes to process an invoice.
- Real time and interactive analytics pertaining to bottlenecks, invoices paid without being approved, efficiency of automation, productivity of the users, amount of spend known but yet to be paid, audit trail of every invoice, etc.
- Retrieval of documents within seconds.
- Self-service portal to promote for vendor inquiries, vendor master updates, submission, and data entry of invoices.
Technology Silos of AP Automation
There are many functionality silos to an AP Invoice Automation software solution. These silos can be provided as a complete end-to-end solution, or they can be chosen depending on what you already have in place. Augmenting your existing systems with certain silos can bring just as much success as an end-to-end solution.
Not only are there many silos to a solution, but there are many choices within each silo to be thought about and determined based on your AP Invoice automation preferences. All Star is not interested in the AP Automation solution that sells the most software, the solution that sells the most services, or a solution that shoves a square peg into a round hole. All Star is willing to spend as much or as little time as you prefer, evaluating the silos below to determine which fits your needs and what will formulate the proper solution based on those needs. As a provider of multiple products within the various silos (capture, data entry, workflow, storage/retrieval, analytics, mobility, engagement/collaboration), All Star can also choose from the various products to add further options based on functionality or price. Multiple silos, multiple options within each silo, and multiple products per option give you the most flexibility to implement the appropriate solution now and for the future.
Below are the various functionality silos that make up and AP Automation software solution and the options you have within each silo to consider.
Accounts Payable Invoice Capture
Before we talk about technology, the first question you should ask yourself is if you even want to be a part of this process. Outsourcing the automated capture of invoices means you don’t touch a piece of paper or an email attachment. Paper invoices can be sent to a P.O. Box where they will be picked up and scanned for you. Electronic invoices will be emailed to dedicated email addresses where they will be imported. Captured invoices are managed in a secure facility and trained staff go through a quality control process that take invoices from a P.O. box or email inbox receipt and transfer them to an indexing process performed either by our team or your team. The core consideration here is the outsourced fees compared to using internal resources with procured or subscribed technology.
If you choose to perform the AP invoice capture phase of the process, you have a choice of using a system implemented in your data center, a system implemented in a private Azure cloud environment (All Star provided), or a system that is a true SaaS cloud solution (software vendor provided). All three options are essentially in the cloud nowadays since even corporate data centers aren’t on-site anymore. The main difference then becomes your preference for having to manage the virtual servers in your data center, having All Star manage the virtual servers in a private Azure environment, or having the software vendor manage the virtual servers in their data center (private or multi-tenant options available).
The chosen environment can capture AP invoices regardless of the source (paper, email attachments, fax, portal submissions, portal downloads, EDI) through automated import robots that are monitoring all possible incoming swim lanes. The scanning process can be done using multi-function devices that scan to email addresses or network folders being monitored. However, the recommended scanning solution would be to use the chosen software’s scan module that utilizes a scanner connected directly to the user’s workstation. This is the preferable scenario since the downstream processing is looking for the cleanest image possible in order to provide the best data extraction possible. The image enhancement options within this scenario significantly affect the quality of the image and thus the extraction of the data in the next step of the process. The import process not only monitors source locations, but it also provides the ability to normalize incoming invoices to consistent formats, performs image enhancement on image-based documents and can capture the attachment, the email body, or both, and in whichever order you prefer. Error reporting and original invoice backups are also configurable in the electronic document capture tool.
Data Extraction and the Elimination of Data Entry
If you have chosen to outsource the capture of AP invoices, you now get to choose who indexes the invoices. The indexing/data entry process can be performed by our team as a continuation of the outsourced process or by your team if the capture process is all you are looking to outsource. If you have chosen NOT to outsource the capture of AP invoices, below is the continuation of your AP invoice automation process.
The technology used for this phase of the process is designed to extract and validate data without the use of a template per vendor. Every vendor has a different invoice layout and the solution provided looks for formats of data (i.e. dates, amounts, your PO number, addresses, etc.) as well as the keywords that surround the data. The keywords help provide a higher confidence percentage to the values found. This is helpful when looking for things like an invoice date. You may find three to four dates on an invoice, but the date you are looking for has the words “invoice date” near the date value. The date near those keywords will be assigned a higher confidence percentage than the other dates and the system will populate the invoice date field with that value. This technology also can use regions of a document to help expand or restrict the pages or parts of a page to look for certain values. If an invoice date is always on page one and in the top half of that page, the solution can restrict looking for the invoice date to the top half of that specific page. The system can also utilize connection to the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system data via disconnected data transfers, ODBC lookups or web service calls to validate and select things like the vendor and PO number.
Once configured, the user will have to validate only the fields that fail the thresholds setup for each field. Thresholds like the confidence of the extraction, validation against the ERP system (valid PO, Valid PO/Vendor combination, etc.), and any calculations (i.e. Sub Total + Tax + Freight = Total). The goal of this process is not only to validate the data extracted, but also to make sure the data going into workflow and ERP is clean and can get to the appropriate person in the workflow as quickly as possible. Transactions that fail ERP validation rules cause the most problems since most ERP systems require the transaction to be deleted and recreated. As data is being validated because of extraction confidence errors, the system’s Knowledgebase is being updated to ensure the artificial intelligence is refined to provide better extraction results going forward. Artificial intelligence works for rules that can be defined, but in some cases a human’s validation is required in order to help the artificial intelligence to progress and get better over time.
The elimination of data entry is a tangible, attainable and real goal. It is typical to be able to eliminate 70% – 80% of data entry when a solution is initially implemented. This means that 70% – 80% of the fields on every invoice should be correct once a system is implemented. That correctness can increase to 90% or so over time based on the diligence to ensure the invoices are being corrected appropriately by the users.
Once the data has been validated (correctness of the extraction plus the business rules against the ERP), the invoice can now be sent into workflow. With this transition to workflow, another big question needs to be satisfied. Where does workflow take place and what parts of the workflow occur where? Many ERP systems have workflow and most organizations want to utilize the huge investment they have made with their ERP system. The barriers to using ERP workflow typically are user interface complexity, workflow configuration/custom development effort, functionality, flexibility, and licensing costs.
Because of these challenges, external workflow systems that sit in front of the ERP system are commonly used for workflow processing. In some cases, external workflow is used just for validations beyond what was talked about in the data entry phase of the solution to ensure the complicated validations and logic are completed prior to the invoice going into the ERP system. In this scenario, the ERP system workflow handles the approval process only.
In other scenarios, all workflow is performed outside of the ERP system and the ERP system is used as the system of record and to pay the invoices. This scenario is typical where the flexibility and functionality of the workflow tool external to the ERP far exceeds the ERP capability or where the majority of the users who participate in workflow are not ERP users. External workflow tools typically provide the flexibility to work from applications like Microsoft Outlook or from a mobile device, thus making it even easier to participate in workflow regardless of the complexity or simplicity of the process.
A third scenario presents tools not native to the ERP system that can be plugged into the ERP interface to replace the native workflow tools with a simpler or more functional tool. These tools have been developed using the native ERP programing language and look and feel like the ERP system. This scenario may be preferred because of the consistency within the user interface and because organizations prefer to have their users work inside of the ERP system. As an example, these tools can appear in an ERP system like SAP as a new Tcode but will replace the standard SAP worklist tool that handles workflow for invoice Tcodes like MIRO or FB60.
Workflow is dependent on the type of invoice being processed (PO/Non-PO, direct/indirect, merchandise/expense, goods/service, contract/recurring, etc.). Words in an AP Automation workflow that are typically heard are coding, approval, matching, and exceptions. Workflows automatically route invoices to appropriate business units/departments/users for coding (Non-PO), can auto code based on predefined preferences or past coding, perform 2-3-4 way matching (PO), and route invoices to the appropriate users for exception handling or additional approvals. All along the way, users and vendors can be notified of invoices in process or invoices that have been approved or rejected. Notifications can happen based on various thresholds such as time in queue and can be escalated based on out of office calendars or the amount of time in queue. The goal is to know what transactions exist and to ensure those transaction get processed as quickly and accurately as possible. Manual tracking, follow ups, and AP quarterbacking are immediately eliminated because of the awareness a system like this provides.
Routing can either be rules-based, where the invoice is directed by the system using the data associated with the invoice, or it can be decision-based, where the invoice is routed based on where the user chooses to send the invoice. User actions are also a consideration as it’s not just about getting the invoice to a user, it means also providing them with tasks they can perform once the invoice is with them.
Tasks like approving, rejecting, rerouting, including supporting documents, adding notes, and notifying internal or external users are all typical and are simple to configure in the software. Advanced configurability gives you the ability to execute multiple actions when a user completes a task like an approval. After the user clicks the “approve” task, the system can do things like automatically add a stamp to the image, change the value in the status field, prompt the user for the next approver, move the invoice to the next queue, and more. A system with over 250 configurable rules and actions allows a company to implement the solution much quicker and with greater functionality.
The ability to use a single configured workflow and make that workflow available within an email client, a mobile client, a web client, or even from within the ERP system provides the users with the chance to work from within the application they prefer. If a user is in their email all day, let them work from there. If a user is on the road all day, let them work from there, etc. With the click of a checkbox, full functionality of a configured workflow can be made available via these other user interfaces making the system configurable, functional, and accessible based on your preferences. All the while throughout workflow, no matter what tool is being used, users can view the invoice data with enforced ERP and workflow logic, view all related documents, view the history of the invoice, execute tasks available to them, and enter data and comments as required.
Storage and Retrieval
There are many options for storing and retrieving the invoices while they are in process and after they have been processed. Users with appropriate access privileges will be able to search and retrieve the documents from the All Star provided solution or from within the ERP system regardless of who is currently working with the documents. Files and documents can be restricted based on the invoice type or the index data associated with the invoice. Security around the index data can include or exclude documents from a user’s result list even though they have access to the document type.
Users have the ability to search for documents based on any of the data associated with the invoice. Date range searches, amount range searches, vendor names, purchase order numbers and many more data elements can be used to find documents. You also have the ability to duplicate fields so a user can search for invoices based on multiple vendors or multiple PO numbers as an example rather than having to run multiple searches.
Many users prefer to point and click through folders to find documents rather than searching on index fields. The indexes from the invoices can be used to create a virtual folder structure on the fly for users to search through. Multiple documents can be presented in the folder based on common indexes like PO number. Indexes can be used to create folders within folders where the first level might be the vendor name and the second level the PO number. All of the documents relating to that PO number will then be placed in that PO folder (requisition, purchase order, invoice, delivery receipt, check, etc.). These folders can have folder templates that tell the users what document this type of transaction expects and what documents have yet to be received.
The OnBase ERP integration will allow for documents to be retrieved from within the ERP interface. This can be initiated from a form/screen in the ERP system that contains the appropriate field data required to retrieve a document.
- This type of retrieval eliminates:
- The user from having to open the OnBase application.
- Needing to manually select the search to be run.
- Having to enter the data into the search fields and execute the search.
- It is a one button execution with minimal user training and allows users to retrieve documents from within the interface they work in every day.
- To the user, it is simply a new way to view all of the documents associated with the transaction being viewed.
- There are many ways to provide this type of integration:
- OnBase Application Enabler tool
- Send URL link to ERP invoice attachment section
- Customize ERP with a link or button
All result lists provide the ability to filter, stack, sort, reorder and export the list of invoices and related documents. This is helpful based on the need for a more refined and easier to use result list especially when a search produces a lengthy result list. As an example, having the ability to group or filter the results of an invoice search by vendor name will shorten the result list and allow the user to expand the results per vendor. Or grouping by PO number and then filtering by vendor name leaves a much more manageable result list for the user to interact with.
It’s not only important to just find the document, but the type of actions users can perform once a document is found is just as crucial. Below are some common actions users can perform when working with invoices if they have the rights to these actions. These actions are available via right click options on the result list, in the document viewer, and via the button on the ribbon bar.
- View Indexes
- Every action is date and time stamped
- The user’s name is tracked for every action
- Action performed and even metadata values before and after are tracked
- Entry user and exit user are tracked for workflow events
- Send To
- Excel (All data on the result list can be exported to Excel and used as a report)
- Email as Attachment or URL Link
- Personal Page (shortcut)
- Envelope (conglomeration of links to documents gathered from multiple searches)
- Save as External File
- Notes and Redactions
- Notes are text based and don’t alter the image or document
- Notes can be searched for
- Notes can be sticky notes, stamps, icons, etc.
- Notes can be hidden or forced open on documents
- Notes can be added automatically via workflow and users can be forced to add a note when a workflow task is completed
- Redactions hide information on the document but do not alter the original file
- Cross References
- Cross references are other documents that are associated with the invoice being viewed based on common index values
All Star’s analytics solution will provide a single user interface that can provide all the metrics pertaining to an invoice from the time the invoice was received to the time the invoice was paid. This single user interface eliminates management from having to learn multiple complex tools to find data and also eliminates the need for custom reports to be written which may only provide a static view of information at one point in time.
Capture dashboards include more than 40 pre-defined metrics that help you quickly and accurately measure and improve capture performance, in addition to objectively monitoring human operators, business processes, and software performance. These interactive views relate to system performance and productivity metrics, so administrators understand the effectiveness of their solution as well as how to improve overall system throughput.
Accounts Payable Invoice Dashboards present data in a variety of graphical formats including charts, graphs, scorecards, maps, heat maps, and more. Users can monitor performance and trends in real-time and interact with the data being presented. Information on the status of people, processes and invoices can be provided and the user can click on a graph or portion or a graph and see a data grid representing the portion of the graph selected. The data grid can be to drill all the way down to the invoice and the complete history of that invoice.
Accounts Payable Invoice Dashboards have the ability to report across multiple systems as well, not just the data in the AP invoice capture software, the workflow software, or the ERP software. Users will be able to see the entire life of an invoice and all associated data from within one user interface. Invoice information and metrics from the capture and data extraction processes, the workflow processes, and the ERP system of record will all be represented using this one tool.
Common metrics being interacted with include:
- People: AP Specialist workload, invoices processed, approver response times
- Process: Number of invoices processed in a specific timeframe, time spent on exceptions
- Invoice Tracking: Payment cycles invoice again, vendor balances
Key Features within the AP invoice dashboard tool include:
- A point-and-click Dashboard Designer that allows business users to create their own dashboards
- Dashboards that are shareable only with other OnBase users with access permissions
- Interactive dashboard items that allow users to dynamically update, filter, and drill down data
- Display Actions that allow users to open related documents
- Export dashboard data to Excel for further processing and evaluation
While Accounts Payable Invoice dashboards are functional and state-of-the-art, standard document searches can be used to find invoices and indicate the status of those invoices. A search looking for invoices that came into the system on a certain date or date range can produce a result with multiple columns of data including; the queues they are in, the status of the invoice, and additional index values. Via a right click option, the data on the result list can be exported to a CSV file with Excel being used to massage the data for reporting.
Mobile applications can extend the capture, workflow, and retrieval tools to a mobile device. All Star’s mobility solution supports Windows Phone, Android, iPhone, and iPad.
Mobility can capture invoices into the same process as the invoices captured via scanning or email attachment import. The main benefit of mobile device capture is that it enables users to capture invoices at the earliest point in the process. Mobile capture eliminates 99% of the time it takes for a document to travel to its capture point in an electronic process. Mobility will also ensure the appropriate image file format is produced versus the myriad of mistakes derived from “taking pictures” with mobile devices. Image enhancement software on the phone will crop and de-skew the picture, which in turn creates a readable black and white image with the smallest file size possible.
The Mobility solution also supports the use of mobile devices to be used to review and approve invoices. Users can view invoice data including all the logic and rules that are required within the data interface. Related documents like the original invoice and the purchase order can also be viewed at this time along with the user tasks that they are able to perform. Approval, rejection, routing, adding notes, and adding supporting documents are just some of the tasks that can be performed. Behind the user tasks are system tasks that are executed based on the decisions users make. For example, when a user approves an invoice, behind the scenes, the system is updating the status field to “approved,” adding an approval note, and moving the invoice from one queue to the next.
Initiating things like a check request or quick pay can be done using an eForm either from the software eForm library or just by posting one on the intranet/extranet. Users can enter the required data (with proper enforcement of data validations buried in the eForm logic), attach supporting documents, and inject the invoice transaction into the ERP workflow or the All Star provided workflow solution.
If you choose to use your ERP workflow, the Mobility solution can help eliminate spending time and resources trying to mobilize ERP. All Star’s workflow application can monitor the ERP workflow and take the transaction into the field so users can review and approve transactions from their mobile devices. While your ERP workflow is still driving the transaction, All Star’s invoicing solution is complementing the ERP workflow by using configurable case management and workflow software to help mobilize the transaction. The external data classes interact in real- or near-time with the ERP system and does not duplicate the data from ERP. Configurability allows you to implement these mobile application solutions with little to no custom coding; thus, lessening the time it takes to complete these types of projects.
The methods at which you engage with your vendors is critical to your self-service and higher value target goals for your accounts payable team. Web-based tools within All Star’s invoice automation solution allow vendors to interact with documents, data, and workflow without incurring additional costs on your solution. You get the data, documents, and transactions quicker all with the proper enforcement of data validations to ensure everything that enters workflow and ERP is clean and validated.
All Star provides a web portal where vendors can come and submit new invoices and research their existing invoices. Vendors can also submit inquiries pertaining to existing invoices as well as submit vendor master updates to ensure the ERP vendor master has the most recent and correct information. The ability to send a periodic email to vendors with links to a form for them to update their vendor information can be pretty helpful to ensure the incoming invoices are correctly linked to the appropriate vendor ID. In addition, this type of update ensures the email address is current and active so notifications to the vendors as invoices pass through workflow are reaching an active person/group. Portal functionality also includes the ability to present graphical AP invoice dashboards to the vendors so they can see the total invoices in process, the status of the invoices, and the total dollar amount of the invoice by queue or by status.
Collaboration is best described using the new vendor setup scenario. If an invoice comes in and the vendor is not yet setup in the ERP system, All Star’s workflow can identify the invoice as coming from an unknown vendor. The goal of workflow is to identify exceptions. Once in the Vendor Setup queue, the system will use the information from the invoice and will send the vendor the required setup documents via the file sharing tool. This tool will send the vendor an email with two links. One link will be to open a web folder with the required documents that need to be completed. While this is going on, the vendor invoice is sitting in the vendor setup hold queue where timers are running to send additional internal or external notifications and escalations as required. When the vendor has completed the required forms, the second link in the email provides the user with a web folder to upload the completed documents to. Every invoice in the vendor setup hold queue is polling their related web folder awaiting the new documents. When they arrive, the documents are added to the system as related documents and the invoice is taken off hold and placed into active workflow. Users use the supporting documents to setup the vendor in the ERP system and associate the newly created vendor ID to the active invoice in workflow. This allows the invoice to proceed into the appropriate workflow in All Star’s AP invoice automation solution or in the ERP system. Enterprise File Sync and Sharing can be a powerful collaboration tool to include external vendors in an internal workflow process without you having to spend significant dollars on external user licenses.
Another method of collaboration can be accomplished using simple email. While this may be a bit more manual, it is not as aggressive as the file sharing method described above. In the same vendor setup scenario, the AP team or a workflow system task can send the required documents to the vendor. These documents can be sent back to your team via an email address provided on the email sent to the vendor. All Star’s solution can monitor the email inbox and use the from email domain to associate the attached documents to the vendor’s invoice in the vendor setup hold queue. Data associated to the invoice can be applied to the documents arrived from the vendor email, so the documents are associated to the vendor invoice. The invoice is taken off hold and placed into active workflow. Users use the supporting documents to setup the vendor in the ERP system and associate the newly created vendor ID to the active invoice in workflow. This allows the invoice to proceed into the appropriate workflow in All Star’s AP solution or in the ERP system.
The All Star AP invoice automation solution can integrate with any line-of-business or ERP system. This integration will enhance your existing software investment in ERP and infrastructure and will guarantee accountability throughout your organization.
The definition of “integration” within an AP invoice automation solution means that data can be validated against the ERP system and the invoice transactions can be populated into the ERP system once the validations/edits, approvals, exceptions and other PO or Non-PO activities are complete. The most important point to make is that the ERP workflow can accomplish the matching, coding, approval and exception processing if that is your preference. In that scenario, All Star’s workflow part of the solution is responsible for the validations and edits that need to be performed to ensure only clean and validated invoices get into the ERP system. If you prefer to not use ERP workflow, All Star’s solution can perform all of the workflow and send the completed transactions into the ERP system.
Methods of integration are listed below and depend on the methods available from the ERP system or based on your preference of integration method.
- Disconnected file synchronization where data files (vendor master, PO master, completed invoices, invoice/check number updates) to and from the ERP are imported and exported typically in TXT, CSV or XML format. Scripts and jobs from ERP and All Star’s AP invoice automation solution imports and exports data as required to perform the integration.
- ODBC integration where data to and from ERP is staged in ODBC compliant database tables. Scripts and jobs from ERP and All Star’s solution imports and exports data as required to perform the integration.
- Web services integration where data to and from ERP is sent back and forth via web services available from the ERP system. Scripts and jobs from ERP and All Star’s solution imports and exports data as required to perform the integration.
- API integration where data to and from ERP is sent back and forth via APIs available from the ERP system. Scripts and jobs from ERP and All Star’s solution imports and exports data as required to perform the integration.
Another method of integration can be to place workflow tools within the ERP system that replace the standard workflow tools. This keeps users inside of the ERP system but gives them tools that are more functional than the core ERP workflow tools. Tools like Process Director for SAP or MarkView for Oracle are great examples of custom workflow tools buried inside of ERP because they are easier to use, more functional and easier to configure than the core ERP workflow tools. The downside to this approach would only be the considerations when ERP has to be upgraded. The testing of these tools once the ERP is upgraded requires significantly more effort compared to an external workflow tool which only requires the integration bullets above to be tested.
All Star has successfully integrated with ERP systems like SAP ECC, SAP S4/HANA, SAP Ariba, Oracle eBusiness Suite, Oracle JD Edwards, Oracle Peoplesoft, Workday, Infor, Microsoft Dynamics, Lawson, Sage and many more. As an integrator, All Star can provide all of the options discussed based on your preferences. You can use as much or as little of the All Star AP invoice automation solution based on what you are doing now, would like to do in the future or based on unseen circumstances like acquisitions.