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HELPING SMES ACCESS FINANCE IN EXTRAORDINARY TIMES

Tim Vine, Head of Credit Intelligence at Dun & Bradstreet

 

The closed doors of businesses have become a sadly familiar sight on the high street. With social distancing in force, many of the small and medium-sized enterprises at the heart of the economy have been lockdown was enforced. Unfortunately, it looks like we’re a long way from returning to business as usual.

Access to finance is critical for many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) right now. The government has recognised this with loan schemes that seek to inject much needed cashflow into smaller businesses, and financial services providers are equally looking to offer support.

However, in recent years SMEs have had a tricky relationship with borrowing, lacking confidence with the types of finance and options available. In 2018, nearly half of the UK’s small business owners viewed themselves as permanent non-borrowers (47%). Equally, lenders have sometimes struggled to access the information needed to make robust loan decisions.

Understanding the full range of lending options available will be critical for smaller businesses to make informed borrowing decisions in the coming weeks. Credit reference agencies (CRAs) can play a key role in supporting SMEs, as they secure the finance they need to weather the current storm.

 

Tim Vine

The double-edged sword

The borrowing decisions taken now will impact the financial health of SMEs for many months to come. However, even before the coronavirus outbreak, there were signs that these businesses  didn’t always have the awareness or the information needed to make confident borrowing decisions.

A survey commissioned by Dun & Bradstreet in late 2019 found that 46% of SME respondents seek business loans from the bank, with 25% turning to private investors and 23% to family members or friends. According to research from the British Business Bank in 2019, small business owners had misgivings about the cost (29%), strict conditions (26%) and difficulty (25%) of securing finance – that put them off applying for loans. This left many SMEs facing a double-edged sword when it came to finance: put off by the terms offered by their bank, but not willing to look elsewhere.

Perhaps as a result, finance has been used as a way to keep the doors open, rather than developing the business. Where SMEs were borrowing, it was most often for working capital to continue trading (56%) – rather than to invest or expand. In Dun & Bradstreet’s survey, over half (52%) of respondents believe there is a lack of financial support available to help small businesses grow and succeed. Today, the challenge to survive is tougher than ever in the wake of COVID-19, so it’s vital that SMEs can look beyond one provider to find finance on the best terms possible.

 

Lack of information

Importantly, in 2019 small and medium-sized enterprises were most likely to rely on their own knowledge – rather than external sources – when considering access to finance. When asked about their most common source of guidance, small business owners pointed to themselves – both for choosing the type of finance (35%) and the specific provider (30%). Right now, this could result in SMEs limiting their borrowing options and missing out on the best choice for the business.

On the other side of the fence, banks historically struggled to approve loans to SMEs due to a lack of information about the risk they represent. Unlike larger businesses, SMEs haven’t been required to register at Companies House or publish annual accounts.

However, since the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act of 2015, credit reference agencies (CRAs) have had access to information on how banks lend to small and medium-sized businesses. This means that CRAs can act as an independent intermediary between SMEs and lenders, offering information to support robust lending decisions during this critical time.

 

Linking SMEs to lenders

Credit reference agencies can act as an important link between SMEs and lenders. CRAs can provide banks with the depth of data needed to make qualified decisions about offering loans to SMEs, as well as providing greater clarity on how to handle marginal decisions. In other words, CRAs help lenders to say yes as much as possible, to the right business at the right time.

On the business side, credit reference agencies can link SMEs to a wider range of sources for finance, suggesting alternative options and providing clarity over declined applications, to help as many SMEs access finance as possible. Solutions offered by CRAs can help smaller and medium-sized businesses to get a holistic view of their options to make informed decisions – and secure finance on the best terms for them.

Importantly, many CRAs are also taking steps to avoid unfairly discriminating against SMEs due to special measures taken during the pandemic. For example, rating systems will draw distinctions between where SMEs have negotiated approved payment freezes with suppliers and payment defaults, without an impact on credit ratings. This will support smaller businesses’ recovery in the long term.

 

In everyone’s interests

With strict social distancing rules in place, many of the UK’s SMEs may have to face this period of hibernation for a while longer. Access to finance will be vital for meeting financial commitments, protecting jobs and ultimately staying in business until more normal times return.

Right now, it’s vital that SMEs are able to make informed decisions about the finance that they access, including the lender that they choose and the form that it takes. Equally, lenders should be able to make qualified lending decisions, providing crucial cashflow to SMEs that can afford it. By opening up data on both sides, credit reference agencies can act as a critical intermediary and help to keep SMEs in business.

 

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Business

WHY AUTOMATING CAN FUTURE PROOF YOUR BUSINESS

By Ryan Demaray, Managing Director SMB EMEA at SAP Concur

 

Every business has administration duties that can be considered mundane and time consuming  but are a necessary core function of operations. Whether it’s paying suppliers on time or processing expense requests, tasks such as these are necessary for the day-to-day running of a business – however it’s safe to say that these tasks are never ranked as the most engaging or rewarding by your employees.

With a UK recession on the horizon, finance teams are under pressure to not only control costs but provide guidance to the business on where savings can be made. This will only happen if your employees are able to focus on tasks that not just keep a business running but allow them to add further strategic value.

Automating the invoice function is just one step towards giving your finance team back valuable time, not only creating a more efficient and productive workplace, but a positive employee experience that supports growth and stability across your business.

 

The gateway to better efficiency 

From receiving the invoice, inputting data, chasing approvals and moving it down the chain of command, research shows that it can take an average of 17 business days to manually process an invoice. For SMBs with a finance team of approx. eight people, implementing an invoice management solution can save on average 69 hours per week.

By allowing the technology to do the heavy lifting, your finance team can use the time to focus on more strategic elements of the business. This includes providing them a moment to take a step back and holistically look at the spending trends and costs across your business. By doing so, they can often pinpoint spend patterns, but also identify cost reducing opportunities, providing visibility and guidance to help positively impact the bottom line in the short and long-term.

 

Enabling growth and accuracy

As your business grows the number of vendors and suppliers you use often increases in parallel. This growth in external stakeholders can cause challenges and maintaining consistent and timely payment of invoices to suppliers is crucial. The Federation of Small Business estimates that late payments contribute to 50,000 insolvencies annually, costing the UK economy £2.5bn. The UK government recognised this and in 2019 implemented a prompt payment initiative, aimed at helping small suppliers get paid on time by enterprises, with the potentially penalty of not awarding government tenders to those who do not adhere to the prompt payment practice.

In addition to this, inhibiting the lack of cashflow to small business through late or unpaid invoices can have more than just a monetary impact. With poor invoice payment practices, your business reputation is likely to suffer damage, which in turn carries consequences across with future suppliers, as well as customers.

Through invoice automation, you are able to streamline your finance and accounting processing by making sure that payments are processed in time, resulting in avoidance of payment delays, calls from suppliers querying about invoice payment timescales and vital staff time responding to these.

 

Supporting employee engagement

Employees’ experiences affect their work outcomes and carry the benefits of high engagement, increased productivity, and a lower staff turnover. Creating a better employee experience is a challenge faced by many SMBs, but once cracked can provide benefits across your business.

More than just providing a workplace environment and culture, businesses with motivated employees can find recruitment and onboarding costs reducing, with retention rates increasing.

But it’s not only the employee that benefits from a better experience – your customers do as well. With many often on the frontline of customer interaction, it’s difficult to keep customers happy if your staff member is disengaged. By employing tools that allow the automation of mundane and repetitive tasks, employees can focus on aspects of work which they care about most.

 

Future proofing for tomorrow

Digital transformation is here and for SMBs employing an automated invoice solution, is a positive step in becoming a business that is ready for scale and growth. Not only will it help benefit your bottom line, it will create positive staff experiences and efficiencies, that help truly optimise your business – now and in the future.

 

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Business

COULD GRAPH TECHNOLOGY BE A POWERFUL WEAPON AGAINST CORONAVIRUS FRAUD?

Crisis funds and loans put in place to help support businesses during the health emergency have become a prime target for cybercriminals. Neo4j’s Amy Hodler examines how graph technology could be a powerful weapon against these scams

 

Fraudsters will use any opportunity to siphon off funds illicitly, and the pandemic is proving no exception. With coronavirus moving rapidly across the world and locking down countries in its wake, cybercriminals have been quick to launch sophisticated methods to callously exploit the situation.

Cybercriminals have been fast to impersonate trusted organisations such as the World Health Organisation, which has itself seen a five-fold increase in cyberattacks since the start of the crisis.

The pandemic is opening the doors for fraudsters who are taking advantage of changes in normal business processes, controls and working conditions to carry out fraudulent activities. Security controls, for example, are often not as strong as normal due to the speed aid is required and the fact that many people are teleworking.

Amy Hodler

Cybercriminals are using fake or stolen identities to draw down governmental emergency funds. In France, for example, the Paris Prosecutor’s Office has launched an investigation into massive fraud of the country’s temporary unemployment scheme where fraudsters have drained €1.7 million. It is investigating potential international links to the fraud.

In a statement Paris Prosecutor Remy Heitz said that more than 1,740 fraudulent operations were discovered across the country on behalf of 1,069 different businesses asking for wire transfers to over 170 different bank accounts.

 

Can financial services’ practices help?

Aid departments and organisations should look to the mature practices of the financial services industry for a lead in combating fraud. Here firms repeatedly and meticulously check and compare transactional data to look for suspicious behaviour that may indicate an attack.

Like applications for financial aid for the impact of the coronavirus, malevolent actors look to defraud financial institutions using false identities when creating accounts and putting together loan applications. Personal data such as addresses, telephone numbers and emails are cleverly assembled to model assumed and phony identities.

 

A need for a different approach

One of the main reasons traditional approaches fall short is that most fraud detection systems are based on a relational database model where data is stored in predefined tables and columns. With large, unstructured data sets, relational databases swiftly reach their limits; queries turn out to be far too complex and response times lag. Banks and government authorities need the ability to follow a trail from one account to another, viewing a fraud network as a whole complete entity to work out how activities are linked.

Unlike relational databases, graph database technology not only represents individual items of data such as person, account number, home address, but also their relationships with one another such as how they are related. Any number of qualitative or quantitative properties can be assigned, showing complex relationships in an easy to understand way.

One of the best graph algorithms for fighting coronavirus cybercriminals is ‘PageRank’, which finds important nodes (objects) based on their relationships and interprets them using visualisation tools. For fraud detection in banking, the algorithm identifies important or influential customers who are featured in a large number of financial transactions. Nodes with a high PageRank Score can be illustrated using a visualisation tool so that they appear larger in the view and can be immediately picked up.

Another key algorithm is ‘Weakly Connected Components’, which works to reveal the hidden networks that form a fraud ring based on common identity features such as multiple applicants all residing at the same address. These hidden connections provide invaluable information when hunting down fraud.

 

Uncovering fraud rings with incredible accuracy

 Cybercriminals are continually developing attack methods, sharing infrastructures to maximise their opportunities for success. Graph technology has the capacity to help stop advanced fraud scenarios in real time.

Graph databases can help future proof an organisation’s fraud prevention initiatives by enhancing insight based on data relationships and building connected intelligence.

 

The author is Director, Analytics and AI Program at Neo4j, the world’s leading graph database company, and co-author of Graph Algorithms: Practical Examples in Apache Spark & Neo4j, published by O’Reilly Media

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