by Nick Peplow, Financial Services Director at Liberata
For companies dealing with high volumes of suppliers, goods, and services on a regular basis, busy accounts payable departments have a never-ending treadmill of tasks to complete. This is particularly the case when key details of purchase orders and ledgers are spread across multiple sites and disparate systems. As individual orders build up into vast numbers of transactions every month, supplier statement reconciliations rarely make it to the top of a company’s to-do list, which can cause a cascading set of problems to the business ultimately hitting the bottom line. Teams freed up from mundane manual tasks can also begin to contribute to the organisation’s goals in a much more valuable manner. The most interesting part is that automation doesn’t have to be a complex process, and there are solutions to fit every scale and budget.
Reconciliation is a fundamental accounting process that ensures the actual money spent or earned accurately matches the money leaving or entering an account at the end of a fiscal period. When applied to suppliers, it means that the services or goods provided for are billed and paid for accurately and on time. Reconciliation is a critical part of the finance department’s operations as it is an opportunity to check for fraudulent activity and to prevent financial statement errors. Usually, reconciliation is performed at set intervals, monthly or quarterly, and is key to managing cash flow, and ensuring regulatory compliance. However, due to its somewhat mundane nature, it’s one of the first scheduled tasks to fall down the list of priorities during busy times.
Manual reconciliation is a process prone to error
Reconciliation of supplier statements is not a complicated process, but when undertaken manually it tends to be time-consuming and prone to error. This is particularly true for companies that have a high-volume of suppliers, goods and services, which often leaves finance teams in a never-ending reconciliation loop. Complications are amplified when details of purchase orders are split across sites or even on different systems and platforms. In the worst case, invoices are physically printed out from one system and typed into an adjacent system before they can be matched. As well as being slow, resource intensive and wasteful, tasks undertaken in this manner are generally unpleasant to undertake. For these reasons, manual reconciliations are often put off until complaints arise that make their swift completion critical. Teams that are compelled to rush through mountains of paperwork tend to accumulate errors which then require even more time to reconcile. As reconciliation is pushed back to a perpetual last-minute panic, suppliers are often late to receive payments which can impact on delivery schedules.
It can also be the case that during the reconciliation process issues arise that require input from external suppliers. Invoices can be missing, justifications for payments may need to be sought from within the business, in fact there are any number of problems that can arise from a late reconciliation report. Discrepancies unearthed in this way impact and disrupt not only internal workflows, but also impact on supplier workflows, especially if undertaken in an ad hoc and unstructured manner. In the long term this can affect pricing strategies or preferential terms, potentially leading to an increase in coverall costs to the business.
Reconciliation is also a lengthy and tedious task. Often it may even be performed by temporary staff unfamiliar with the systems, services and suppliers who they are administering – yet another reason why mistakes creep in. Staff are only human, after all, and even 99% efficiency means that 1 in 100 reconciliations will have an error of some order of magnitude.
The solution is automation, and it’s not rocket science
While reconciliation is not a complex process, failure to undertake it in a systematic process often leads to complex and undesirable outcomes. The key to solving these issues is through automation.,. When automation is applied to the problem, not only are results achieved on time, more economically and with greater accuracy, automation provides an array of analytics that can deliver real insights into how suppliers are performing. These insights can be shared across the organisation and assist with cohesive planning initiatives and help to deliver better business outcomes. As cloud technology evolves and more streamlined processes become available in the workplace, increasing numbers of businesses are taking advantage of automated reconciliation services, and discovering the benefits of adopting this approach.
Reimagining finance within the organisation
Part of the problem of automating tasks is envisioning what staff will do with the time saved from undertaking them. Automation implies that repetitive and mundane tasks are removed from the job stack, meaning that managers are forced to reinterpret the roles of their team members. Most finance departments are overworked and there are plenty of other tasks that require attention. However, for progressive managers and organisations, automating away the mundane can lead to a step change in how their department integrates with the wider organisation. With more time to focus on the bigger picture, finance heads can use the technology and data analysis they possess to provide better information and insights to other departments. As well as contributing to strategic and operational decisions, finance can play a greater role in ensuring that all departments are working together towards the organisation’s shared goals. For example, team members, free from mundane data entry, could be spending more time benchmarking suppliers and providing next-best alternative solutions, assisting the commercial teams to enforce best practice in purchasing and proactively helping to navigate the pitfalls of the supplier selection process.
Accounts payable team members possess valuable skills. Removing them from a time-consuming process, where errors are almost guaranteed, and allowing them to work on more complex tasks, such as improving supplier relationships, analysing delivery schedules, working cross functionally with other departments is ultimately a much more valuable undertaking to the business, and automation plays a key role in achieving this.