At first blush, the odyssey of salmon returning to their home rivers and streams from the faraway ocean in order to spawn may seem to have nothing at all to do with the accounts receivable (AR) process. Chinook salmon journey upwards of 1,000 miles, climbing nearly 7,000 feet in order to lay their eggs and die (if they don’t get eaten first by hungry bears).
Though it doesn’t involve anywhere near the same level of physical endurance, the manual task of submitting invoices directly into customers’ accounts payable (AP) systems often feels nearly as long and treacherous as the final expedition salmon make. Relying on people to input data and manually move invoices from internal ERP systems to customer portals means the journey to payment is regularly beset by errors, potential compliance failures, delayed payments, and unhappy and unfulfilled employees.
Thankfully, AR departments now have tools that dramatically streamline and smooth out the processes necessary to get invoices paid accurately and on-time. Taking advantage of Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help eliminate the unpopular manual tasks involved with collecting payments from customers and free up your qualified staff to do things that can deliver genuine value to your company.
The promise of these tools is far more than hype. As just one example, look at the big investments companies are making in RPA. Research firm Gartner, Inc. reported that global spending on RPA software reached $680 million last year, up nearly 60 percent from 2017. Gartner noted that banks, insurance companies, telecom companies, and utilities were leading investments in RPA and that it expects spending on the software to reach $2.4 billion by 2022. Another statistic highlights exactly why the investment in automation is large and growing quickly: about 50 percent of businesses still rely on manual data entry to manage their receivables.
Whether it’s AI, RPA or ML – or some combination of the three – what makes these tools so powerful in the AR department is their ability to quickly and accurately handle the most onerous manual tasks, including submitting invoices directly into customers’ AP systems. It helps to understand on a very basic level how this is possible. Take the case of ML, which is an AI technology that uses sophisticated algorithms to do what humans do – just faster and more accurately. One way to think about what AI, ML and RPA brings to the AR process is this: It’s a bit like cloning your most meticulous and hard-working staff to handle what can be an enormous number of tasks, all of which require precision.
What’s even better is that ML – unlike we humans who can get sloppier with our work as the hours pile up – gets better and better at processing invoices and noticing anomalies the more documents and data it’s exposed to. AR automation has a lot of benefits. Obviously, increased accuracy, improved consistency, enhanced control, reduced costs and better customer relationships are fundamental.
While customers and your company as a whole are going to reap substantial benefits from a more highly automated AR process, the thanks you may receive first are likely to come from your staff. Instead of spending their time performing all of the menial tasks required to get an invoice paid, the highly trained professionals in your office can devote their skills to activities that will deliver increased value to customers and your company.
Even better, they will no longer feel like a salmon at the start of its journey.
Steve manages the entire North American, South American, and Latin American operations for Esker, and is a member of our Board of Directors.