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3 Reasons You’re Still Manually Entering Invoices (Even with Invoice Automation)

invoice automation

3 Reasons You’re Still Manually Entering Invoices (Even with Invoice Automation)

The Accounts Payable process continues to require too much manual handling, even after decades of automation efforts. Even the best invoice automation efforts range from 70-90% data extraction accuracy, which leaves overstretched AP teams with a lot of manual data entry.

Why is this the case? There are a few limitations of invoice ingestion technology that inhibit its ability to extract information. Below are a few reasons why you still need to manually enter invoices.

Reason #1 – Invoices need to be in a structured format to be read accurately

Invoice automation can ingest 70-90% of invoices if they come in a standard layout, or are already digitized. However, according to Levvel Research, enterprises on average still receive 22% of their invoices in paper format, which can arrive folded, wrinkled, or get warped when manually scanned, making them difficult for invoice automation systems to read.

Even if the invoices are already digitized, they may not be in a consistent, structured layout that is suitable for general-purpose OCR – particularly invoices from smaller contractors such as catering services, janitorial services, or small businesses. Most AP teams will need to double-check these invoices after ingestion, or manually enter them into their system.

Reason #2 – Invoice automation uses general-purpose OCR technology

Most invoice automation uses general-purpose Optical Character Recognition (OCR) tools to read PDFs and images. These tools are designed to read text in any situation – a novel, a letter of complaint, or a newspaper article.

Just like people who are jacks of all trades but masters of none, technologies intended for general use face trade-offs compared to purpose-built tools. For example, because general-purpose OCRs aren’t trained to specifically read and understand financial documents, it often misreads a British pound symbol (£) with the number 6, or a dollar sign ($) with an S.

It also can’t factor contextual clues into its work. If an invoice is scanned upside-down, general-purpose OCR cannot understand or extract any information because it’s only familiar with a certain layout. Similarly, it would have trouble with wrinkled, creased, or unevenly lit documents. And just as a student can easily recognize an unfamiliar street address from another country, so too can context help a contextually-aware system identify the important attributes of an invoice it’s never seen before, like supplier and recipient, prices, quantities, descriptions, and so on.

OCR technologies specifically tailored and trained on finance use cases, paired with context-aware AI will offer much higher accuracy rates, making it possible to dramatically reduce the fraction of invoices that can’t be automatically read and entered.

Reason #3 – There’s still a lot of manual data entry

Although reducing manual invoice entry from 100 to 30%, 20%, or even 10% is fantastic, for an AP team with a high volume of invoices, 10-30% manual processing is still a large amount of work that drives up processing costs and time.

Depending on the form of the invoice, there can be dozens of different data points that need to be input into the accounting system. This doesn’t just cost the time and resource of the manual entry itself. It also introduces a lot of room for typos, errors, or missing information that slow downstream processing. Maybe someone mistypes an invoice number using the letter “O” instead of a “0” – but with this simple mistake, a unique invoice is created in the system, and now won’t be flagged as a duplicate. This risk is multiplied when there are several people involved in the process, increasing the processing time and delaying vendor payments – even with the most capable and efficient accounts payable teams.

This can increase the time it takes for invoices to be paid out, straining existing vendor relationships. According to a 2019 benchmarking study by IOFM, even many companies with significant invoice automation struggle with this: 53% of them paid at least 10% of their invoices late – very likely the very invoices that required manual processing.

The future of invoice automation

If the invoice process was fully automated, AP teams could drastically shorten their payment cycles and take advantage of early payment discounts for even better ROI. For a large enterprise, this would result in enormous savings. For example, imagine a company that processes $250M in invoices annually, of which 3% is eligible for a 2% early payment discount. Early payment would result in $2.2M annual savings.

Notwithstanding decades of progress and widespread adoption of automation technologies, it’s clear that invoice ingestion still has significant potential for improvement that can deliver huge business value from the automation itself and from unlocking benefits of a faster processing time.

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Josephine McCann is a Product Marketing Manager at AppZen, the leading AI-driven platform for modern finance teams. 

checks

This is How Rooted Checks are in our History

If your company makes payments, I’m willing to bet you’ve at least Googled cost-effective ways to simplify the process. Perhaps you’re an enterprise making hundreds of payments a day. Or maybe you’re a small- to mid-sized business looking to ease the manual burden on your small-but-plucky AP team.

One of the biggest arguments against checks is that they’re just plain old, invented to support even older banking processes. Of course, the term “old” is relative, so what does it mean when we’re talking about check history? You might be surprised.

Checks used to make a lot of sense

Checks developed alongside banks, with the concept for payment withdrawals based on recorded instruction appearing in history as early as 300 B.C. in India or Rome, depending on who you ask. Paper-based checks made their debut in the Netherlands in the 1500s, and took root in North America about a century before the Declaration of Independence was signed. The oldest surviving checkbook in the U.S. dates back to the late 1700s—and the register even has a notation for a check made out to Alexander Hamilton for legal services.

So, yes, checks are old.

What started as a safe and strategic way to transfer money—one that protected merchants’ safety and livelihoods—ingrained itself in business dealings for hundreds of years. It’s challenging to phase out something like that entirely, even if checks are difficult to adapt to today’s electronic processes.

Hanging onto the past

Each business that holds onto its check process has a reason. Perhaps their AP team’s veteran employees are more comfortable with the familiarity of checks. They may wish to preserve business relationships with suppliers that prefer checks. Some businesses are very likely interested in switching to electronic processes because check payments are expensive—but they hold back due to the perceived process upheaval.

These concerns aren’t unfounded. They’re built upon years—and generations—of business experience. So while plenty of news outlets claim that checks will phase out “soon,” we should more realistically expect that they’ll be incorporated into—not eradicated from—modern business practices. At least for now.

Time for a change

While banks have made efforts to simplify the payee’s ability to cash checks electronically, only a few have attempted to tackle the time-consuming issues that their customers face. They also lack ways to incorporate outdated check processes with the newer ACH and credit card processes their customers are also expected to support.

If checks are here to stay, do companies need to resign themselves to endless signature hunts, letter-stuffing parties, and post office visits? No. Checks have the spectacular ability to evolve as modern needs arise. After all, the first printed checks in the U.S. didn’t have the standardized MICR format that we use today.

Change happens slowly and in easily digestible segments. So although checks aren’t going away any time soon, they’re overdue for another evolution.

A middle ground exists, where business owners can upgrade their processes without causing major supplier or employee upset. Payment automation solutions have been growing in recognition for over a decade. The most successful providers have acknowledged the gray area with checks and incorporated them into their simplified electronic payment workflows. These alternatives reduce AP workloads without forcing suppliers to accept payment types that don’t work for them.

Checks have come a long way since their conceptual days, and their flexibility means we probably won’t see the last of them anytime soon. We are, however, in the midst of their shift into the electronic world, and AP teams are all the happier for it.

Are you interested in the history of wire payments? Check out this article.

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Alyssa Callahan is the Content Strategist at Nvoicepay, a FLEETCOR company. She has five years of experience in the B2B payment industry, specializing in cross-border B2B payment processes.