Most financial managers are interested in automation and robotisation for the digital transformation of their finance and accounting tasks. Once the fashionable effect has passed, the initial costs and the complexity of implementation may have dampened enthusiasm and confined these projects to large groups with resources and a real strategy. But the COVID crisis, lessons learned from large companies and the ongoing search for productivity and cost reduction as well as new technology and service offerings have reshuffled the deck.
Many intermediate-sized enterprises (ISEs) such as Manutan have launched projects successfully. Their CFO, Évelyne Mercier, was kind enough to share her experience.
Thank you Evelyne for sharing your experience with automation. We tend to believe that self-maintenance is reserved for large groups. Manutan is an ISE and you have a clear automation strategy. Can you tell us to what end?
Évelyne Mercier: Automation enables us to be more efficient and to eliminate low added value tasks. It makes the company more attractive for recruiting talent. It also helps us improve the quality, reliability and speed of service to our customers and of our processes. So it gives us a real competitive edge.
Some financial executives are reluctant or even afraid to embrace automation. Can you understand the reasons for this attitude in relation to your own thinking?
We often think that automation is expensive and complicated, and thus only for large companies. In fact, automation is a process that is accessible to all companies and should be assessed on the basis of relevance and ROI.
We often don’t know what’s really behind such buzzwords as RPA or AI and what concrete benefits they can hold in store for us.
Can you tell us more about the objectives and challenges of your own approach?
Our company, the Manutan Group, has long initiated an automation approach geared primarily to the flow of exchanges with its customer and supplier stakeholders. The main aim was to enable our customers and suppliers to be efficient in their partnership with Manutan. Various technologies have been used (EDI, portals, e-mails). Automation has proved to be essential in this COVID crisis and all the automation that we had put in place before 2020 has enabled us to get through this year more serenely from a process point of view, while maintaining our level of efficiency.
Our current challenge is to make progress in automating internal tasks that are still very manual, in order to integrate or process data.
You seem to be a firm believer in automation. Can you tell us the main reasons why?
I am personally convinced of the benefits of automation in many areas, especially for back-office jobs such as sales administration, master data management and finance. New technologies and automation cloud services enable the business to automate without depending on the IT department or consuming IT resources, which are generally focused on customer service and operations issues.
What approach would you recommend and what basic advice would you give to your peers in other medium-sized companies?
It is now possible for an SME or an ISE to automate processes or tasks that are of interest (relevance of automation) with fairly modest budgets. These are short-term projects, in agile mode, and cloud solutions as a service make it possible to start very quickly without heavy infrastructure or in-house expertise. There are different technologies that are useful depending on the need (RPA, ICR, OCR, NLP usually involving AI) but you don’t have to become an expert. The essential points are clarity and simplicity of processes or tasks, return on investment and convinced teams who are raring to go. Projects are primarily led by staff with a technical background. Ideally, you need a passionate ‘evangelist’ who can take the subject forward and advise and guide the employees. Supporting employees before, during and, above all, afterwards is essential because their job will be transformed. This will require time, which will be quickly recouped afterwards.
Can you give us some details on the processes you are working on and how you are automating them?
At Manutan, we started with the e-procurement and e-invoicing solutions for our customers, then the fully automated purchase-to-pay process with EDI, portal and automated PDF invoices. We are now working on automating the order-to-cash process with manual customer orders, credit management and customer accounting. Our two objectives are to improve our customer service and our operational efficiency.
We have initiated these projects in agile mode with start-ups and are embarking on cloud “as a service” or “on premise” mode, depending on the subject and its criticality and our maturity. We are launching an initial RPA “as a service” approach for credit management and collection. The objective in credit management is to be able to process our orders automatically, which must be subject to internal credit control.
As to collection, all replies by e-mail from our customers following a reminder for late payment will be processed automatically, including the opening of a dispute or the sending of a duplicate invoice . Our customers can also lodge and qualify a claim or indicate a promise to pay with its due date directly from the reminder e-mail. We therefore have push or pull automation initiated:
- Either by our customers in their process on our portal (from the e-mail link);
- Or internally from incoming data from our customers (e-mail).
Could you give us some key success factors?
The selection of partners is important, with criteria such as reliability, cost, but also the related internal effort and type of support provided. There are also solutions that are cumbersome to implement and expensive, which must be ruled out with a good selection process, in fact. Benchmarking with similar companies remains essential in this process. Common sense and simplicity are the key words, in my view: simplifying and reviewing operating methods before automating is an essential exercise.
If you only had a few seconds to convince a financial manager to follow your lead, what would you say?
Automation is everywhere in operations nowadays, and ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ now is a competitive and attractive advantage for talent recruitment.
Cloud-based RPA, ICR, OCR ‘as a service’ solutions can be used to get started quickly with limited effort and budget.
The return on investment must remain the key consideration in the decision to automate, and the criteria for choosing processes or tasks are essential. Simplicity, sizeable volumes, and stability of the process or data model are required. Additional inputs in terms of quality, reliability and risk reduction (e.g. fraud) are often associated with the choice of automation. Most of these projects have a very rapid return on investment as of the first year.
Armand Angeli is Président du groupe CSP/RPA/AI de la DFCG and Président du groupe International de la DFCG
Previously published in French by Finance & Gestion, DFCG