In 2011 Bulmers Limited went to market to find an answer for the increasing challenges faced by its Accounts Payable function. In just a few years the company's invoice volume had grown from an annual average of around 20,000 to nearly 40,000 supplier invoices. The company had an urgent requirement to implement a workflow and document management solution to streamline the process of invoice approval and payment, and any solution had to provide seamless integration with CODA Financials.
Bulmers requires three way matching (purchase order number, invoice number, goods receipt notice must all agree) before it pays invoices; so-called "problem" invoices must be queried with the staff member who raised the PO. With offices in territories across the world, the company could encounter significant delays in settling invoices that had to be routed for approval – relying on a manual, paper-based process which entailed posting invoices or e-mailing scanned copies to distant offices and waiting for answers.
"It was normal for us to send the original invoice to the approver, and it was easy to lose track of where invoices were in the approval process," said Elaine O'Connell, AP Manager for Bulmers Limited. "Visibility was a big issue – we absolutely needed a way to see where an invoice was, and what was delaying settlement. Supplier relationships are important to us and we need to give rapid answers when suppliers contact us."
Another significant issue for the AP team resulted from the practice of regional offices receiving invoices directly from local suppliers, by-passing the centralised AP function in Ireland. While this practice further affected visibility within the AP process through ‘missing’ invoices, it also delayed supplier payments.
"We needed more control," Elaine said. "If there were invoices that we'd never received, it meant we were not recording all our spends correctly, and it also meant invoices were not being cleared on time for payment."
Bulmers chose SoftCo to deliver a solution to address the challenges within its AP processes. After a close engagement that involved working closely with key Bulmers stakeholders, SoftCo designed a customised solution to optimise the invoice approval process end-to-end:
Following rollout, Bulmers quickly saw the benefit: complete visibility of which invoices are with which staff members, and the ability to resolve problem invoices within days instead of weeks. Previously, hard copies of invoices routed across the organisation could take almost a week to travel around, in addition to any time staff needed to resolve the query itself.
Staff have been quick to see the benefit of the new system. Any introduction of workflow-based solutions entails behavioural change as well as technology change, and Bulmers Limited was keen to ensure staff support through the process. A survey of more than 50 staff has showed a high level of satisfaction with the SoftCo AP solution.
"We wanted to know what staff thought, and we're happy to see feedback has been very positive," Elaine said. "Our staff like that it's a paperless system, and they find they logon straightaway when they receive the e-mail notification -- problem invoices are actioned much more quickly than when we operated a manual approval system. And because staff act faster, we can pay suppliers faster and have better relationships with them.
"Also, the staff who help us resolve problem invoices are based in offices around the world: we find that the SoftCo AP solution makes it much easier to communicate with people across different time zones," Elaine commented.
Management reporting has also improved, with the ability to report against individual suppliers and Bulmers end-user productivity. This has helped Bulmers to identify problem suppliers and internal bottlenecks within its own internal AP process.
According to Bulmers, SoftCo's method of tackling this in-depth project was a key success factor, characterised by a sensitive and thorough approach to mapping workflow processes, without the IT jargon.
"We don't work in IT, so we need people to speak our language when it comes to projects like this," commented Elaine. "SoftCo brought it to a level we understand."
The efficiencies already realised from the SoftCo solution have encouraged Bulmers to examine other business processes that could benefit from improved workflow, including setup of new suppliers.
"When you have a system that works, you start to look for other areas that could use improvement," she concluded. "We're always looking at how to make our systems more efficient, and SoftCo is playing a part in that."