Digital invoice processes have seen rapid adoption in German companies over the last three years. A survey of SMEs on the use of a digital solution for automated invoice processing revealed 19% of respondents using such a system in 2019, but this number already rose to 40% in 2022. These are the findings reported by Bitkom, at any rate. The vision of the paper-free office has come a step closer to reality. This is cause for rejoicing. And there are good reasons for this development. Automated invoice processing may not generate value of itself, but the incoming invoice process supports the core operations of a company. At the same time, digital invoice processing massively simplifies daily business routines. In this article, we examine the steps in the process and highlight the core functions that incoming invoice software must offer in 2023.
Invoice receipt: Receiving and scanning incoming invoices – an essential step
Modern software for automated invoice processing aids in receiving digital invoices and scanning paper invoices. That’s what it’s there for. After all, plenty of companies are still in the habit of sending paper invoices. You have to expect that. Even if the invoices still arrive by mail, the invoice acquisition consists of scanning followed by optical character recognition (OCR).
You can either use a multifunction center (MFC) or, if the volume of paper invoices is low enough, a mobile phone. All that matters is that the resulting image or PDF is supplied to your incoming invoice process.
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It is clear that many companies have now switched over to sending invoices by email. In most cases, the invoice document consists of an attached PDF. This makes invoice acquisition a simple matter. No one has to open letters and scan in the invoices any longer – the automated invoice processing takes care of everything by itself. Plus, you enjoy another valuable benefit: According to the Tax Simplification Act, you are permitted and encouraged to archive digital invoices in electronic form. No media gaps, no file rooms – and you have access to your invoice archive from any place at any time. This alone will save plenty of time, money and wear on your shoes. Invoices must be archived and retained for 10 years.
Validation of incoming invoices
After invoice acquisition come the validation and invoice check. Now that all the invoice data is available in a digital format, the next step is invoice validation. In other words, the automated invoice processing checks whether a proper invoice has been received. According to the Value-Added Tax Act (UstG §14, §14a, DE), there are 12 mandatory items that an invoice must have. The automated invoice processing handles this check for you in compliance with UstG §14. It is no longer necessary for anyone to examine the invoice and check it manually. This is another clear time-saver that also frees your employees from performing this mundane task.
The next step of automated invoice processing: Extracting the invoice data
Once the UStG-14 invoice check is complete, the invoice data is extracted. The reading of the invoice data is automated, which offers two key advantages: For one thing, your employees no longer have to rely on manually entered data. The difference will be easy to notice if you process around 40 or more invoices per day. The automated invoice processing is not only faster, it also error-free. This eliminates time-consuming follow-up checks by telephone or back-and-forth emails.
Another advantage: You will see particular benefits at this point if the automated invoice processing is integrated into upstream business processes, such as ERP systems that manage ordering processes. In this case, we can offer additional ways of speeding things up. For example, we can use a 3-way match to determine whether you have a matching purchase order for the incoming invoice. This makes the automated invoicing process much simpler and more reliable.
The crown jewel: Approval workflows during automated invoice processing
Now we have come to the aspect that will truly simply your work routines. Workflows control invoice approval processes, manage escalations if tasks are not completed and automatically implement substitution rules if the originally assigned invoice processor does not take action.
How do workflow-controlled invoice approvals work?
At this point, all invoices have been checked and validated. Invoice processors generally find these invoices in the digital incoming invoice basket within the automated invoice processing software. And now comes a little miracle: this step of assigning invoices and tasks to specific invoice processors is also automated.
The “invoice transport” through the individual departments is handled by an automated incoming invoice management system. Within a workflow for invoice approval, the invoice management systems sends pending invoice tasks to the responsible processors or groups, whether inside or outside the company, based on defined parameters. One important aspect: The invoice itself is not sent, only a link to the respective invoice document. The notification is delivered either in the incoming invoice software or by email. This has the advantage that the document remains available to all other authorized employees during the workflow. It also means that document copies are a thing of the past, as is the chaos that so often results.
These workflows for invoice approval drive the automated invoice processing up to the point of booking. And if an invoice task needs to be escalated, this is reliably tracked in the system. Invoices approved for booking and payment can then be found in the booking list.
Digital invoice management rolled out in 24 hours
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Two things that belong together: electronic invoices and digital archiving
After booking and payment, the automated invoice processing can carry out the final step: archiving of the incoming invoice. Ideally, the invoice software should have options for integration with digital archiving systems. That is an important feature to look for. It is particularly important that the archiving of invoices and other business documents takes place in compliance with principles of proper accounting set forth by the German tax authority (GoBD). In making your selection, take note of corresponding certifications and assurances of audit-proof archiving. The assurance reports IDW PS-880 and ISAE 3000 are worth mentioning here as examples.
Automated invoice processing from any location
Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), cloud variant or on-premises solution? It all depends on your priorities. If you want to ensure that your incoming invoice processes are entire location-independent, you can meet your needs most quickly with an SaaS offering or cloud-based incoming invoice software. Especially in consideration of the developments of the last three years and the rise of remote work, this path will effectively meet the expectations of your employees.
It is not hard to understand how smoothly and easily automated invoice processing works in the cloud. This approach offers advantages to everyone involved: Invoice processing in the cloud, e.g. as a managed service, can be deployed very quickly. Frequently, there isn’t even any need to bring in consultants. It is simply a matter of “click and buy”.
Plus, offerings of this type implement a standard invoice process that covers the use cases found in many companies. There is also no extra burden on internal IT resources. The provider handles aspects like maintenance and ensuring access. You also will not need to acquire expertise in the processing of invoices. Another advantage of SaaS/cloud offerings lies in the valuable business insights available. You will know how many employees use the cloud software as well as other parameters, offering you an excellent basis for better cost controlling.
Automated invoice processing calls for integration into ERP systems
The maximum output in terms of efficiency and transparency within the company is best achieved with a well-integrated solution for invoice processing. If you are digitalizing your accounting processes, you should figure out in advance which systems the future invoice processing system should interact with. Interfaces with ERP and CRM systems and similar will be required.