Should We Fear the Invasion of AP Robots?

Patrick Jones, Senior Director Product Management, Expense and Data Management at ENGIE Insight

If you follow business and company financials at all, you probably hear a lot about automated processes that help “streamline” the workforce and control company costs. These automated tasks are not just present in the blue-collar world of manufacturing. Robotic software automation is now critical to finance and accounts payable (AP) departments across companies of every size. A recent Wall Street Journal article, “The New Bookkeeper is a Robot,” analyzed the proliferation of robotic automated software, aka “robots,” that is taking over corporate finance departments. Robotic software automation can lead to significant cost reductions, along with better data quality, that drives greater visibility, cost savings and efficient resource management for companies—regardless of size or location.

Although finance and AP departments are fully capable of managing thousands of invoices across hundreds or even thousands of vendors, not all invoices and payable types are created equally. Simple bills go through the basic AP audit process, such as paying the bill on time, managing previous balances, flagging duplicate invoices or spotting overlapping service dates. But complex bill types—such as utility, telecom, water and waste bills—need more in-depth analysis to maximize potential savings. For example, billing and meter errors, spikes in consumption and demand or other use anomalies that drive up costs and derail budget strategies. Robotic software automation can help capture data more accurately, and with the right algorithm and expert analysis, greater savings are brought to the table.

Ecova has hundreds of clients that work with us to take over their expense and data management across energy, waste, water and telecom. Robotic automated software—paired with our energy and resource experts—helps us perform these tasks and reduce our clients’ utility and resource expenses. This service not only eases the burden of data collection, it also creates new “actionable insights” for companies to implement to increase earnings and revenue, positioning them for further expansion and growth.

Clients that have turned to Ecova for resource expense management did so because of the daily challenges they face. Do you recognize any of these stress factors in your own organization that could benefit from the help of automation?

  1. Capturing data from utility bills. While complex, utility bills also offer a great opportunity for savings. Auditing for billing errors requires significant time and depth of knowledge to distinguish legitimate bill errors versus other anomalies. When a billing error is identified, you still have to dispute and work with the utility to resolve it. Up to six percent of utility bills are reissued due to errors or revisions on previous bill estimates. What percentage is your team able to identify and resolve on your own?
  2. Processing utility bills on time. The average time for companies to internally process a single invoice is 17.4 to 29.8 days [1] , but most utility bills average only 21.5 days from bill date to due date. No matter the size of your AP team, with the hundreds and even thousands of bills received each month, it can be difficult to dedicate the time and attention needed to fully capitalize on savings opportunities. Do you feel it’s challenging to manage payment timelines while still analyzing bill data?
  3. Managing rising waste disposal costs. Waste costs have increased by 28 percent over the past decade and they show no signs of slowing. In addition, many municipalities are setting mandates on waste disposal in order to drive increased composting and recycling initiatives. More companies are implementing waste data analysis tools and prioritizing the outcomes they hope to achieve. Does your company collect and analyze data on your waste in order to drive efficiencies and savings?
  4. Overseeing more complex telecom and wireless programs. Companies are under considerable pressure to control telecom costs, while dealing with ever-changing technology and options that have thousands of types of billing charge elements. Ensuring the right amount is paid each month is a major challenge. AP and finance is also responsible for providing visibility to cost center owners, managing cash flow, performing financial audits and more. Do you have a team on board that can create and manage a successful Telecom Lifecycle Management Program?
  5. Managing more stringent water regulations. Water costs have increased more than 30 percent across the country since 2008, due to aging infrastructure, serious drought conditions and unfolding regulations. These factors will continue to drive up the cost of water. Adding to the challenge is the fact that water utilities measure usage in different units, and companies with multiple sites need to convert usage to a common unit to spot anomalies. Is your company able to keep up with water regulations and identify high-use sites?


As you can see, there are many challenges for AP and finance departments, but automating data collection can help to relieve some of these challenges. Ecova has invested and continues to invest in the latest technologies for systematic audit and verification procedures. Workflow and electronic data capture are tools that help deliver efficient expense and data management to our clients. But the necessary “human touch” is still very much intact in this process and it creates a “win-win” across the entire enterprise:

  • AP departments have 24/7 access to line-item details and full bill images of all invoices processed.
  • Energy and facility managers gain visibility into critical business intelligence through site-level data that can then be used target and improve inefficiencies.
  • Finance departments can more easily manage budgets, leading to more accurate forecasting, reporting, and fiscal planning.
  • Purchasing and facility teams can leverage site, regional, and portfolio-wide cost and consumption data to support informed energy sourcing.

utility-bill-processing-and-analysisEcova’s robotic automated processes, combined with our service model, have helped clients achieve an average return on investment of 285 percent on top of the eliminated costs associated with bill validation, reconciliation and processing, which can cost a company an average of $14.89 per payment.

No, we don’t think you should fear an “invasion” of AP robots; rather embrace automation as a means to lower processing costs, increase accuracy, and find more savings—allowing your company to spend more time invested into activities that improve your bottom line.

If you’re just getting a handle on what challenges your AP department is facing, Ecova has great resources to help you make that leap from simply managing your expenses to controlling them. First, download our free e-book for AP professionals. In addition, calculate the cost of managing your utility bills in house with our free assessment tool, and finally, take 60 seconds to complete our data assessment and find out what type of utility data is driving your decisions.

[1] Aberdeen Group, Oct 2010

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