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Time is one of those unavoidable pressure points in business – nobody ever seems to have enough of it.


Organisations that start looking a little deeper into this otherwise accepted fact of life may end up finding that the reason time is in such short supply is that so much of it is wasted on things that drain resources and don’t create any value.


One company that discovered this very issue is Australian equipment solutions provider, Coates Hire.


Just a couple of years ago the company had a huge administrative workload – the kind of workload that even a dedicated accounts payable team of 36 people were struggling to handle.


That workload involved dealing with 4,000 suppliers and 27,000 supplier invoices, all processed manually every month. On top of that, the team had to monitor emails, classify documents, and manually capture invoice data into the company’s ERP platform. The company was also dealing with late payments that affected supplier relationships. 


With staff under immense pressure and workloads piling up, there was an increasing risk of human error. It can be too easy to accidentally process invoices under the wrong supplies.  Something had to change.


Coates Hire national shared services manager Pieter Le Roux says that in today’s digitised world, people can’t get through mountains of invoices in an efficient way.


So the company decided to see what technology has to offer. The company explored the opportunities with rapidMATION and discovered robotic process automation (RPA).


RPA could apply AI-enabled optical character recognition capabilities from digital intelligence firm ABBYY.


Le Roux maintained a level of scepticism at first about the idea of robots in his business – as did some staff who imagined a ‘Terminator-style robot’ taking their jobs. But the team quickly realised the benefits of RPA.


 “There are a lot of companies out there promising a magic potion type solution, which then turns out to be a poison apple,” he explains.


“What made me realise the potential of RPA was the proof of value process that we performed with rapidMATION. Being able to experience the proposed solution on a smaller scale allowed me to see the benefits in action. 


“It also made my job a lot easier when it came to convincing the executive team to invest in the project!”


That project involved the creation of intelligent accounts payable bots that dealt with several key business functions:

  • Inbox monitoring – 24/7 monitoring of the accounts payable inbox. It also checks if incoming emails have attachments.
  • Document classification – The bot classifies email attachments based on type (e.g. invoice, legal contract) 
  • Data understanding and extraction – With the help of ABBYY’s AI technology, the bot then works out the data it needs to extract. This data can include the supplier’s name, the due date, invoice line items, total amounts, PO numbers, and more.
  • Data transfer to the ERP – Finally, the bot then logs into the company’s Baseplan ERP system and feeds in the extracted data.


This is all done automatically, but it’s important to note that humans do get called in occasionally when the bot finds an anomaly that it cannot process on its own.


In the first 145 days, the bot processed 91,000 emails, 87,000 invoices into the ERP, and rejected 10,000 submissions (which were mostly duplicate invoices).


And the most extraordinary part of the story: Coates Hire saved 2,900 hours – that’s the equivalent of 72 standard working weeks – just through RPA alone.


“This is a phenomenal amount of time that we would have lost on data capturing,” admits Le Roux.


Coates Hire’s accounts payable team are no longer snowed under by tedious processes, they now have more time to focus on higher-value ‘human work’, rather than robotic work. And they now have additional skillsets that can handle automation.


Payment issues are now processed faster, improving supplier relationships.


Now Coates Hire has a mission to explore more automation opportunities across the business, particularly accounts receivable.


Le Roux has sage advice for businesses: “If you’re an executive or a manager in transactional support services for your business, I would really encourage you to look into automation.” 


“I personally think it’s an unavoidable direction in terms of where transactional services are heading. It’s also a much more cost-effective solution than extreme measures of outsourcing and similar approaches. I’m really impressed by the benefits of the process in its entirety,” he concludes.

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