Finance leaders usually turn to finance automation because they’re tired of stressful month-end closes, Excel sheets that take 10 minutes to load because they’re so packed with data, costly and miserable audits – the list goes on and on.
You know it’s time to take control of your operations with automated systems and processes…but now what?
Many finance leaders we speak to aren’t sure exactly how to proceed with finance automation. They often have questions like:
- What processes do you automate first and how much?
- How do you get the buy-in and cooperation of your team?
- What risks do you need to consider and how do you mitigate them?
- How do you know which systems are right for your processes?
In this article, I wanted to share some tried-and-true tips and considerations to help you create an actionable finance automation plan that will set you and your team up for long-term success.
1. Start with repetitive, high-volume, painful processes
Here’s an important piece of advice: you don’t need to automate everything all at once.
First and foremost, start with the processes that are high-volume, time-consuming, painful, and are leading to burnout and high turnover in your team.
Here are some common finance processes that are great to automate first:
- Reconciliation of high-volume transactions that are fragmented across PSPs, banks, billing solutions, databases, and your ERP
- Travel and expense management so you no longer have to manually wrangle expense reports and employee reimbursements
- Cash flow management when you’re juggling multiple bank account and PSP log-ins, painstakingly calculating currency conversions
If you’re not totally sure, talk to your team about where the bottlenecks are and where they’re feeling the pain the most.
2. Decide how much to automate – it’s OK to start small
Some finance leaders are wary of implementing finance automation because they worry they will be locked into processes or workflows that will then be very difficult to change.
In my experience, that concern generally stems from users having been burned by using clunky legacy systems that take ages to implement and configure and then are very expensive and time-consuming to adapt each time your business adds a new revenue stream or bank account.
The good news is that there’s a crop of new finance automation tools that are way more flexible and require much less commitment from your finance team to commit to until death do you part.
For example, it’s common for many finance teams we partner with to first automate just one component of their AR processes, adjust and tweak it as necessary, and then scale it to automate more processes once they’re ready.
Look for a finance automation tool that can plug seamlessly into and out of your existing stack and complement your existing workflows without requiring you to completely overhaul all of your processes.
3. Get the buy-in and support of your team
There’s a lot of chatter these days about the AI tech army that’s coming to take over all of our jobs.
It’s my view that, especially in finance, much of this anxiety is misplaced. Most finance leaders I speak with have the opposite problem – they’re struggling to recruit and retain staff and desperately need technology to fill in a gaping labor hole.
Regardless, it’s possible that the bookkeepers, accountants, and operators on your team will feel threatened by the idea of finance automation.
Given that you need the cooperation and support of everyone on the team to successfully roll out any finance automation project, it’s imperative that you communicate how they will benefit from automation, both professionally and personally.
Here’s some of the points you could raise to them:
- Think of the strategic, fulfilling, value-adding work could you be doing if you weren’t bogged down in 20-hour days every month just to close the books
- Imagine how much faster and easier it would be to investigate discrepancies and prevent losses if you had a system that with a click showed the lifecycle of every transaction, with granular breakdowns of fees, taxes, discounts, and disputes.
- And with those same capabilities, imagine how much less stressful audit prep and sampling would be
- Consider how many strategic decisions you could drive with access to instant, real-time reporting
In my experience, finance teams that have automated their processes experience way less turnover and have much higher morale.
4. Review and improve your processes together with the vendor
Secret CFO recently shared this excellent nugget with us:
“Automate as soon as you can, but only once you know what you are automating.”
When implementing automation, teams sometimes approach it as “lift and shift” – lifting and shifting your existing processes into a new system.
That’s sometimes fine, but getting started with finance automation can also present you with an opportunity to review your current processes and identify how you can make things more efficient and effective.
For example, if manual reconciliation consistently makes your month-end close process a nightmare, think about ways to “flatten the curve” and distribute the workload more evenly throughout the month, even before you implement automation, such as reconciling your bank accounts on a daily or weekly basis.
But remember: you don’t need to have things fully baked and planned before you kick off the automation project. Talk out your processes with your vendor, get started with some workflows, see how they work, and then adjust and tweak as needed.
A good automation vendor will already be familiar with different use cases and workflows, will be well-versed in best practices, and can work as a partner to guide you towards the best decisions.
5. Remember to focus on strategic value drivers
Finance is all about the details, and everything from vendor payments to stock compensation is important and needs to happen every month.
At the same time, when evaluating your processes and implementing finance automation, it’s a good time to focus on the big ticket items that management really cares about and will drive business strategy.
For example, every business these days is hyper-focused on efficiency and cutting costs, which makes cash management paramount.
The more you can get a crystal clear picture of your company’s cash position and cash flow in real time, the more strategic insights you can layer on top of it to help management make the best and most informed business decisions.
That means that automating processes like reconciliation and treasury management not only free your team from overwhelming drudgery; it also drives value at the highest levels of the business.
6. Choose systems with flexibility
Automating your finance operations does not need to be – should not be – a massive undertaking that takes years off your life.
Sometimes massive projects like that are unavoidable, like when you’re implementing an ERP or rolling out a new CRM.
But thanks to a new generation of finance tools that are built to be agile, flexible, and easy-to-implement, automating processes like reconciliation, expense management, and cash management doesn’t need to be a big deal.
When thinking about finance automation, look for tools that:
- Have pre-built integrations to your finance and tech stack so you don’t need R&D or IT resources to do any of the heavy lifting
- Enable you to add new banks, PSPs, and other tools yourself on the fly as your business needs flex and change
- Have the flexibility to easily change workflows when your processes change without having to rely on engineering or external implementation partners
- Plug right into your existing systems and processes, complementing what you already have rather than forcing you to revamp everything from scratch
- Can get up and running and show value within days to weeks, rather than old legacy tools that take months to years
- Can seamlessly unplug from your systems and processes without disruption to your operations if you decide to discontinue working with the provider
To all finance teams that are ready to move forward with finance automation, my main pieces of advice are:
- Automate repetitive and painful processes like reconciliation and expense management
- Start small by automating just one process, and then scale and expand from there
- Talk to your team about how they’ll benefit from automation and get their buy-in
- Take the opportunity to review and improve your processes together with your vendor
- Remember to focus on strategic value drivers, like gaining control of your cash
- Choose systems with flexibility that don’t require engineering or IT resources
While implementing automation might seem daunting, with the right mindset and automation partner, you can automate many of your finance processes with confidence and success.