Compared with traditional paper-based processing and delivery of documents like invoices and purchase orders, automation technology has given many big companies a big edge over small and medium businesses in recent years. Large enterprises have capitalized on the ability to send documents straight from their back-office systems and desktop applications — not only by fax and e-mail, but even postal mail — with levels of speed, accuracy, visibility and control that the old ways can’t match.
The same solution used to deliver the documents can also archive and index them automatically, making documents instantly accessible for customer service and internal or external audits. As a result, companies using document process automation are empowered to optimize operational efficiency and cash flow while supporting high levels of customer satisfaction and regulatory compliance.
These advantages may seem out of reach for smaller companies without giant IT departments and deep pockets. After all, implementing software to automate document processing and delivery can take a considerable amount of up-front money along with an ongoing commitment of time to manage the technology. For some small and medium businesses, software to automate document processing and delivery is too expensive, too slow to implement and too much of a headache to maintain.
The Silver Lining
Despite the obvious differences in scale, small and medium businesses ultimately face the same basic types of operational challenges that big companies do. Any business relies on the exchange of documents, and profitability can depend on the efficiency of that exchange.
Small and medium businesses may have fewer resources to draw upon to achieve peak efficiency. But generally they have more freedom from the constraints of complexity — both in their information systems and in their business processes — to take advantage of innovations in technology.
Software as a Service, or cloud computing, is one such innovation. For automation of document processing and delivery, SaaS has made the capabilities of today’s most powerful solutions readily available to any company with an Internet connection. SaaS shifts the expense of the solution from capital to operational, clearing away the barrier of acquisition and deployment cost.
The benefits go beyond helping small and medium businesses quit paper and level the playing field. SaaS can deliver real competitive advantages simply because there is no software or hardware to maintain. Small and medium businesses can get fast results like significantly shortened transaction cycles, increased productivity, reduced days-sales-outstanding rates, increased visibility and process control while focusing resources on core competencies and customer service rather than supporting technology.
With SaaS, businesses leverage document process automation technology on a pay-per-use basis. They securely transmit documents directly from front- and back-office applications to vendor-hosted data centers where the software platform resides along with infrastructure for fax, e-mail, mail and SMS delivery. Becoming part of customer invoicing, supplier purchase order delivery and other day-to-day business processes, the service automates time-consuming, labor-intensive tasks like printing documents and stuffing envelopes or feeding the fax machine — and reduces the need for in-house printers, fax machines and supplies as well as mailroom equipment, fax servers, fax lines, fax boards and modems.
A typical SaaS implementation for document delivery can take as little as a few days. With its short deployment time, minimal up-front expense and predictable costs, SaaS affords the opportunity to try cloud computing for document delivery without taking big architectural or financial risks.
Technology underlying SaaS solutions is automatically updated by the service provider, so small and medium businesses continuously benefit from the latest enhancements and innovations. There is no longer a need to buy and install software, keep track of versions and worry about upgrades causing conflicts between interdependent systems. Today’s advanced SaaS solutions for document delivery are highly adaptable and can be customized to fit specific needs of small and medium businesses.
In the technology sector, small and medium businesses can also leverage SaaS to enhance their own product offerings. “Companies have spent large project budgets building distribution channels and not had near the success that we had within one week,” said Mark McCuin, president of the laboratory information technology and electronic medical records startup company, Pathagility. “We were able to provide value that would have taken the biggest companies much longer to provide in a production environment to their customers.”
Learning from Experience
Recognizing the need to streamline operations and reduce staffing requirements for document processing, many small and medium businesses have deployed technologies like fax servers and experienced the typical issues: computers age, hard drives fail, software gets outdated and pretty soon the server is down. Others consider SaaS after finding that options like putting a fax server in multiple locations or buying a folding machine for processing mail cost more than they save.
When packaging company ARPAC Group decided to eliminate its fax machines and manual paper handling of faxes throughout the company, it looked carefully at the alternatives before choosing a SaaS solution.
“Bringing the electronic faxing in-house would require the cost of both hardware and software,” said Ryan King, the company’s IT manager. “We also had to consider the costs of maintenance and redundancy. This was our ordering system we were talking about, and we needed it up and running 24/7 with no hiccups.”
Backup capability built into the service architecture is an additional benefit to ARPAC. “The service also gives us peace of mind. If there’s a power outage, we know that our data won’t be lost,” said King.
Another company using a SaaS solution, the ambulance group First Med, chose the cloud model for automation to reduce turnaround time from output to mailing of statements from its billing system. The service enables direct transfer from First Med’s billing software to a SaaS platform. “We don’t need another software,” said Matt Ellis, the company’s accounts receivable manager. “We simply upload straight from our system and everything’s right there.” Once the statements are uploaded, First Med employees can review them in a Web interface, which also provides tracking capabilities for visibility into the process. Mail is produced by the SaaS provider and handed off to the postal service as part of the service.
Changing the Landscape
The implementation speed and low cost of SaaS for document delivery has attracted the attention of large enterprises as well as small and medium businesses. Many chief financial officers want technology return on investment in months instead of years. When it is time to replace a fax server or move customers to electronic invoicing, more and more large companies are looking to the cloud. As cloud computing becomes the predominant way to deploy software, small and medium businesses using SaaS to automate document processing and delivery will be in a better position to compete against their rivals, large and small.
Jean-Michel Bérard co-founded Esker and is the chief executive officer and president of the board of directors. Ernst & Young named Jean-Michel European Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He was named as one of the Top Technology Visionaries by Start magazine in 2002. Jean-Michel was also named advisor to the French Foreign Trade Ministry in 2009.