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Going digital with documents

Ever since the first PC was invented some 30 thirty years ago, we have been talking about the paperless office. But most of us still have large folders full of invoices, purchase orders, requisition forms, delivery notes, receipts and official letters from solicitors, tax offices and VAT inspectors.

The problem is that small businesses are not really interested in achieving a ‘paperless’ office as that in itself does not benefit the business. They are more interested in what they can do to automate the conventional sales order process of quotation, order, invoice, dispatch note, statement and reconciliation in the sales ledger of an accounting system. Traditionally, each of those steps requires a piece of paper, and each of those pieces of paper needs to be stored by customer name or date.

Orders on-line

In many businesses that’s still what happens. But it need not. By using software that enables you to cut out the need for paper you can improve business efficiency dramatically. This is especially true if you take orders off the web – in fact, if you do, it hardly makes sense to have a paper-based system at all.

“The only paper we keep in our offices now are supplier brochures and samples in the six filing drawers we allow ourselves,” says Michelle Thomas, managing director of Watlington-based contemporary furnishing retailer OneRedSky, which uses the Actinic electronic commerce software linked to its Sage accounts system to take and process orders.

‘You really can place, order and process orders online as a small business provided that your web site is easy to navigate and pleasing to look at, and you choose a package like Actinic which allows you to design all your own web pages to process the orders,’ says Thomas.

As soon as a customer clicks on the ‘buy’ button for items of furniture costing anywhere between £150 and £5,000 the software emails Thomas automatically, telling her that a new order has arrived. The electronic document contains details of what’s been ordered, the customer address, and how they wish to pay. The system also emails the customer to confirm the order.

Setting up such a system need not be expensive either. OneRedSky paid around £600 for its ‘off-the-shelf’ ecommerce system and it has worked just as well if not better than more elaborate and expensive solutions, says Thomas. “I have no time to sit down and learn software. We tried a bespoke ecommerce site for a couple of years, but it was costly, complex and difficult to use”, she comments.

Sending a message

You can also cut out paper by using electronic means of marketing your goods or services. Chris Kelly, managing director of Streatham-based estate agents MyPlace has recently invested in a browser-based system designed for estate agents called DesRes. This allows him to enter property details, property photographs and client details on the one system, accessible to any staff with an Internet browser. “Instead of sending property details in the post as we used to do, we can email clients with new property details that are relevant to them as soon as we get them,” he explains.

As the system is hosted by the software supplier, Kelly says he doesn’t need to worry about losing data should the office burn down or somebody spill coffee over the office computer, since data is held offline. He intends to make more use of the system – which already links the company’s two offices – by using it to monitor the progress of a property sale automatically.

However, both Thomas and Kelly have found it impossible to stop paper flowing into the business. Kelly says that, while it is relatively easy to replace order documentation from customers with an electronic alternative, solicitors still send him official letters in the post which he has to keep. Furniture suppliers send Thomas despatch notes and picking lists on paper, and also paper invoices.

Scan and index

Many documents need to be retained and made easily accessible. The next stage perhaps for these businesses would be to use document scanning and indexing systems to take images of the paper-based forms and store them electronically. They may not have felt compelled to go down this route as yet but for businesses that receive a lot of paperwork from their suppliers or as a result of their activities, this is an option worth considering very seriously.

There are document systems on the market that can automate the supply side of a business, but they have in the past proved too expensive for small business. However, the accounting software houses specialising in providing systems for running small business have begun to offer systems that enable companies to scan all the paper that comes into a business and transfer it into a workflow system that will move it round a business automatically.

Many businesses are eager to cut down on the paper-dependent processes. “There is still too much paper coming into our office,” says Mike Bulcock, proprietor of Northwich-based accountancy firm Bulcock and Co. He has just invested around £2,000 in a scanner and Sage Document Management software. A junior employee scans all the post that comes into the building, the software creates a JPEG file of the letter or bulletin which can then be sent as an email attachment to the relevant partner in the firm.

“We have started by scanning the post and bulletins containing tax information that we need to have in the office, but we will move onto scanning invoices from suppliers which will be processed through the Sage bought ledgers module,” says Bulcock. At the moment all documents have to be assessed by a person and indexed manually, but there are systems on the market that offer optical character recognition and enable a document to be indexed automatically.

Integrated approach

BluQube, for instance, a Bristol based accounting software vendor, has launched a version of its software that links to the document management and scanning software company, Version One. Managing director, Simon Kearsley says that a majority of our existing customers have already shown interest in the concept as it will eliminate lost and misfiled documents, improve efficiency and cut costs and storage space.

MYOB, a publisher of accounting and business systems for small business, says it has a document management system aimed specifically at accountants called Singleview. Accounting practices must now demonstrate compliance with strict working processes, and keep structured documentation to show that they have worked with clients in a professional manner. The new system enables them to do this and without creating masses of new files. It is also surprisingly affordable – the MYOB services cost between £150 and £200 a month to run.

Running a totally paperless office may not be practical today – or in the foreseeable future, especially when suppliers keep sending you forms that you need to retain. But it is becoming much easier and more affordable to run electronic order processing systems and to scan and store documents digitally. And in a world where there is an increasing requirement for regulatory compliance, it makes sense to replace paper with digital documents.