How Paperless Invoicing Completely Transformed This Company’s Business

In her 19 years at Harbor Group, a Norfolk-based manager of 60 properties, Alberta Lee has seen a lot of changes. But few, she says, as profound as the elimination of what she calls “mountains of paper” with OpsTechnology Paperless Invoicing.

A product administrator at Harbor, Lee is tasked with helping the properties handle their accounting functions, including vendor invoices and payments. This was once all about paper – and lots of it.

“We had UPS packages full of purchase orders and other invoice-related paperwork moving between 60 properties and our home office,” says Lee. “We thought it was perfectly normal; then at some point, a woman who had worked with Ops at another company told our management about it, and it got their interest.”

The problems with paper

Lee remembers very well the thing she hated most about paper-based invoicing: “All those boxes and boxes of invoices and purchase orders . . . it seems like we were always lifting boxes, putting them away, pulling them out, going through them looking for things – it was a real pain.”

But that’s just one of many costs Harbor was paying.

Among them, Lee mentions the substantial UPS charges for transporting the packages every month; the cost of the paper, boxes and printing themselves; and storage costs.

Then there were the intangible costs, which were in fact far more taxing. Chief among them was the labor-intensive process of routing the paperwork associated with invoicing, approvals and payments to everyone who needed to see it – and the resulting drain on time, pulling staff away from more important tasks.

There was the occasional issue of missing, misfiled or damaged paperwork. And as the boxes of paper piled up year after year, someone had to decide what should or shouldn’t be shredded.

When the auditing team came in there was no way for them to quickly put their hands on the information they needed; staff helped lift boxes and haul them to a back room for shuffling through.

“When I think back about this, I’m amazed we did things this way for as long as we did,” says Lee.

Going paperless

Harbor stuck its toe in the water by implementing OpsTechnology Paperless Invoicing at two of its properties.

“It was hard for our people to believe that we could really let go of the paper and do things this way,” recalls Lee. “In fact, early on, there was pressure to print everything out anyway, as a backup. Then gradually everyone got comfortable with the fact that printing and storing paper copies was a big waste when everything was on our computers and they were backed up electronically, which was a lot safer than paper anyway since paper can be lost, burned, mildewed or flooded.”

The test was considered a big success, so Harbor proceeded to move Ops out to its other properties. And in Lee’s words, it quickly “transformed” life at Harbor.

“Invoices and payments were this ever-present hassle that bogged us down, and we had just considered the paperwork a fact of life,” she recalls. “As we got up and running with Ops, we realized what a huge difference it made in the course of our workdays to have all that paperwork just vanish.”

Now the electronic invoices and POs were date-stamped and routed online to everyone who needed to see them. Vendors used an online form to invoice, or if unable to switch from paper, sent the invoices to RealPage rather than Harbor, where they were converted to electronic format and then added to the online workflow (OpsInvoice).

“Everything was exactly where it was supposed to be, when it was supposed to be,” says Lee. “Nobody either at a site or the home office could say ‘we didn’t get that invoice’ or ‘so-and-so must have it’ or “UPS hasn’t delivered it.” I can’t remember once being unable to put my hands on something I’ve needed. Digging up an invoice or PO is as easy as putting in a date range and invoice number, and up it comes, with any attachments. We can search for them in other ways as well – say, by property, or vendor, or time period – which helps us with reporting and analysis.”

Lee is particularly thrilled that Ops offers an app for her smart phone, so she can access the system anytime, anywhere. “I am not always at the office when I have to help somebody out, and now all the information I need is right in my phone,” she says. “I love it.”

A new level of control with paperless invoicing

For Harbor Group, one of the exciting benefits of moving to electronic invoicing has been the budgeting and reporting it enables. With every detail of site expenditures now captured by the software rather than filed away on paper, managers are newly empowered in their ability to monitor and control budgets through custom reports that let them both view overall budget status and drill down to look at the tiniest purchasing details.

In fact, reporting capabilities were foremost on the list of things Lee was hungry to learn more about when she recently arranged to have her RealPage rep fly out for three days on-site to train her and others on fully exploiting the software’s capabilities.

On the commercial side

Lee says managers at Harbor’s commercial properties have been slower to adapt to the paperless concept due to the different nature of the business. She explains that the asset teams like to keep their eyes on the invoices and are accustomed to reviewing them as they come in anyway. But Lee’s pitch has been to free up the property accountants from data entry, with vendors sending invoices through the OPS system. She found she had to convince managers that they’d still have the same control over the review process, and be able to make changes to invoices as need.

Beyond the properties

Paperless invoicing has been so successful for Harbor Group that they’re now implementing it for their home office purchasing in addition to purchasing at the sites. “The bulk of invoicing involves our properties, but our home corporate office has its own expenses and purchasing, and Ops works just as well for streamlining our corporate purchasing as it does for the properties we manage,” explains Lee.

Harbor Group also takes advantage of the Ops vendor catalog of pre-approved vendors, to rein in rogue spending and help properties quickly find vendors in their area who have been vetted by the company.

“RealPage has been a wonderful partner in helping us run more efficiently,” concludes Lee. “Their software is easy to use, but as in any process change, there are going to be questions and support is going to come into play. They’ve been right beside us from implementation through literally flying out here to sit with us and teach us to get even more out of the software than we already do – which is a lot. We couldn’t be happier.”

Learn how you can make payments more convenient for residents.


Author and Contributor

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Based in New Orleans, Guy Lyman is a professional writer with over 25 years’ experience writing about multifamily and commercial real estate. Lyman is a frequent contributor and writer for the Property Management Insider blog.

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