Interview with a client: Approval automation as a key capability for accounting and advisory services for not-for-profits
In this interview with Eric Saumure, CPA, CA Principal, we learn how Zenbooks – a Canada-based accounting and advisory practice – uses ApprovalMax to help their clients increase approval process efficiency by going paperless.
ApprovalMax: Please tell us a few words about your company and the services you provide.
Eric Saumure: We only have advisory clients, typically not small-sized ones, and provide continuous accounting and advisory support with a true white-glove service.
In general, we deal with consulting firms, engineering firms, interior design firms, NFPs. We are 100 per cent Canadian and serve exclusively Canadian businesses. Everybody works remotely, we are a distributed team, no office. This does make things a bit complicated but at the same time, it makes things better. A big challenge at first – now we are really good.
ApprovalMax: What kind of advisory services do you provide?
Eric Saumure: We offer KPI monitoring, do cashflow projections, explain budget variances weekly or bi-weekly, assist with paying bills, make calls to vendors, and help our clients understand where to best increase profitability or improve efficiency.
In fact, we’re like an ongoing inhouse finance and accounting service although, actually, we are an external solution.
ApprovalMax: When does a proper approval process become a necessity for your clients?
Eric Saumure: Clients usually take up advisory services when they are of a size where they also need robust approvals, clear audit trails and the segregation of duties. With approval requests it’s often the case that they all come at once and then all go to one person on one particular day. Not good. ApprovalMax helps our clients to distribute this work load evenly, without any peaks and valleys.
Also, we value ApprovalMax as a tool that really supports our clients when they make the transition towards a paperless office.
ApprovalMax: How do you and your clients typically use ApprovalMax? Via the web application, the mobile app or by approving from the email?
Eric Saumure: Our clients do like the “Approval from email” function, yes. It is very convenient and available in both your web and mobile app. Primarily, they use ApprovalMax on their phones as it is the fastest way of approving.
We ourselves don’t really log into ApprovalMax that often because everything happens automatically. Usually we only log in to check up on something that was done incorrectly.
ApprovalMax: In your experience, how do timely approvals contribute to a better data quality?
Eric Saumure: Data tends to be more accurate when all spending is authorised by an external approver – the business manager who knows best about the context of incurring expenses.
Both sides, our practice and the client, have to agree on the different categories for each type of spending first. This helps forecasting how the budget and actual spending compare for a given period. Having precise knowledge about the approved expenditures makes the data more accurate, especially for cashflow forecasting purposes.
ApprovalMax: How many of your clients are currently using ApprovalMax?
Eric Saumure: There are 3 clients so far. We do like how it works, so we want to offer it to our other clients as well. In fact, we recommend ApprovalMax to all business owners who need an extra layer of spend control and who want to approve invoices as they come in.
ApprovalMax: What’s the most frequent use case calling for ApprovalMax among your customers?
Eric Saumure: One of the best examples would be our Non-Profit client because the introduction of ApprovalMax has drastically changed the way they operate.
In the past, incoming paper invoices had to be signed by the CEO in person before going back to the accounting clerk, who would then make out a cheque. As this CEO is based in a different city, he even had to fly in just to authorise invoices or cheques.
Now, the CEO gets an email notification when there are expenses that he needs to approve. He reviews them, mainly from his phone, and performs the approval – usually within a few minutes. So, for them this solution not only saves a lot of time, but a great deal of money for plane tickets as well.
ApprovalMax: What is the biggest benefit ApprovalMax has brought to your NFP client?
Eric Saumure: Our NFP client reimburses expenses for volunteers such as meals or flights, and all of that now goes through ApprovalMax. But previously, it used to be done manually. Also, every year they hold a big conference that comes with a large number of transactions in the run-up. Obviously, it’s rather difficult for them to deal with heaps of expense claims all at once.
ApprovalMax helps shorten the time needed for processing the reimbursements considerably. There are always hundreds of forms being submitted and it used to take months for people to receive their refund. So, this specific process has been improved drastically and everyone gets paid back much quicker.
ApprovalMax: NFPs have a stronger need for automatic audit trails, correct?
Eric Saumure: Yes, having the whole approval process captured in detail and down to the minute, or even second, while knowing who approved what is extremely valuable for the audit side. And of course, full transparency towards financial auditors and the tax authority in Canada, the Canada Revenue Agency, is of great importance.
It also fosters the mentality of tracking and precision. Having to be accurate and precise works for both the accounting tasks and other areas of a business.
The year-end audit benefits greatly as well. The auditors look at the finance data and all the work we accomplished throughout the year and then give us their opinion on the financial statements.
After we implemented ApprovalMax, they were asking us a lot of questions about this new system. So the first thing we did was give them one of our ApprovalMax audit reports and said, “Look, this is how we expect things to be. We want a precise audit trail just like this one for all of our clients because it shows how this new technology helps track our expenses and revenues throughout the whole system.”
The financial auditors were highly impressed. They even pointed out that with a paper-based approach anyone can sign off any expense, it’s not difficult to forge a signature. But with this level of automation, that’s no longer possible. So, not just the audit report convinced them – they understood that we are very serious about this matter.
ApprovalMax: In conclusion, what is the feature of ApprovalMax that you like best?
Eric Saumure: For us, I’d say it is the built-in comment capability where you can leave remarks and questions right in the approval request.
With a paper-based process, whenever you need to comment or query a specific receipt you’ll have to find another piece of paper, add your comment there and place it on the pile which then gets passed on for finding an answer to your question, for example, regarding the correct category for a particular expense. This laborious procedure really is ridiculous in this day and age.
With ApprovalMax you can leave, and answer, comments in a very simple way and all is available to everyone who shares the same context. Every detail is tracked without ever being written down with pen and paper. Even better, if the tax agency demands some documentation, they won’t see all our comments – only the information that is relevant to them.