Home Features Technology: App streamlines invoice reconciliation

Keeping abreast of work packages and variations to on-site activity where works are often commissioned in an informal way can be costly. Birmingham-based Coen’s has developed an online app that keeps track of on-site activity, does away with manually reconciling subcontractor invoices and improves speed of reporting. It’s saving money and clients love it. Adrian JG Marsh reports.

“We’ve estimated we’ve probably over paid and under invoiced about £100,000 per annum by not getting information about small variation costs quickly enough,” says Paul Little of Coen’s, an established plastering contractor which has worked mainly in the housing sector but is growing in the emerging external wall insulation sector.

Paul Little explains: “Commercial pressures during recent years forced us to trim our overheads back to the bone. I needed to improve the way we managed our direct labour and labour-only subcontractors (LOSCs) so I drew on my experience of working in the auto industry. As our workforce is mobile an app seemed the ideal way to go.”

Coen’s teamed up with IT specialists Construction Industry Technology Innovation Limited (www. citi-limited ) and mapped out the processes that the business had to go through to authorise, carry out and process invoices from LOSCs. The result is what is claimed to be an industry first, a truly mobile front and back office business application, designed for medium sized contractors who use LOSCs.

Paul Little continues: “We needed to bring our surveyors and construction team closer together and find a way to improve the speed at which we receive information about job progress. We now allocate a budget against each on-site activity and, as each package is completed, the on-site labour, whether direct or subcontractor, logs on to the app and confirms the work is completed.

“Equally the new system means that if on-site teams are asked to carry out new work or variations they now have to get authorisation from the surveying team before they start, otherwise they won’t get paid.”

The mobile software enables companies to rapidly add or configure large scale construction projects by defining specific tasks associated with a large number of work packages. Initially the majority of activity has been focused on housing developments where there are a lot of individual plots and work is relatively repetitive.

The app has the added advantage of being able to collect statutory information about labour, such as CSCS card details, training attended and insurances for LOSCs. While developed for LOSC the profile can be changed to suit directly employed labour.

Project details may comprise a specific project (name or number), with a customer name and reference (existing or new) at a site address or location. On a contract there maybe any number of packages where work is required and each package will consist of a number of tasks the contractor is required to fulfil such as x m2 plastering, x m2 of skimming or x m2 of drylining.

As subcontrators complete tasks they can update the details of this job via their smartphone, tablet or PC. On either partial or full completion, they access the task which outlines the project, name, location, plot number and pre-defined tasks and log what percentage of a task has been completed. Throughout the course of the working week a draft invoice is being created. The invoice includes the LOSCs, VAT number (if applicable), each item of work claimed and at what rate.

Coen’s construction supervisors see a more strategic view of work in progress. They can see which packages and tasks have been completed and by which subcontractor. By visiting each site they can confirm via their mobile device whether each task has been completed to the required standards and then either approve or un-approve each task. Where a task is unapproved, the supervisor must enter a reason for this status and the subcontractor is informed via the app.

Paul Little says: “Since we started using the system across the company we’ve been collecting information weekly but there is no reason why it can’t be daily. We’re also able to query work much faster than before and snag work sooner. And our clients really like the quality of information we can give them.

“When our supervisor has approved all the tasks in a package, each subcontractor can quickly see their status and is then able to submit the invoice to us for payment.

“Back in the office we don’t have to worry about re-keying data and we’re able to view progress from either the office or a mobile devices and establish the exact status in terms of completion for any given project by customer, location, contract and by individual package or tasks.”

The app has been well received by Coen’s supervisors and labour and has helped to speed up data entry of large scale projects so planning and reporting are more advanced than before. The app has also improved cash-flow forecasting, removed invoice reconciliation as a manual job and improved payments to LOSCs. Colin Govette, one of Coen’s subcontractors, said: “Using the app saves loads of time. I can see the price before I travel, I don’t need to keep the price sheets. I don’t need to write an invoice and I can book it all in as I go instead of waiting until the end of the week. I also have all my invoices stored in one place which makes
record keeping much easier.”

Research by Warwick University has found that Coen’s profit margins could increase by up to two per cent. The new research also said that app technology has increased reputation and trust with its customers as Coen’s now has the ability to generate an accurate pricing model per project which avoids disputes and variations in cost. A new team work culture has also evolved between the LOSCs and Coen’s supervisors, leading to greater efficiency.

And the view from the client side comes from Paul Shaw, chief quantity surveyor for Redrow Homes (Midlands), who said: “To have access to more real time information about how my trade contractors are performing has made a big difference. If it were more widely available it would reduce wasted time and effort verifying activity.”

And the last word from Paul Little: “We’re probably £10,000 a month better off thanks to the app. It’s made a huge difference.”

For more information about the invoice app contact Technological Innovations for the Construction Industry (CITI) who have developed the app technology for the construction industry. Visit www.citi-limited.co.uk.

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