If the client’s records consist of just a pile of invoices and nothing else, then optical character recognition is likely to be useless. We have tried playing around with an OCR pen, an OCR mouse and an OCR scanner, but by the time any of these devices have done anything useful, it will have proved quicker just to type it in. However, our use of OCR does make us ambitious across the board, so let’s see what we can do.
If the invoices represent the client’s accounting records and are not VAT-related, then just sort them first of all by the month, but not by the day. Put to one side those invoices which don’t actually fall within the accounting period of interest. Now we will just type the invoices into our system.
If we type in a date like 15/3/2017, followed by a date like 16, then the second date will automatically be expanded by our system to read 16/3/2017. The default mode for our system is “ordinal mode” which assumes that all dates are in chronological order, so if we then type in a date like 1, this will be expanded to read 1/4/2017. We can instead run our software in “instant mode” which assumes that all dates fall within the same month (this is another meaning of the word “instant” to be found in Chambers Dictionary). Typing in 1 then results in an expansion to 1/3/2017. If we actually want the following month, then in instant mode we type in 1+ (and if we want the same month in ordinal mode, then we type in 1-). We type in 1* to switch between the two modes.
With our pile of invoices sorted by the month, we switch the software to instant mode, and then just type in the day for most of our invoices. We will encourage our clients to sort the invoices for us and to put them in a concertina folder (currently costing 2 pounds from Morrisons). They will need a second folder for the second year, but in the third year they can just move the invoices to a cheaper file for archiving (50p from Morrisons) and re-use the concertina folder (so a budget of 4.50 goes a long way).
When we type in narrative, we can summon up an onscreen toolpad with the commonest narratives shown by buttons which we can just click to enter them. This toolpad also reprograms the function keys F1 to F10 so we can use them to enter very common narratives such as Telephone (F7) and Petrol (F9). If the client switches from petrol to Diesel during the year, then the first time we need to enter “Diesel fuel” manually, but if we then press F9 immediately, the new narrative will be picked up and used instead of Petrol from then on. We are relying upon the smart accounts clerk being able to remember from job to job that F9 is some sort of motor fuel expense, and then using that key whenever any sort of fuel receipt is found.
Most piles of invoices have quite a few motor fuel receipts, along with telephone, stationery, and a couple of principal suppliers such as Toolstation Carlisle and Wickes. Having teachable function keys where the user can amend the narrative should be able to speed up data entry quite a bit. Any key can be taught to generate any narrative, but the standard layout has F5 for the principal purchase, F6 as another cost of sales item, F8 for stationery, F10 for bank charges and so on. F7 often gets amended to generate “O2”, the mobile phone supplier most commonly found in client records. The onscreen toolpad can also be locked to switch off teachability when required. At the end of a data entry job, we can run a macro which shows us the commonest narratives that were found for a particular client, and make a note for next year in the client’s file.
The usual occasion of processing a pile of invoices is doing the VAT return. To enter an amount and its associated VAT, logically we need to type in two numbers. We can instead type in the bottom line or “consideration”, and run a macro Ctrl-V which estimates the VAT as one sixth of the consideration. Usually this estimate is right first time, but if it isn’t then we can nudge a penny up with Ctrl-N, or a penny down with Ctrl-M, or at the worst we can just type in the value net of VAT. This system was invented a long time ago.
Given the fact that we are going to be using some software, we can make that software look at the narrative, and if there is none, then it can be programmed to copy down the previous narrative. If we first sort our invoices by supplier, then we only need to type in the name of each supplier once, and the software can do the rest.
Suppliers with many invoices to enter can be put on one side. Where a supplier has just a few invoices, we sort these by date, meaning both month and day, and enter the dates in ordinal mode.
We then switch to instant mode and sort our big suppliers with many invoices by the month but not the day. Now with the average invoice all we need to enter is the day and the consideration, and run Ctrl-V. The month and year are copied down automatically as soon as we enter the day, and the narrative is copied down and the VAT amount calculated when we run Ctrl-V. Actually we have another mode in which to run our software where staying in the same column, we enter the day and the consideration, and the software does everything else, which minimises the number of keystrokes required.
This system is about three times as fast as a conventional system in which we need to enter day/month/year, narrative, consideration and value. It gives us OCR-like speed when we cannot use OCR, and we are sure that the reader will take our word for it that it is faster than any of the OCR systems we have tried. If a piece of A4 paper has a number on it, but just one number, then typing it in will always be quickest. A second number which can usually be estimated accurately by Ctrl-V does not alter this fact.
When we are having to enter invoices on an industrial scale, the distinction between ordinal mode and instant mode matters. We have been very much influenced by Frederick Taylor, an American work-study engineer, in developing our system. Taylor’s approach was to look at the work that is done in great detail and to try to determine how time could be saved. The main thing after this is that when we get a pile of invoices, we know what to do at once and there is no dithering.