Sophisticated and high-tech, today’s T&E tools make global travel expenses truly manageable
BY Erica Stevens
While their travelers navigate the newness of foreign lands, global companies face the equally daunting task of reconciling their expenses. Among other things, such expenses might involve multi-layered taxes, different tax rates applied to different parts of the same meal, VAT, rules about receipt format and retention, per-diem regulations, data-privacy regulations… oh, and language differences.
Fortunately, today’s expense management solutions and corporate card providers are poised to help. With advanced mobile technology and ever increasing numbers of integrations with other providers, their tools quietly manage the seemingly infinite variety of foreign challenges while providing supreme data visibility for the company, and a minutes-long expense reporting process that pleases travelers.
“It's what is expected,” says Andy Nicholas, vice president and general manager, global business development, international at American Express. “We need to make sure we're listening to the industry, listening to our clients, so we are able to provide technology which allows a high level of client and traveler satisfaction."
Imagine a world where country borders represented language and cultural differences, but nothing more. International trade would flourish in a way we’ve never seen. As it is, time hasn’t done anything to ease the burden of global expense reporting.
But global-forward companies do have a larger range of expense management solutions available to them than they once did, according to Mike Boult, vice president of business travel resources at Travel Leaders. Choosing the right one requires that you have an understanding of what “global” means.
Essentially it means a multitude of different solutions, as many as there are countries, wrapped into one harmonized look and feel. “When we talk about a global deployment,” Boult says, “you really have to squint your eyes and scratch your head and say, ‘Well, yes you can, but each market is quite different. What’s happening in Japan is very different from what’s happening in Jamaica.’”
The best global expense management solutions are built on a strong foundation of knowledge of such differences. Hendrik Vordenbaeumen, vice president of global products at Concur, cites SAP’s expertise in the regulations and process requirements of 130 different countries as a prime benefit of their solution.
“You have to have a global system that makes it easy for you to understand that they have, in Sweden, a mileage rate for snowmobiles, and if you have a dog with you, et cetera,” he says. Or that Mexico requires that all receipts be electronic, and that each state in India has a different harmonized tax rate, as well as all the other subtle but important governmental regulations that differ by country.
SAP’s footprint is huge, but the size of the provider isn’t the main factor. Alan Rich, CEO of Chrome River Technologies, says: “There are two elements of being a global expense solution provider. One is having your software be capable of supporting global companies, and the second is being global yourself.”
Chrome River now offers 24-hour support to all their customers all over the world, with helpdesk resources in Asia, Europe and America. They also regularly answer RFPs in languages other than English, and with every software release they translate each screen into each of the 22 languages in which they operate. As a result, they now count some prominent companies headquartered outside of the US among their customers.
With respect to the software itself, Vordenbaeumen stresses that it should be able to connect seamlessly with local finance systems. "I, as a travel manager, have to make sure that the solution I have is easily working with all the different systems. SAP, Oracle, Quickbooks, whatever systems the company has.”
And the solution should be able to accommodate all kinds of user behavior, too. For example, trips which must be pre-approved – which account for 90 percent of all trips in Singapore – as well as the typical US trip, which is approved and reimbursed afterwards.
In the latter case, “open bookings” – airline or hotel reservations booked outside the company’s travel management company and/or paid for with a personal card – can potentially obscure valuable expense data. Boult says half of all hotel reservations are booked this way, which most often lead to manual entries in the expense report. “I can write anything that isn't standard, and that makes the data unusable.”
This is a tragedy, he explains, because “expense management is the single source, potentially, of the truth.” But there’s an easy way around the problem. Companies can make it policy to not reimburse trips that aren’t booked through preferred channels or paid for with the company card.
Yet another solution is to choose an expense management tool that can standardize data from open bookings. Chrome River’s “e-folio” function extracts relevant details from emailed hotel receipts – in multiple languages, for any hotel – and enters it into the expense report in standardized form. “That's a capability that we think is a real way to help companies deliver a much better user experience,” notes Rich, while also providing them with important expense data.
Two to Tango
While the success of a company’s global expense management program hinges largely on the capabilities of the solution they choose, the other half of the equation – the company’s role – is equally important. And the work begins before the provider even enters the scene.
“You have to first have all the right key stakeholders at the table to assess what the global needs are going to be,” says Anita Salvatore, senior vice president, account management at Corporate Travel Management. Automation, for example, is key for an effective global program. “Eliminating manual processes is critical to provide consistency, efficiency and improved data quality,” she notes.
Companies should also consider payment processes and all that topic encompasses (e.g., merchant fees, currency volatility, alternative payment methods in various countries), as well as whether they’ll want the provider to act as consultant going forward.
Nicholas says many of his clients want American Express to mine their corporate card data and provide insights, though they could conceivably do it themselves. “That is seen as a real differentiator within the sector, based on what we hear from our clients.”
But increasingly, companies are prioritizing a seamless, efficient user experience above other concerns. In recent years, Rich has seen customers’ RFPs switch from a focus on accounting requirements to one that reflects a view of expense reporting as part of a broader digital initiative. “[Customers] care much more about the ability to deliver something the employees will think will make their lives better, versus just a focus on treating this as a financial application that has to meet all the regulatory, compliance requirements that finance cares about,” he explains.
But to realize the kind of user experience they seek, companies can’t lose sight of the goal during roll-out. Too often, says Vordenbauemen, “you decide to implement processes you knew before,” even with a new solution.
The result might be trainings on the new tool which fail to highlight the features travelers desire most, even though these features are present and functional. (Sometimes employees don’t use mobile expense reporting simply because they don’t know they can, for example.)
Or the company might ask that travelers use the new tool in old, sub-optimal ways. Vordenbaumen has worked with companies who asked their employees to manually enter 10 superfluous fields of data for each expense item, on top of the eight automatically populated ones. No surprise – travelers gave the tool predictably terrible reviews.
“Take data which is there,” he advises, “but don't have employees enter data which you don't even use, because manually entered addresses of a Starbuck’s coffee shop is really nothing you can or want to report on.” Boult agrees, and says “free-form kills every program.”
And in terms of training, Salvatore says adding an in-person element can help. “Sometimes you need that one-on-one interaction from HR or finance. What we see with the more successful roll-outs is when there's that combination approach,” – videos, links and live human beings.
“You don't want a system that's going to require a whole bunch of training, three hours for each of 10,000 employees,” Boult cautions. “You want it to be intuitive.” But Salvatore insists that even for an intuitive system, targeted, instructor-led trainings that effectively communicate the new tool’s functions – and their value to the traveler – are worth the investment.
To someone unfamiliar with the old-timey version of expense reporting – back in the day, when it took hours to fill out a report, complete with handwriting and stapled receipts – it might seem odd to pair the words “exciting” and “expense reporting” together. But to those of us who remember, it makes sense.
And it’s true: The way technology has changed expense reporting is exciting. The baseline performance of expense management solutions on the market today is so high, companies have come to expect features that would have sounded absurd 15 years ago.
In terms of differentiators, it might not be whether, but to what degree solutions use recent technology advancements to deliver the best experience (for the traveler) and the best data (for the company). Obviously, says Salvatore, “mobile has been the single greatest thing to hit this picture.” And Rich points out that the capabilities of OCR (optical character recognition) to extract data from receipt images snapped with a mobile device continues to evolve and improve.
But the continued development of APIs, programming interfaces that let companies talk to each other, is another change impacting this space. Rich says APIs – once too time consuming and expensive to build – are now becoming standard. They enable Uber and Lyft to automatically send their receipts to Chrome River, for example, and make it possible for an online booking tool to display the status of an expense report.
Going forward, expect to see advancements in artificial intelligence. So far in expense management, Boult says, “nothing really has been deployed, or if it has been deployed it's on a very limited, beta basis. But it will come.”
And according to Vordenbauemen, blockchain – a decentralized database of digital transactions involving cryptocurrencies like bitcoin – could spell the end of credit cards in the near future. "Nobody really knows what it is exactly, but it will change how you pay,” he explains. “Over the next two years, it's coming.”
Salvatore adds that blockchain transactions are more secure, plus it allows companies to exchange goods and services at cost. “Digital payments – now that is going to be a real game changer.”
But Nicholas says the questions asked of providers will stay the same. “How do you service your clients? How do you service the corporation, how do you service their travelers?”
That’s because there’s more going on in travel than bits and bytes and dollars and cents. “Travel is emotive,” Nicholas says. “People want to be utilizing products which are meaningful, which are secure, which are delivering service as one would expect, whether that's an airline providing a service or a card issuer.”
No doubt these desires will shape tomorrow’s T&E tools in ways we’ve only started to imagine.
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