Shred the Spreadsheet: Harnessing Tech to Tame Travel and Expenses

By Jeannie Griffin, VP of Product & Technology Services, BCD Meetings & Events

Jeannie Griffin, VP of Product & Technology Services, BCD Meetings & Events

Sales road warriors lament lag time for travel expense reimbursement. Conference panelists bristle while navigating third-party payment systems. Managers spend frustrated hours returning incomplete or incorrect expense reports to employees. They sift through endless spreadsheets for the precise data and measurements to figure out cost-savings and efficiency.

Technology can help. Yet few companies are incorporating travel and expense management software designed to save time and money.

As many as a third of businesses remain tethered to spreadsheets and number-crunching manual labor. These clunky steps make it nearly impossible to gather forest-for-the-trees perspective on policy and practice gaps within companies.

Gaining this perspective is important. Global travel are costs expected to climb four percent this year. Businesses are pressured to cut costs wherever possible and the ability to manage data is key.

Though many companies are leery of travel and expenditure automation, some products are more attractive than others. Take virtual credit cards for instance. Convenient for employers and employees, these on-demand cards offer red-tape-free spending and zero wait time for reimbursement. An added plus: company control over spending thresholds, purchasing categories, even eligible suppliers and merchants. We’re also seeing a trend to move virtual cards to blockchain for a further record of truth.

"The travel and expense management solutions industry is still relatively new and still evolving"

So, if companies are willing to adopt some travel and expenditure technology, why aren’t more pursuing automated tracking and reporting?

One obstacle is the enduring hope for a panacea—one simple solution that addresses every issue: different cases for expenses, options for employees and non-employees, a diversity of user profiles, etc. Companies differ in their travel and expenditure management needs depending on size, scope, and maturity. For instance, one company may require an enterprise system for consistency and access to data while another may already track metrics but now want to focus on payment turnaround time (or how often expense reports are returned to sender because of insufficient or incorrect information).

Most automation options out today only allow for a single user profile and are hampered by systems with more than 100,000 users, among other constraints.

Software limitations are real, but in our experience, it’s organizational obstacles that prove the most difficulty.

Like change management, it’s never easy (or fun) to spur large groups of users to adopt new processes. The challenge is particularly arduous for back-end support teams that process payments, conduct compliance audits and are called upon to support each new policy and procedure. It’s putting it gently to say friction results when teams are asked to embrace completely new workflows and data elements, especially when, at the same time, their systems and roles may be upturned.

When combining the uncertainty of institutional change with the lack of a single all-encompassing solution, it’s impressive that some companies do adopt travel and expenditure automation software at all.

Clients with whom we work—companies small and large who make the transition—cite several advantages, such as gathering better data and ability to react more quickly. Where spreadsheets and regional products don’t provide insight into user behavior, a central way of processing helps identify where and why employees have trouble understanding expense policies. When companies can see this information, they can tweak policy and roll out training to address those issues.

Automated travel and expense management products can help employees report more clearly and efficiently, in real time, wherever they are traveling. CIOs can offer solutions to provide staff with clear parameters on policies and procedures; show other department heads how to track hotel and transportation rates for cost-savings. Data is clear and nimble so managers can make adjustments for employees vs. non-employees and account for an array of currencies and per diems. Robust software analysis tools enable companies to compare overall company expenditure trends over time as well as track trends for an individual employee.

Software not only grants a greater wealth of information, it also enables strategic analysis and planning necessary for a cost-efficient organization.

With new and emerging travel and expense management solutions, bright and shiny promises are distracting. CIOs must stay connected to organizational priorities: focus on hot-button issues while keeping an eye on longer-term goals. Perhaps the firm’s most urgent need is quicker reimbursements for its international sales team. If the company is growing or globalizing, longer-term needs must be considered as well. Invest the time upfront to identify most pressing and anticipated needs and priorities, then compare this list to available products. Which platform’s bells and whistles are helpful; which are nice-to-have but not adding value? Are the most fundamental issues being addressed? Strong contenders are out there, with more reaching market all the time. We have yet to see the ‘one’ software product that meets every need of every company—CIOs should know this and choose their partners wisely.

What about suppliers in the travel expense management space? As with any business solution, vendors trying to tap a promising market must first assess the landscape to find the gaps. What frustrates CIOs most about managing travel and expenditures? Which needs are not currently being met or are met insufficiently by existing automation products? Maybe it’s a vertical feature set or new user personas. Once that unique set of needs is identified, vendors can develop targeted capabilities that are more meaningful to CIOs.

With a flurry of new travel and expense management products emerging, CIOs are confused about which is right for them. They may feel overwhelmed by options and daunted by organizational hesitancy to shred the spreadsheets. The travel and expense management solutions industry is still relatively new and still evolving. Shrewd software developers are listening to CIOs, fine-tuning products to more precisely meet needs. It’s an investment with an exciting ROI. With a thoughtful analysis of priorities at the start, CIOs can find the right product—one that will save countless hours, dollars and headaches.

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