Expense Automation and Mobile AI: Time to Embrace a New Norm

I recently visited the head of sales at a retail company and had just shown him the machine learning receipt capture technology on the SAP Concur mobile app. What he said surprised me. He was struggling to see the benefit their team would gain as they would still need to take pictures of receipts at the end of their trip and put together the claim the same way they typically did in a spreadsheet.

That’s when I realised that their existing process was so engrained that he couldn’t see the fundamental shift in process and behavior that the mobile AI technology would afford them. Once we explained that the expense claim would build itself as they travelled, you could see from his reaction that the possibilities of what this meant hit home – no more compiling expenses at the end of a trip, no more retaining paper receipts, and most importantly every traveler would save hours of time per month. To quote a real-life example of this, one of our clients (PoHwer) saw a reduction in compiling claims from 3-4 hours per month to just 30 minutes for their claimants.


When post-trip claims are the norm

In a way it’s not a surprise that the head of sales had jumped to that conclusion. With a manual, paper-based process, mobile technology hardly comes into the picture. Compiling expenses and receipts at the end of the trip rather than on-the-go is the norm. It would take a significant shift in mindset to convince finance that expenses can be gathered and claimed on-the-go, rather than at the end.

What is surprising is that from a UK perspective, we are a mobile nation. Smartphone usage is near universal, growing from 52% in 2012 to 87% in 2018 according to a Deloitte Global Mobile Consumer Survey in 2018.

While automating your expense process creates a welcome shift to a mobile-first approach, we still see businesses stubbornly try and replicate their existing ways of working, forgetting that the shift to automation affords the opportunity to take a fresh look at the process as whole and question the "norm."


When trust doesn’t cut the mustard

A good example of this is when we look at compliance to company travel and expense (T&E) policies. I can’t count the number of times I have heard “we operate on a trust basis” when I’ve asked whether they have a policy they’d like to apply. I’m not for one minute saying that employee trust is a bad thing, but when a recent study found that one in five employees thinks it’s okay to exaggerate expense claims, does it make sense to operate without spend guidelines for employees?

SAP Concur provides the ability to set-up both soft and hard stops for expenses that trigger policy infringements, but that doesn’t mean that expense automation has to mean a step away from trusting employees. It can be a force for positive change, giving businesses better visibility and control into employee spend and educating employees as to what’s deemed acceptable.


When claims aren’t scrutinized

With a manual, paper process it’s often necessary to have stringent approval workflows in place. Some of the workflows companies have in place are unbelievably complex. But if you consider why this is the case, it’s usually because the approval stage is seen as the safety-net to compensate for the shortfalls in the process as a whole. High-value expenses, visibility into expenses relating to client or project work, out-of-policy spend: These are often the points that approvers are expected to be checking and catching.

The interesting thing is that research suggests fewer than 1% of employee expense claims are ever rejected by an expense approver. When shifting to a more automated approach it should be questioned whether so many of these checks need to occur. What if the technology built in the controls around policy and spend limits prior to submission? And what if you could create reports which highlight spend that has been allocated to relevant project or clients?

By shifting to this mindset, businesses we engage with often see the opportunity to simplify traditionally complex workflows without losing any of the visibility and control they need.


An open mind and willingness to change

These are just a few points for consideration around how expense automation can help redefine a new process. In my experience the most successful expense automation projects occur with businesses that go in with an open mind and a willingness to accept that their historical way of doing things isn’t necessarily the best way. Interestingly, 95% of CFOs consider cloud-based applications as critically or very important to successful financial performance. Expense automation provides the chance to adopt a new and improved way of working. The mentality of ‘this is how it’s always been done’ when reviewing the process will often restrict success and return on investment from the project.

If you are reviewing your current process, my advice would be to listen to how other businesses have successfully automated their processes and embrace the adoption of a new norm. Take a look at all of our customer success stories here, and watch the video below to hear how SAP Concur solutions helped The George Washington University move from a paper-based to an automated expense process.


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