It’s amazing. The app store has only been around for a decade, and yet few of us can imagine life without it. Are there automated tools that will help you manage the most pressing problems you face today? Definitely. Do you even have room on your phone for them? Maybe not.

If this is the standard in our personal lives – a mobile app for every conceivable challenge – it’s no wonder travelers and travel managers expect the world from their expense software, too. One that provides a hands-off, seamless experience for the traveler, perfect compliance and spend visibility for the travel manager,  and happy finance types to boot.

It’s a tall order for a process that is inherently complex – including elements like approval workflows, reimbursement accounts, figuring out which expenses can be approved automatically and which can’t, and categorizing and coding receipts.

Expense Management

Which is not to say providers haven’t made significant progress toward the ideal solution, one that can handle global business requirements with ease and thrill end users at the same time.

But even the most advanced technology can’t do it all. To reap the full benefits, travel managers must play an active role from the start – from shopping for a new solution to planning its implementation. In fact, as Barbara Doane, director of product marketing at Chrome River says, “It’s that larger picture of overall operational efficiency that provides the high customer satisfaction travel managers really want.  They want visibility into their data and they want happy employees.”

Look How Far We’ve Come 
Consider for a moment fond memories of the good ol’ days, like when a paper-based expense reporting process was all there was in your arsenal of tools. The pain of using Excel, paper, tape and precious hours to process expenses was (and is) the perfect inspiration for technology providers to roll out software to help.

And to the rescue they came. According to David Barrett, CEO of Expensify, within the last five years, all expense management companies have introduced a mobile component, though their functionality does differ.

The best solutions do three things really well, says Kurt Knackstedt, CEO of Troovo: They auto-fill expense fields from receipts captured via photo, automatically match receipts with credit card charges, and provide an easy-to-use backend for the finance team. Between the old, manual process and most any software on the market today, there’s just no contest.

“The technology to make it easy for the traveler does exist,” notes Knackstedt, “and it can be easily adapted to give the finance folks what they need.” So ideally, he says, travel managers should embrace it with open arms.

And the technology itself only continues to improve. For example, providers like SAP Concur have now begun to leverage machine learning to essentially “read” a receipt photo.

According to Deepak Seth, vice president mobile products, SAP Concur, this technology can decipher handwriting, translate different languages, and determine the location and vendor even when that information isn’t on the receipt. That’s one step beyond the optical character recognition technology used in many mobile apps today.

And more and more merchants are supplying data than even three years ago, resulting in vastly improved credit card data being fed to the expense provider. “The credit card data feed that providers rely on continues to get deeper and richer, giving us more data elements and better level three data,” explains Bob Neveu, CEO of Certify.

Itemized hotel charges, for example (meals, Internet charges, various international taxes) are starting to come through in the credit card files, a major time saver for travelers. Apparently not all expense providers take advantage of this capability (unless their customers ask for it), but Certify does, Neveu says.

Diane Laschet, president and CEO of AirPlus International, agrees. “Progress is made when travel suppliers work together to provide solutions for corporates and their travelers,” she says.

So what’s the upshot?  The technology is there. Use it.

“There is no reason that companies shouldn't be using one of these tools,” advises Ed Silver, CTO of FCM Travel Solutions, “Especially if it ties into their travel system, and especially if it can ingest their credit card data. So, absolutely. Put them to use as a part of your process.”

Always Room for Improvement 
Even if expense reporting is much less tedious today than it was 10 years ago in large part due to advanced mobile technology, no one’s making the argument that it’s all completely painless. Antoine Boatwright, global innovation director, Reed & Mackay, notes that “mobile expense solutions just aren’t there yet. Travelers want better navigation and fewer fields to complete – an experience optimized for a mobile platform.”

And this makes sense. Despite its popularity among everyone under 35, typing on a phone gets old fast – faster if your hands aren’t child-sized. What’s more, notes Boatwright, “Invoices are often e-mailed, which causes a headache when mobile expense tools are optimized for taking images of receipts.” In this case two additional steps are required; capturing, then uploading an image.

Boatwright looks forward to a time when expense providers embrace the full potential of machine learning technology that’s already available today. When that happens – what Silver calls AI-powered contextualization – it’ll be fantastic.

“How much information does my mobile phone know about a trip?” Silver asks. “It knows the name of the conference. It knows when the conference starts and ends. So when I go and get a cup of coffee and take a picture of that coffee, I shouldn't have to say what that expense is for.  I shouldn't have to tell it what conference to attach it to. I shouldn't have to give it a reason code. And in many cases, I shouldn't even have to keep the receipt, especially if I've used a mobile pay option that's tied to my corporate card.”

Right now, though, Silver agrees that mobile expense management has a long way to go, both in terms of meeting the needs of global companies and even just those of the power user. Many travelers and travel managers are looking forward to the Holy Grail: “An expense report that writes itself,” says Seth.

But to get there travel managers must play an active role.

For example, says Knackstedt, they should seek out automated options everywhere they exist, especially in payment technology. “These one-time virtual cards are fantastic for not just air and hotel, but even for car rental, meetings and events, and transaction fees paid to the travel agency,” he says. “They can all be centrally billed now and that is a big boost in productivity.”

While we wait for merchants in North America to catch up, service providers like Uber and Expedia are doing their part by integrating their systems with automated expense tools. “And that makes a huge difference,” says Grafton. “When the suppliers can simplify the documentation and receipts,” they improve their customers’ lives.

We’re All In This Together
The pace of progress in technology is incredible, and mobile tools will continue to improve expense reporting for everyone involved – travelers, travel managers and finance departments. But travel managers must be wary of how their companies’ approach to the process could actually prevent, rather than encourage, the optimal user experience they seek.

First, travel managers must consider how much human interaction they really want and need. Case in point: Neveu often hears companies say, “‘You know what? That technology is really cool. And I still want my user to put in the data because I don't want an artificial intelligence thing to get it wrong or to have the user say no, the system was wrong.’”

So maybe we’re just not quite as ready for full automation as we think we are. “We may be at some point in the future, and boy, wouldn't it be great,” Neveu adds. But right now, the concept hasn’t taken hold in practice (as reflected in client adoption rates for advanced technology that already exists).

The travel policy itself is another potential hazard. For some companies, it’s a legacy document left over from a time when technology didn’t exist to capture the data. So travelers had to do it themselves, and in an incredibly detailed way – itemizing hotel bills down to the continental breakfast. Because, says Knackstedt, “to be frank, a lot of companies didn't trust travelers.”

But travel policies don’t have to be treated as static (though they often are). According to Knackstedt, many of “those 85-page policies are starting to evolve into ones that are built more around trusting travelers, with just enough documentation to support them.”

And maybe most importantly, Doane stresses, a robust expense process begins with mindful implementation. “The main thing when you're implementing a new expense management solution is that you really look at your travel policies and determine why you're doing things,” she says. “Are you doing it because that's the way it's always been done, or are you doing it because that's what you need to really grow your business? What are all the different scenarios you want to cover?

In this way, challenges like receipt rules, that vary by country, international taxes, currency exchange, etc., can be managed proactively and ultimately more effectively. “You can custom design the systems to meet those needs for you and it's all conveniently automated,” Doane adds. “And then with the ability to really own those business rules yourself, you can make changes as your business grows and your business needs change.”

Finally, Barrett cautions, don’t forget about end user adoption. “Great technology isn’t enough. Employees must be willing to actually use the app for the expense tool to be effective,” he says. “The big mistake companies make is picking a solution that no one likes and no one will use.”

The best way to avoid problems is to sign up for free trials, and have your heavy travelers test it before rolling out a new tool company-wide.