Mobile devices and technology have virtually saturated our everyday lives as general consumers. Sure, we all probably have that one friend who still uses a flip phone to be ironic, but most of us find our lives inextricably intertwined with our mobile devices.

Corporate travelers are consumers too, and even more dependent on mobile solutions than most typical stay-at-home users. But for the travel programs that oversee this business, mobile is still not quite as ubiquitous as it is in the consumer world.

Expense Management

That’s why in a world where there’s a mobile app for every conceivable challenge, travelers and travel managers alike are expecting the same hands-off, take-along experience from their expense software. It’s a tall order for a process that is inherently complex, but even as mobile technology creates the demand, it may well also provide the solution.

“There’s no good reason not to adopt mobile expense reporting, and increasingly employees expect it,” says A.G. Lambert, SAP Concur senior vice president, spend, data and analytics. “Beyond travel and expense, many corporations have lower adoption of mobile technologies compared to consumers, particularly if the employee base is primarily knowledge workers with a computer. For travel and expense, native mobile applications are crucial for productivity, and companies need to more aggressively incorporate mobile into their travel and expense programs.”

Lambert added that Concur’s own mobile app has seen high rates of adoption and has “millions of monthly users.”

Travel buyers, of course, need to make sure the necessary controls and security protocols are in place when incorporating mobile technology. According to George Roscoe, head of product, expense at Serko, if there is resistance to using mobile at a corporate level, it might be due to concerns over cost, security, or company control in a "bring your own mobile device" scenario.

“An expense reporting automation solution should be a given for organizations above a certain size, where the business accounting and regulatory or tax authority make it a necessity,” Roscoe advises. “If one accepts that premise, then mobile is just another way to gain access to the expense reporting solution.”

In January six familiar names in the expense and AP automation field – Abacus, Captio, Certify, Chrome River, Nexonia, and Tallie – announced the formation of Emburse, a portfolio of expense management, travel and AP automation software offerings. The goal, according to Eric Friedrichsen, the new company’s CEO, is to “share key technologies – such as real-time expenses, sophisticated data capture and extraction, and deep integrations with corporate cards – across the different solutions.”

Omar Qari, head of corporate strategy and business development at Emburse, says that about 45 percent of companies still used manual expense processes, and that this number continues to shrink each year.

“In my experience it’s more the smaller companies that continue to use spreadsheets,” he says. “Either they don’t view it as enough of a timesuck for business travelers and administrators to merit deploying an automated system, or they look at some of the well-known solutions available and think that the system is too sophisticated for their needs.”

Qari adds there are a wide range of expense automation solutions on the market today, and many of them are tailored for specific types of organizations in mind, even those small companies or start-ups with just a handful of employees. “Almost every solution has a mobile app,” he says. “And with a workforce that now expects to be able to do everything from the palm of their hand, there really isn’t any excuse for any company not to deploy mobile-optimized expense management technology to their employees, regardless of their size.”

Indeed, according to a survey from travel technology firm Travelport, customers are increasingly moving towards self-service options, with 55 percent of those surveyed preferring to hear about travel disruption via digital communications rather than speak with a person on the phone. The report notes this is especially important when it comes to Gen Z, the future business traveler, and managing their high expectations through technology.

The report further states that so-called “super apps,” such as WeChat, that have arisen from Asia will continue to influence the mobile expectations of travelers in the West. “Travel brands that want to deliver holistic mobile customer experiences need to think about how they engage travelers within these super apps as well as in their own mobile channels,” the report found.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to mobile experience in the corporate sector is still the inconsistency of mobile policies as well as device infrastructure, notes Kurt Knackstedt, CEO of Troovo.

“Although it’s come a long way over the past several years, there is still a wide variety of approaches that companies use to not only equip their employees with devices – or not, as it may be – but also how the usage of the device is governed,” Knackstedt says. “We still have a mix of approaches out there, from company-supplied and company-paid to personal-supplied and company-paid to personal-supplied and personal-paid and reimbursed, and so forth.”

Also, he adds, with global companies there are often inconsistencies from country to country around devices, operating systems, whether the downloading of apps is allowed and other factors.

“Adding to this complexity are the nuances of operating systems and user experience factors,” Knackstedt cautions. “For example, to ‘app or not to app,’ in that should mobile products deploy their solutions via traditional apps – and all the App Store/Play Store rules and regulations that go along with it – or should you just use responsive HTML sites that work in any mobile browser? As clever and powerful as devices have become, they still tend to be highly consumer-centric in how they are developed, deployed and managed, which will continue to cause headaches for corporate utilization and adoption.”

The Paper Chase 
One of the biggest headaches in mobile expenses right now is dealing with receipts. Many companies are still using paper receipts, which can lead to manual – and thus, inefficient – processes.

“Receipts may or may not be the biggest challenge; however, receipts are key proof that an expense was valid, according to the organization’s policy and a requirement based on that country’s tax laws,” says Roscoe. “To be most flexible for our clients, we support receipt submission via every method possible including fax, e-mail, scan, and of course, via mobile upload. In addition, all attached documentation is processed by optical character recognition and, by leveraging machine learning, we can reduce what claimants are required to enter manually to compete an expense item.”

The good news, Roscoe says, is that much of the world is moving away from paper receipts, “or is at least more accepting of electronic receipts for travel and entertainment expenses, so the process is getting more efficient and more digital.”

Lambert notes that an abundance of paper receipts can impose not only a productivity toll, but an environmental cost as well from dealing with so much paper. These are among the reasons for the continued move towards digital payments, he says.

“In 2020, we will see a significant increase in the number of digital receipts provided by suppliers,” Lambert predicts. “China is moving toward a more cashless society. Japan is moving to change laws requiring paper receipts for reimbursable transactions, allowing transaction data to count instead. Mexico has already made that change, and many other countries will follow, including Spain, France, Italy, Germany and Brazil. Employees will benefit, as receipt data floats more easily into expense reports, eliminating frustrations about lost receipts and helping employees get reimbursed faster.”

He also notes that to increase transparency, expense management tools should go beyond process automation, and use artificial intelligence and machine learning to reimagine common booking and workflow scenarios to streamline the expense reporting process.

In addtion, as Serko’s Roscoe puts it, “Real transparency comes from providing an expense automation solution that allows a client to flexibly analyze their expense data, identify problem areas and optimize expense policies.”

What Lies Ahead? 
With the rapid pace of technology innovation and change currently underway, it’s likely we will see even more movement in the mobile and digital spaces. What might 2020 and beyond hold for the business travel industry in this regard?

The mobile experience will continue to become more integrated and automated. “We aren’t too far away from completely real-time, zero-touch expense submission and processing,” according to Emburse’s Qari.

“I think we will continue to see more and more examples of solutions which can be managed entirely on a phone,” he adds. “Virtual cards, stored in mobile wallet apps, can be used to pay for items without the employee needing to present a physical card.”

Furthermore, Qari says receipts will either be transmitted electronically or e-mailed direct to the employee, or in the case of a paper receipt, the user will be prompted to capture an image as soon as the transaction takes place.

“The expense system will then automatically match and merge the receipt and the card transaction data, verify it’s within policy, and then automatically submit the expense,” he says. “An in-policy expense can then be automatically approved, and if the employee’s own card is used, a reimbursement can be processed almost immediately. All of this can happen with no human intervention for a completely frictionless process. It’s really quite exciting.”

Knackstedt forecasts another big trend is central billing of more and more of an individual’s travel spend, and mobile will play a significant role in this. “The more companies utilize central billing – preferably with virtual payment solutions – the more visibility they will have into what travelers and employees are spending money on,” according to the Troovo CEO.

“If companies continue to rely on individuals submitting expenses after money has been spent, companies will never get ahead of the curve. More centralized billing with instant reporting into what’s being bought will help spend management become more pro-active than reactive. I see expense management becoming more of the exception rather than the rule over the next two to three years, where best practice should be that companies only need to submit expense reports five to ten percent of the time as everything else is centrally billed with total visibility.”

Knackstedt further predicts since the ability to generate a virtual card on the fly comes with corporate policy already built into the card generation and request process, over the next several years at least half of all frequent travelers will be using their mobile for card payments rather than traditional plastic.

Ultimately, the continued rise of mobile and digital technologies will lead to a more customized and integrated experience, Roscoe maintains. “For 2020, we see a continued drive toward simplification for the traveler through personalization from known preferences, historical information and relevant suggestions based on predictive analytics,” he says. “Additionally, we see the traveler as ‘connected’ and we look to enhance their experience during every step of their journey.”