More than ever, artificial intelligence is taking business travelers out of the expense management equation
Smartphones have become such an indispensable tool, in our personal lives and in business, it’s hard to believe they’ve only existed for 10 years. But the smartphone has its limits.
Or it should have, according to some business travelers.
This group finds snapping photos of receipts and typing expense details into a mobile phone at least as painful as the traditional paper process, and in some ways even more. But others disagree. As proof, consider that up to 80 percent of Expensify’s user base uses the mobile app exclusively, even when they have access to a desktop web app.
David Barrett, who is CEO and founder of the expense management company, explains the paradox this way: robots can manage expenses better than people can – faster, more accurately and almost invisibly. But instead of using them to their full advantage, some providers have only digitized the old paper process and moved it to a smartphone. And “the paper itself was never the problem,” says Barrett. “It was the steps involved in the process.”Fat Fingers, Skinny Screen
Most of us don’t have to go far back into memory – or stretch the imagination – to confirm that the steps involved in that process are indeed problematic:
Step 1: incur an expense. Step 2: get the receipt and stash it. Steps 3 through 33: Repeat. Steps 34 through 200: sort through and manually enter into a spreadsheet a host of trivial details about each expense. Step 201: submit the report and pray you didn’t make a mistake that will reset the process from the beginning.
“You save up a bunch of receipts until you just can’t handle it anymore, or someone’s yelling at me and I’ll finally do the work,” Barrett says. “You just accumulate dread until the breaking point.” Unfortunately, the advent of expense reporting software hasn’t completely replaced “accumulated dread.”
Some providers require the same steps as before, only instead of taping receipts onto paper and typing data into a spreadsheet, the traveler takes photos of receipts, attaches them to a report electronically, and types data into a web app on a computer – or worse, into an app crowded onto a smartphone screen.
Of course, for e-mail and calendar access, a smartphone is an essential business travel accessory. But manual data entry? Not so much. Most fingers are bigger than the buttons on a smartphone, says John Morhous, chief strategy officer, Flight Centre Travel Group at FCM Travel, so typos and frustration are inevitable. What’s more, he points out, “most [mobile expense apps] want me to do the full data entry now. You can’t even complete the expense until you’ve filled out all the fields,” which takes more time than most busy travelers have to spend.
Bob Neveu, CEO and co-founder of Certify, says the inherently limited viewing window on a mobile phone means that providers either have to shrink the buttons so no one can see them, or leave important ones out. In fact, many mobile apps – though they capture initial expense data well – have been built with the expectation that travelers will eventually log into a web app on a computer to round out and finally submit the report. “I would agree that most systems do not allow the user to create an expense report from their mobile app intuitively,” he advises, so maybe travelers shouldn’t try to use them that way.Robots Can Help – Let Them
So mobile expense reporting isn’t necessarily the stress-free experience business travelers hoped it would be. But according to Barrett and Neveu, it doesn’t have to be unpleasant. It just depends on the tool’s receipt scanning function.
According to Barrett, perfect accuracy receipt scanning lets travelers “take a photo of the receipt, put the phone back, and never think about that receipt again.” In fact, he claims Expensify’s scanning is so reliable – automatically coding data from a receipt photo or e-mailed receipt, and categorizing it according to the accountant’s preferences – travelers don’t even need to verify the results.
This feature not only saves travelers time; it saves the company their errors. “The classic process forces you to deal with a bunch of details you just don’t care about,” he says. “Thus, you do them wrong, and it’s terrible for everyone involved.”
But for a truly user-friendly experience, automation must continue even after receipts have been scanned. In other words, the tool should know the reason you scanned all those receipts in the first place. “Of course you want to make an expense report,” says Barrett. “Why else would you do it? Why ask you to do all this work and reaffirm what’s obvious?”
Neveu agrees, adding, “I think companies know a lot about their customers’ use patterns, and they can make successful assumptions for their customers, but they choose not to.” As a result, the customer must answer a multitude of questions, such as, “Do you want to build an expense report?” or “Would you like to attach a receipt?” over and over again.
But Certify expense and Expensify don’t ask those questions. Both automatically match receipts to credit card charges, and put expenses into reports based on a pre-specified date range. Then the tool either prompts the traveler to review and submit the report (Certify), or submits it automatically (Expensify).Approaching Perfection?
Building this kind of functionality into Certify was a no-brainer, Neveu says. “Your users will tell you [what they want],” he explains. “All you have to do is listen and say, ‘let’s go build it.’” Which is not to say that building it is easy. Neveu says making software that’s incredibly easy and intuitive to use is actually very hard. So it makes sense that not all providers have achieved this goal.
“They all have aspects of it, but I don’t think any of them do it all yet,” says Nicole Wilcock, senior director, global implementation and client technology at Radius Travel. And Dave Lukas, vice president and co-owner of Grasp Technologies, concurs. “No one has nailed it on all fronts yet,” he says. “No solution is perfect.”
According to Torsten Kriedt, vice president of product strategy and innovation, BCD Travel, this is the root of traveler dissatisfaction. They want a tool that literally does it all: one that manages their expenses accurately and in a timely way, and does it without their input or review.
And Kriedt sympathizes. “If they’re traveling on behalf of the company and it’s all within policy, booked through the right channel, and the company has a virtual card program, why wouldn’t they use an invisible process?” he asks. “That’s what the travelers really want.”
This kind of next level solution, as Lukas calls it, doesn’t exist yet except in pockets. But it might eventually entail a direct settlement arrangement between the company and frequently used vendors. Kriedt points out that the company could save money by skipping payment intermediaries, and suggests ride-sharing apps as a potential model.
“Think about that,” he says, “how invisible the payment is for all parties. Which payment vehicle is used doesn’t matter to anyone in the transaction, as long as it’s a bona-fide payment system.”Overcoming Resistance
While we wait for payment technology to catch up to travelers’ dreams, companies can still improve their lives significantly. Today’s full-featured mobile expense management tools will give them back precious hours. But without the right kind of support from the provider and the company, traveler resistance can make adoption and compliance elusive.
Some people have spent too much time in the App Store already, and are reluctant to download yet another one just to handle their expense management. “App fatigue is out there,” says Lukas. “People have too many, and are breaking away from this need to download everything. They want their lives back.”
But app fatigue probably doesn’t explain it all. Many older travelers, most of whom might have had an assistant to process expenses for them just a few years ago, are now expected to manage it themselves. “They tend to be less comfortable (or don’t trust) the automated process,” notes Wilcock. “Instead, they diligently collect their paper receipts, stick them in an envelope, and bring them home to work on them manually.”
For some in this generation, the idea of robots processing their expenses without their involvement might also be cringe-worthy. “They find it a bit creepy that their app already knows where they’ve been and are taking receipts from their e-mail. There’s something Big Brother about it,” she explains.
Regardless of the cause, resistance and poor user adoption can negate the value of any advanced technology. And the only way to combat pushback to adoption is with regular and frequent communication, especially in the beginning. Users need to hear about the roll-out schedule, how to use the tool, and the benefits for travelers and company alike.
That’s why new Certify customers receive guidance on how to approach communication about the system, as well as auto-responder e-mails from Certify to all users introducing the tool’s features. And to get around spam filters, Certify includes an e-mail template to be sent from the company’s accounting department, too.
“They can do whatever they want, it’s their business,” says Neveu. “But we say, ‘Here’s what we recommend. Here’s the cadence and the messaging. Make it yours, but make sure you do a good job so everyone comes over and you’re getting full compliance.’”
The first 90 days are the key, Neveu warns, that will determine whether a company will keep the system long-term or disconnect (a loss for the provider and the company). He adds a solid communication plan improves adoption and compliance considerably.
Wilcock says change management is crucial, too. “You’ve got to convince people by having the ‘What’s in it for me?’ and ‘What’s in it for the company?’ conversation. With any tech roll-out, it’s about meeting those two requirements.” And it should be an enterprise-wide effort, she adds, with finance, HR, corporate security and procurement on board. “So when someone joins the company, they know that ‘This is how we do things here and here’s where I go when something goes wrong.”
Finally, Wilcock says candor will help ensure a successful roll-out. In addition to sharing positive feedback from people using the app, companies should discuss the inevitable growing pains. “It’s important to be transparent about how change is always painful,” she says, “but it’s worth the pain to get where we need to be.”
Just remember to adapt the messages for your audience, which includes different groups of stakeholders who will use the technology in different ways. For example, says Wilcock, “Bookers who are in an office all the time and don’t travel are going to need a different ‘carrot,’ for lack of a better term, than the road warriors.”