International business travel has become the sine qua non for businesses large and small. What was once perhaps just the purview of high-ranking employees at Fortune 500 giants is now a regular feature of the competitive landscape for mid-sized companies and even small enterprises. Employees of all different stripes now have taken to traveling the globe.

But with that increase in global business travel comes additional considerations for both travel buyers and finance departments. Companies now need solutions that can reconcile travel expenses on a worldwide scale – solutions that can manage foreign requirements, provide data visibility and address many of the problems that have long plagued global travelers. Ultimately, businesses need global expense policies and tools that make things smoother and easier; for the traveler, the travel manager and the back office.

Expense Management

“Language and multiple currency capabilities are obviously critical for global travel, especially for companies with multilingual employees – as is overall uptime,” says Bob Neveu, CEO of Certify, Inc./Chrome River.

Support lines for international travelers are critical as well, Neveu adds. “In-person, real-time support is extremely important for international travelers, particularly those who are traveling in countries or regions which may be known to have security issues, or are prone to natural disasters,” he says. “This provides peace of mind not only to the travelers themselves, but also to their employers.”

In addition, companies need basic capabilities like ensuring they meet all the regulatory requirements regarding personal and financial data for any region of the world where they operate, notes Tony D’Astolfo, senior vice president, North America at Serko.

“You also need to do the due diligence on the security, reliability and performance side,” he adds. “Those are givens. Beyond that you need to consider the requirements of the expense filers, approvers and accounts payable users in each region.”

As D’Astolfo notes, when sourcing an expense tool it’s hard to take a ‘one size fits all’ approach. “Knowing your stakeholders and trying to find something that will work for all is key,” he advises. “Historically, the sourcing for expense has focused on the finance side, or has been part of a bigger ERP initiative, which could lead to a lack of alignment when it comes to those who will actually use the system most, which are the actual filers and the accounts payable teams.”

In general, expense solutions should focus on making things as easy as possible for the business traveler from an operational perspective, and this is especially true for those who travel internationally.

“International travel is becoming more and more common in business and it can be tiring and draining. Employees don’t want to come home from an international trip and then spend hours going through receipts and doing their expenses,” says Puneet Lath, product and expense coach lead at Expensify.

Lath adds that for the best results and adoption of expense tools, companies should let employees be flexible and choose something that works for them, rather than forcing one uniform system on every business traveler.

“Don’t choose for them, but rather let them choose for you,” he cautions. In their personal lives these employees “all have smartphones and apps that they download; let them choose something they like. The best way to make the process smooth is to offer something employees are happy to comply with, using an easy-to-follow process and intuitive tools.”

[bf] Integration End-to-End [end bf]
When it comes to aligning the business travel expenses with approvals and back office functions, there are also tools that can facilitate the process. One of the best ways to streamline the whole system for all parties is to look at how a company integrates its payment methods with its booking and expense tools, says Diane Laschet, president and CEO of Airplus International.

“With integration, booking and expense reporting will take less time as payment integration allows expenses to automatically populate into the expense tool,” she explains. “By starting with the payment side, you make paying for travel invisible to the traveler. The less time they spend booking and paying for travel is more time they can focus on the purpose of their actual trip. Then ensure that expense reporting is as automated as possible so that travelers can simply review a pre-populated expense report which will reduce the time that is needed to complete them.”

Finding a tool that is user-friendly can also help eliminate pain points. Ideally this should be an automated expense-management system that tracks, controls and reports expenses, notes UATP’s vice president of Global Network Sales Zach Ornelas. “Having a connected travel and expense system allows employees and management to easily retrieve data form a single source.”

Interconnectedness is also critical because the average company typically spends about 10-12 percent of its budget on T&E related expenses, Ornelas says.

“There are many solutions to choose from, so you’ll want to consider matters such as its cost efficiency and the amount of flexibility it offers,” he notes “Creating a checklist is a great place to start to help determine what you want out of this tool. For example, is it less time-consuming? Does it help prevent expense fraud? Are you looking for an expense management tool that doubles as an online booking tool? And, if it connects to your travel system, it’s important to maximize the data. A connected system gives you more control and allows you to make better informed financial decisions for your company.”

This is also important because manual processes breed process inefficiencies and confusing lines of communication, and can cause conflict over allowable spend, notes Neveu of Certify/Chrome River.

“With an automated, managed travel tool you can rely on in-built policies, such as pre-trip approvals, pre-trip notifications, restrictions on class of service and so on,” he says. “By having these in-built workflows, you can encourage good spend decisions from the start. It’s all about that pre-spend control, about not allowing an expense to happen that later needs to be disapproved.”

The choice of an expense tool should also take into account several considerations to make things easier on the finance side, Neveu notes. For example, this may mean looking at a solution that can track VAT and is current with international tax and regulatory data.

Like Ornelas and Laschet, Neveu also touts the importance of integration capabilities in an expense management tool. He notes that collaboration between the two departments is key – as well as shifting away from confusing and inefficient manual processes and bringing on board a well-integrated, easy-to-use automated tool.

“By having expenses flow into your AP and ERP systems quickly, with the right data and categories already embedded and receipt images present, your finance team will be able to pivot their focus from expense policing to strategic analysis,” he explains. “In addition, the embedded business rules that have already helped to guide policy-compliant spend behavior pre-purchase also ensure that approvers don’t need to refer back to a policy manual to check if a purchase is allowed. This is especially important for international travel, where reimbursement rates often differ significantly by country.”

Because of all the different departments involved, finding a provider that views product development through the lens of all the different constituents is critical, says Serko’s D’astolfo. However he notes this factor is frequently overlooked, particularly when the traveler is considered.

“The approach should be that you want to make the process as easy as possible for everyone who will use the product, but that is not often how these products are built,” he says. “The term ‘consumer friendly’ is often overused but in the case of an expense system very few were built to serve a consumer – rather they were built to apply and manage against a set of rules and regulations. But today’s employee-traveler demands more and better, so that should be top of mind when sourcing an expense platform.”

[bf] Different Strokes [end bf]
Since the needs of travel and finance departments are often different, it can be difficult in the end to find common ground. That’s why D’astolfo believes it is so critical to work with a provider who understands expense tools need to serve multiple constituents.

“You can provide a great experience for the traveler/expense filer that doesn’t requires the approval or finance manager to sacrifice control; you just need to consider the needs of both when you set out looking for a tool,” he says.

Coordination between the two departments is also vital, says Airplus’ Laschet.
“Many times the travel department rolls up through the finance department. In this case, it is really critical that decisions be made with full information and many times that means listening to your own team,” she says “Travel managers need to make sure they have a seat at the table when it comes to expense decisions. They have the best view and understand the balance between the needs of travelers and the needs of the cost-savings measures of the company.”

One example is the decision about class of service when flying internationally. “Many companies allow business class for flights that exceed a certain amount of hours. While this is an increased cost, you are gaining productivity from your travelers who will now arrive better rested and ready to accomplish the goals of their trip.”

Traveler experience may not always be an easy concept to sell when stacked up against hard numbers on the finance side. But as Neveu says, there are ways to balance the books.

“One thing I say to finance leaders is to think who the expense policy impacts the most,” he says. “Those who travel most often, especially internationally, are typically some of an organization’s most valuable employees, such as sales leaders and customer troubleshooters. Think how much it would damage your business to lose these key staff and the value they generate, and then hire and retrain their replacements. Is it really worth it to strictly enforce a stringent travel policy? Probably not.”

D'astolfo agrees, highlighting the importance of creating a good travel experience for employees. “Travel buyers need to step back up and address the issues of the traveler experience, and push their companies to focus on creating a travel and expense process that focuses on those who use the system the most,” he says “The idea that any constituent to the process would have to compromise a great experience so another constituent is properly served is short-sighted thinking.”

In the end, finding common ground between finance and travel departments can be easily attained by working together to forecast travel spend and justify budget requests, says UATP’s Ornelas. “Finance’s goal is to keep expenses within budget. And with T&E being one of the largest expense categories – it’s imperative that the two departments communicate.”