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Completing an expense report after a business trip still tends to be a long and annoying process for most business travelers.
Getting reimbursed for that soggy croissant at the airport can hardly seem worth it, given how contrived the corporate expense process can be. Tracking down your receipts, taking photos, uploading them to a clunky app, and then dealing with the torturous agony of hoping for a quick approval is not a fun process to repeat again and again.
While many companies have graduated to using apps instead of spreadsheets, there’s still a long way for expense technology providers to go in search of a truly seamless experience for users.
Businesses are now looking for solutions that integrate expense management with more robust analytics, and once-conservative expense management technology companies are experimenting to bring more powerful tools to market.
Integrated travel booking tools were only the beginning of the evolution in what expense providers envision for the future, according to executives. Now, techniques like machine learning and artificial intelligence are being deployed to fix the knotty problems that make expenses a pain for both travelers and their managers.
“It took some time for the industry to really embrace the concept and start to realize the value of truly integrated travel and expense, which in hindsight is kind of funny because some 70 percent of expense is travel spend,” said Tim MacDonald, chief product officer of SAP Concur. “But back then you had two very different departments with two very different approaches to managing their programs. Now, the vast majority of our customers and prospects are all looking for integrated travel and expense. It’s the focus now across the industry.”
Concur was the industry leader in developing a combined expense and travel booking tool, and many others have followed suit.
“You had to really articulate the value proposition to get the customer to ask, ‘Should we automate our expense reports and get rid of the spreadsheet? Now, the question is, ‘We know we need to automate this, which system should we pick?” said Bob Neveu, CEO of Certify, which last year acquired booking tool NuTravel to improve its travel service offerings for bigger clients. “It’s a wholesale shift for the category.”
These companies aren’t full-service travel management companies, though; they partner with external agencies to handle the global distribution system access and service or simply pass through to a client’s existing travel management company.
The big expense technology companies had always pursued massive clients in the past, but recent years have seen a shift towards working with smaller, growing businesses to manage their spending, perhaps the result of continued success in the global economy.
“Many times travel, you take a company with 100 employees, there’s a very good chance that company is unmanaged in terms of travel,” said Neveu. “What we’re seeing more and more is companies getting their arms around that, making sure they know where an employee is going and making sure they’re booking either the least expensive flight or something within 10 percent of the lowest fare. It used to be the sales organization was pushing that to the marketplace, now we’re seeing the marketplace pull it through and bring it to market. That’s been a nice defining moment for us.”
Concur Hipmunk, which was launched late last year, has been performing well among small businesses, according to McDonald, representing the strongest growth area for SAP Concur as well.
New Data Age
There are many new innovations, however, being developed that never really touch the traveler directly through an app or online tool. Big data techniques and machine learning are making it easier for managers and accountants to find the insights they need to design a smarter travel policy.
“The way people used to work is they have all this data in a data warehouse, and they would have a hypothesis, like are we paying too much for first-class airfare, then they would have their business analyst test the hypothesis,” said Alan Rich, CEO of Chrome River. “Maybe they find something, maybe they don’t. You get hypothesis fatigue. We’ve turned it around the other way: a data visualization tool allows you to see something in the data that pops out. Instead of guessing, you let the hypothesis come to you through the power of visualization.”
Chrome River hasn’t stepped into the travel booking game, although it integrates with booking tools. The company is focused on working with clients to make them smarter about spending and developing the right insights for a company’s travel and financial departments.
“Part of the challenge is that our software is super configurable, and the natural desire of an accountant is to get lots and lots of information,” said Rich. “The big part of our process is on the implementations die to teach out cuts how to implement best practices. What we try to do is go with the lightweight, easy to use, so if you find out later you really need a piece of data you need, then add it in.”
Concur recently introduced a solution, for instance, that allows managers to track travel spend in near real-time, giving greater insight into trips as they actually happen. It’s also working on machine learning algorithms to pull out line items from complicated bills to check for fraud and ensure each expenditure ends up in the right category.
“You’ll see us do things like chatbots for travel,” said SAP Concur’s MacDonald. “You will see us apply machine learning to expense reporting because machine learning and artificial intelligence can find things that no human can.” He gave the example of an algorithm being able to quickly figure out fraud by comparing a traveler’s location with where a purchase was made.
There are also new attempts to integrate payments directly with expense reports, beyond automatically throwing in data from credit card transactions. Certify has recently partnered with Western Union to help travelers make payments outside of the U.S. without a credit card.
As business travel continues to increase worldwide, it will be fascinating to track which of these innovations gain the most traction.