Mobility and configurability top list for T&E automation

Sri Iyengar
Sri Iyengar
Expenses Solution Consultant for Coupa Expenses, Coupa Software

Sri Iyengar helped to launch Coupa Expenses in over 54 countries.

Read time: 11 mins
Mobility and configurability top list for T&E automation

About a year ago, Paystream Advisors released its first ever Travel and Expense Navigator report comparing travel and expense management software. That was a big deal, because up until the past few years, there weren’t enough mature solutions on the market to compare. Now there are, and organizations that are using them are finding that a big benefit of these easy to use systems is that they help travelers capture more and better data that managers can then use to improve their travel programs.

The key to getting this data is for the solution to make it easy for travelers to capture the required data on the go, in any region of the world, without negatively affecting the user experience for other regions. This is the result not so much of specific features and functions. It is the result of a design commitment to mobility and configurability throughout the solution. The solution should provide a unique experience for each region, without unnecessarily exposing any behind the scenes complexity to the employee on the go. Here’s what solution buyers should look for.

1. Mobility
Mobility is more than just having a mobile app. It’s about supporting travelers in collecting and reporting required data in the fastest, easiest way possible, at every collection and reporting point. Things like being able to take a picture of a receipt, automatically performing calculations, and using geolocation data to pre-populate expense reports are becoming staples for T&E mobile apps. Any time you can eliminate a step for the traveler, there’s a higher probability you're going to get the right data.

To that end, what’s not in the mobile app is almost as important as what is. It’s obvious that you don’t want or need complex reporting capabilities in a mobile app. What’s less obvious is getting rid of fields that don’t need to be there. There could be a temptation to leave those fields in there and just hope the user ignores them, but that hinders the user. One, it causes confusion. Two, you risk getting irrelevant data.

2. Language support
The solution should support all major world languages. Users simply select their preference, and everything flips into that language. We’ve all seen bad automated translations, so ask for customer references in the language areas that are important to your organization. And, ask the solution vendor how language is accommodated as they update the software and add new features.

3. Currency Support
The solution should support all the major currencies of the countries where you do business, and the translations between them. For corporate card transactions, the solution should automatically pull in the amount of purchase plus any bank fees, translate that into the amount owed in your native currency, and populate the expense report for the traveler.

For cash reimbursements, the challenge is to make sure employees get reimbursed the right amount for what they’ve spent in a foreign currency. Ideally, there’s a foreign exchange rate service embedded in the solution that tracks the rate and automatically enters the calculated line item in the expense report. But, travelers should also be able to set the rate manually for situations such as currency exchange at the airport or hotel desk, where they may pay more than the going rate.

4. Touchless VAT
Almost everywhere outside of the US, organizations must report payment of VAT—Value Added Tax—for everything they buy. Automatically calculating VAT for the traveler and tracking it for the back office is essential so they can demonstrate compliance with local laws, and also claim any excess that they may have paid and get money back.

This is complex, because VAT varies depending on the country and the commodity. In the UK, for example, there’s a two percent VAT for hot breakfast. The VAT for say, office supplies, might be five percent. VAT can be as granular as unique taxes at the city level in some places.

Solutions must be configurable at an equally granular level. It’s important to show and calculate VAT appropriately for wherever the traveler is and whatever they’re buying, without showing every field to every user--or any fields at all where VAT doesn’t apply. Otherwise, the interface becomes confusing and difficult to use.

There should also be an easy way for travelers to attach a VAT receipt to an expense report, and flag it as such. On the back end, administrators should be easily able to get a report on all the VAT they’ve paid, broken out by country.

5. Per diems
Per diems are another area where there’s a lot of variation in rules and policies between countries, and companies. Most of the time, per diems are paid after the trip, but in countries such as India, they are sometimes issued as a cash advance before the trip. In some companies, per diems are higher for executives. Just as with VAT, per diems need to be configurable at a granular level to make the user experience easy and get the right data.

I remember working with a customer who, pre-automation, was tracking per diem rates on a PDF emailed to teams around the globe. The traveler would look up the country and the amount, calculate the length of their trip, put the amount into an expense report and submit it. As you can imagine, that slowed things down and caused some data accuracy issues.

With automated solutions, that global database of per diem rates is embedded in the solution. Time traveled can be calculated down to the hour using the geolocation data from your smartphone. Travel across time zones is even accounted for in the calculation. Per diems are then calculated following country rules and company policy, and automatically entered into the expense report.

6. Clients in the Field
This is still a nascent market, so it’s important to look at how many people the vendor has using the solution globally. It’s one thing for a vendor to understand the rules in each country and pull the relevant databases and calculators into their solution. But it’s only by working with customers in the field over time that vendors gain a deep understanding of how best to address the nuances of different use cases, and the challenges of collecting all the different pieces of information for each market.

T&E is a complex area to manage globally. New automated solutions are helping organizations collect more and better data by creating an end user experience that enlists travelers in the data collection effort with little impact to them. This data lets administrators streamline processes and identify areas for savings and program improvements. Mobility and configurability are what marry those two to create a seamless end-to-end experience for the employee as well as the company, and should be the chief criteria for selecting a solution.