It’s one of the downsides of business travel: Having to wrangle all the little pieces of paper, keep track of the tips to the bellboy and the buck for the Coke machine, and get it all back to your company so you can get reimbursed before the credit card bill comes in. But you have to.

“Tracking expenses is essential for several reasons, says financial advisor Eric Tyson, co-author of Small Business for Dummies,” in OpenForum. “First, you need to know how your business is doing, and tracking revenues, expenses, profitability, cash, debts, etc. helps you keep a handle on the financial pulse of your business. Second, you’ll need documentation of your expenses and other financials to enable you to prepare an accurate tax return. And third, if you’re audited by the IRS or state tax authorities, you may need the expense documentation to show them.”

True, it’s important for companies to track the cost of travel expenses, but how much expensive employee time is being tied up by doing paper-based expense reports?

If you’re still using paper-based expense report systems, you’re missing out. Moreover, linking expenses with your enterprise content management (ECM) system can save you time and money. Here are four ways that digital expense reports can help.

More granularity. In the same way that ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft have disrupted the transportation industry, they are showing signs of disrupting expense reports as well, as part of their move to attract the business community. Naturally, as a ride-hailing mechanism that works through an app, the cost of the ride is reported electronically. But both companies now also offer business profiles, which not only allow you to use the app to differentiate between business and personal rides, but even let you assign a ride to a particular project or client.

“You can input the reason for your ride so that weeks later, you won’t have to try and remember why you went to that address,” writes Ken Yeung for Venture Beat. “Your receipts will also be sent to your work email, along with weekly or monthly travel reports, consolidating all your trips into a single piece of communication so it’s easier to get reimbursed.”

It isn’t difficult to imagine that other travel components could follow suit. Perhaps your airline frequent flyer app, hotel loyalty program, or favorite expense account restaurant might start doing the same.

More legible. Nearly everyone has a smartphone these days, and there’s a myriad of expense tracking apps out there. By getting in the habit of taking pictures of receipts with its built-in camera, paper expense records can be a thing of the past. Moreover, using optical character recognition (OCR) software, a receipt can be converted to metadata entered automatically into the ECM system, reducing manual data entry—and inaccuracies. Finally, a number of expense tracking apps link to various accounting and enterprise resource planning (ERP) packages and can dump the data right into them. The company gets its expense report data faster, which means you’ll get reimbursed sooner. Hopefully.

“Take pictures of documents using the built in camera on your iPhone, then immediately turn them into properly named, tagged, multi-page PDFs,” writes AIIM in its ECM Toolkit for World Paper Free Day. All of that data is then stored, and backed up to the cloud, and made available to all of your synched devices. “Once all of the data has been captured, you can easily e-mail it for approval and routing. The best part about this is, you can stop lugging around paper, and accomplish more in less time.”

Electronic travel expense records can even be submitted to the IRS.

Improved workflow. Ever had to wait around for a manager to sign an expense report that disappeared into the pile on their desk? By incorporating expense reports into an ECM system, it’s easier to see where the expense report is in the process—and the manager can sign it electronically wherever they happen to be.

After Kentucky Sanitation District #1 used its ECM system to implement an electronic travel request program, documents stopped getting lost or misfiled, and requests were approved in a more timely manner. The new process is now faster and more efficient, and employees are reimbursed for their travel expenses more quickly, making them happier.

“Not only is more work getting done much more quickly but it is getting done with greater accuracy and reliability,” says SD1 Records Manager Kathy Jenisch in Waterworld. “Taking the human element out of these repetitive tasks wherever possible means reducing the opportunities for making mistakes.”

Big data. Once all the data is in a single repository, you can look at it for patterns. Why does one employee have systematically higher charges on their expense reports than everyone else? Employees who travel frequently can set up templates so they don’t have to go through the British Airways-business class-aisle-kosher meal-king-nonsmoking routine every time they travel. You may even find that so many of your employees are using a particular hotel chain that you can get a discount.

“Using digital travel solutions means generating troves of data full of valuable metrics like flight costs, hidden fees, travel frequency, hotel stay frequency, and many more,” writes Javier Suarez in TravelPerk. “All of this valuable data can be used to better allocate funds and negotiate better deals with those most used flights and hotels.”

So if you’re not doing it already, what’s the best way to implement digital expense reports? As with any other digital project, think baby steps. “A best practice is to begin by understanding how your end users accomplish the task today, and look for ways to improve upon common business practices rather than introduce an entirely new way of doing things,” writes Christian Buckley for CMSWire. “Whenever you find routine activities, such as expense report approvals, there is an opportunity to streamline through the use of workflow. Even detailed, complex business processes can be simplified and optimized, allowing the end user to focus on other business priorities.”

It might even make you more willing to travel for business again.


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