Tech Series: Automating the expense management process

Accountancy Age caught up with travel and expense report management software provider Certify’s sales director, Paul Crawley, at Accountex last week to find out more about the firm – and how laborious processes can be broken down.

Tell us about Certify.

We are trying to ease the burden of the expenses problem from both a staff and a finance perspective. From a staff perspective, that’s just the time taken to capture receipts, to fill out X number of spreadsheets, staple the receipts and move it around the business. That has become much easier because smartphones are everywhere and because of the cloud. They’ve become the two main enablers that can help buy that time from end user.

From a company perspective, we are focusing on helping organizations manage their spend. Expense management typically is a notoriously difficult area to manage spend. Today, we’re in a conference, I’m out and might buy coffees and lunch. What our tools enable companies to do is have an element of policy enforcement at source. Rather than when the expense form is submitted and someone says “hold on a minute you spent £12.50 on breakfast, you should only have spent £10”, what our solution can do is flag that up for you right on your mobile phone. To help reinforce those spending policies.

It just helps give a much better overview to business over how their money is being spent so it could be spent much more sensibly

What will Certify solutions mean for accountants?

There is definitely a realisation now that computers are very good at doing that manual data entry and removing that as a task.

Loads of accountants have come up to us this week and said “I need to spend my time doing other things, other more productive things” and computers are good at that. You give them some factual based information like “don’t allow people to spend over £10 on breakfast” or “make sure you record the VAT” and computers are really good at getting that right.

I’m seeing this year – compared to last year – much more openness from accountants to embrace technology. Maybe Making Tax Digital has helped with that. But essentially that’s what we’re moving towards, trying to take that tech and apply it to reduce the amount of menial tasks so they can start using their time much more proactively.

How quickly can staff get reimbursed?

It depends. We have a solution which automates the expense report building process. In theory I can record an expense today. It can be picked up as an expense report this evening, move through the approval process, and then reimburse me really quickly, depending on how quickly the bank transfer happens. In theory it could be in a day or two days. It doesn’t really matter about you being out of pocket because you are only out of pocket for 24 hours. It gives a lot more freedom and speed to the process.

How much time can Certify solutions save?

The biggest time saver is getting the data in in the first place. The second biggest place where time accrues is in the workflow process. A piece of paper will just get stuck in someone’s in-tray and because it’s paper you don’t know where it is. It could be a manager, it could be finance, and because it’s paper it can be quite difficult to get your hands on. But because the workflow is all online you can go in and see exactly within the process where that workflow is.


Will this just reduce costs?

The objective is to try and get costs under control, first and foremost. Then what we find is that it is being used as an analytics tool. Using that tool our customers for example go in and say: “which hotels are we spending our money on?” If its Marriot or Hilton they can use that information to go and negotiate a corporate rate.

Often one of the reasons we incur travel expense is either to win customers or to retain them, people go out and visit customers. One of the things our customers are beginning to ask us is “what is the ROI?” of a trip to see a customer. You’ve got salesperson X who’s flying around the country here, there, and everywhere doing lots of trips. Is that travel resulting in business? If so, do more of it. If not, let’s have a conversation.

I think the discussion moves naturally from “let’s get it under control, let’s use it to save costs”, and then onto “let’s see if we can help identify how we can drive further revenue”.

These are areas where accountants should be looking to add value to their business. Rather than doing menial tasks like data entry, it’s trying to spot these trends almost before they happen and take action.

What do you think the  accountancy industry will look like in ten years?

We’re already seeing that lots of those manual tasks are being taken away, there will be a need for accountants to be much more proactive in terms of how they add value to the business and in terms of spend management. I think one of the other areas that is increasingly on the agenda for this product is around continuing to be on top of reducing risk.

In ten years’ time, we will be moving away from a lot of that manual data, using artificial intelligence, databases and the internet to help manage risk.

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