The End of the Line for Expense Receipts?

Ted Power Ted Power
Could the paper receipt be a thing of the past for expense reports?

#expense  #innovation  #humanizework 

Making the expense process easier is at the heart of our innovation, and part of our mission to humanize work. While we already offer streamlined and user-friendly expense submission capabilities, our team of product leaders are constantly looking at processes and workflows and asking “how can we make this even easier for customers?”

Paper receipts have long been the bane of the expense submitter's existence. Most of us remember the bad old days of searching through wallets, briefcases, and jacket and pants pockets at the end of the month or after a trip, before spending hours filling out a spreadsheet.

We’ve thankfully moved on since then. Current expense processes use optical character recognition (OCR) and sophisticated data extraction and mapping to “read” photographs of purchase receipts, vastly reducing the need for manual data entry. Modern expense solutions can identify various fields and characteristics of a receipt — merchant, date, address, phone number, item description, currency symbol, card number, VAT number, etc — and create a fully populated, categorized, expense line item, ready for submission.

This is a far cry from the processes of old, but it still leaves room for improvement. Employees may forget to take a picture of the receipt; it could become crumpled or coffee stained; or a handwritten tip could be impossible to decipher. While OCR accuracy has improved exponentially over the past few years, it’s still not infallible. Matching receipts with card transaction data can improve the data quality here, but for users who don’t have a linked card, this isn’t an option.

So, how can we improve this?

The best way is to bypass receipts entirely, using transaction data supplied by the merchants themselves, which is transmitted in real time to the expense platform. This solves three key problems: it guarantees the accuracy of the data, it enables transactions to be recorded in real time (or close to), and most importantly for the end-user, it all happens automatically for the end user.

There are several ways to do this. The first is to connect the expense system directly to the merchant via an API, providing a direct data link. Whenever a transaction is made with the vendor, itemized spend data is automatically sent to the user’s expense e-wallet, based on their credentials stored with the vendor. We’ve already done this with vendors like Uber and Lyft, enabling Emburse users to have their ride details sent directly to their expense wallets as soon as the ride is complete.

While this is the best solution, it does require our partner team to create dedicated API connections with each vendor, so it’s not going to be something that is feasible across every single vendor. However, as the most recent Certify SpendSmart™ Report showed, Uber and Lyft alone made up 14% of all expensed transactions, and the top five vendors were more than 28% of transactions, so we’re able to cover a major share of all expenses with a relatively small amount of integrations.

The second approach for eliminating the need for receipts is by using “Level 3” data provided by the merchant via credit cards for all transactions. Unlike the basic information you may see printed on your statement, this includes detailed information on each line item within a transaction. We have just launched this type of integration with Amazon Business and Mastercard, creating fully itemized e-receipts within our Chrome River solution without the need for the user to enter any information — it all happens as soon as the purchase is made.

One challenge with using Level 3 card data is that this is primarily only used for B2B purchases, so again, Mom and Pop’s Diner likely won’t adopt it in the near future. However, our data suggest that about 30% of all purchases expensed through Emburse come through just 20 vendors, so between direct connections and data passed through credit cards, we can drastically enhance the expense process for our customers.

For the remaining purchases that still require receipts to be submitted, we’re continuing to make life easier for expense submitters and approvers. Email receipts from online purchases can easily be forwarded into our solutions, where they are read and then converted to line items including full merchant and VAT details. Addresses can be extracted via geocoding APIs, and phone number lookups can be used to verify merchant data. We also continue to improve our OCR and matching capabilities on paper receipts. Our solutions continue to improve their ability to read receipt data and handwriting, and we are constantly adding support to more countries’ receipt formats and languages — in fact we now support receipts from more than a dozen of the most common countries.

With these moves in data-based receipts, we’re taking another step along the journey to fully-automated, real-time expenses. No more fumbling with receipts or sending off expense reports at the end of the trip. For finance teams, combining these capabilities with other elements of Emburse Pay will completely eliminate the need for expenses to be reviewed and verified against company policy, or enter spend data into the accounting system.

We’re looking forward to the day when every purchase’s expense data can flow straight from the merchant directly into the finance system — and we imagine that our 4 million users around the world are looking forward to it even more!


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