What can we Expect in Expense and AP in 2021?

Eric Friedrichsen
Eric Friedrichsen
Announcing Emburse Cards for Abacus

Emburse CEO Eric Friedrichsen looks back at some of the lessons learned in 2020, and how we can apply them to be successful in 2021.

Last year presented so much hardship and heartbreak for so many. But it also provided some very useful insights and lessons for the business community. As we move into 2021, I want to take some time to reflect on some of the things we’ve learned from this year, and how we can apply these lessons to become more resilient and efficient in the future.

1. Urgency for Digital Transformation

    One of the biggest barriers to technology adoption that I’ve noticed over the years isn’t that CFOs didn’t see the benefit of moving away from manual processes, but there wasn’t a compelling event that drove urgency. Like insurance, sometimes the benefit isn’t always apparent until something goes wrong.

    Many organizations were caught off-guard by the sudden requirement to work from home, and the pain that it caused their finance teams in being able to perform their tasks effectively. Among the first things we noticed when COVID hit was increased urgency for AP automation. With finance teams suddenly working from home, it became clear that the old, paper-based approach to approving, processing and paying invoices simply wasn’t sustainable. Collecting paper invoices from the office, scanning them, emailing them up the approval chain and then returning to the office to cut hard copy checks became incredibly impractical.

    Automating these processes in the cloud gives several key advantages. First, it makes the overall approvals process far faster, with real-time notifications, and no need to manually enter data. With cash management continuing to be critical for many organizations, the ability to better forecast upcoming spend will be vital. Giving finance teams the insight they need on whether to take early payment discounts or to hold onto cash could also have a meaningful impact.

    Digitizing these processes makes it far easier to analyze expense and invoice data, enabling organizations to detect patterns of wasteful or inefficient spend, and make smarter planning decisions.

    2. Redefining the Value of Business Travel

      Businesses have adapted remarkably well to Zoom, and virtual meetings certainly won’t go away when travel opens back up again. But that also doesn’t mean that in-person business meetings will cease to exist.

      Where I do see things changing is a greater push towards maximizing the efficiency of business meetings. There will always be a considerable number of interactions where an in-person meeting adds no more value over a virtual one, and those will continue to take place over Zoom or other similar platforms.

      However, there are many types of meetings that simply cannot be replicated in a virtual environment, and while they are often of great value, it’s difficult to determine a measurable ROI. Before COVID hit, I spent a considerable amount of my time visiting our various offices and catching up with the teams. A lot of the benefit of these trips didn’t come from sit-down meetings, but from popping my head in someone’s office, or someone chatting to me at lunch about an idea that they may not have felt comfortable doing in a formal environment.

      Similarly, a face-to-face sales meeting can often involve a lot of non-verbal communication that may easily be missed when looking at a bank of Zoom windows. You can’t “read the room” nearly as easily, or pick up on the subtle signs that what you’re discussing is resonating or missing the mark. In my days in sales, I also discovered that lots of the selling takes place outside of the conference room. It’s a lot easier in person to say “while I’m here, it’d be great if I can drop in and meet with [another senior decision maker]” than it is to try and get them to join a Zoom meeting.

      These interpersonal interactions are far less natural online, and sometimes may not happen at all, but that doesn’t lessen their impact. As a CEO, I’ve often gained incredible value from these trips, but if the CFO asked me to put a dollar figure on the ROI, I couldn’t do that. Some of the more important and valuable conversations I’ve had have been in hallways or waiting for the coffee to brew in the office kitchen. You can’t do that during a virtual happy hour.

      3. Digital Expense and AP Payments

        The coming year could be a tipping point in the adoption of virtual solutions for both individual expenses and corporate payments. As we’ve all seen, many merchants have been urging customers to move away from physically swiping/inserting cards into payment terminals, and paying by holding their cards or mobile phones near the terminal. Combining this with many card issuers increasing the limits for PIN-free transactions in the wake of COVID, has made safer, fully-contactless, payments far more common.

        As many banks and card issuers here in the U.S. still haven’t adopted payment cards with near field communication capabilities, I can foresee increasing numbers of cardholders using their phone’s Apple and Google Wallet capabilities to make contactless payments, especially when traveling overseas. The knock-on impact of this will be a greater need for employers to provide virtual cards - in addition to traditional plastic cards - to their employees.

        As I mentioned above, another challenge that COVID has posed to finance teams is processing payments through hard copy checks. As finance teams continue to migrate from paper to online approvals, I expect that this transition will apply to the final stage of the process as well. In particular, more organizations are moving greater numbers of payments to corporate cards. This not only allows for easy, online payments, but it also enables organizations to receive a rebate on every payment that passes through their cards.

        4. Duty of care comes of age

          Duty of care has traditionally been more of a concern for large organizations or those who required travel beyond major business centers. These could include oil companies, aid and development organizations, airlines or engineering firms. Duty of care would focus on knowing where a traveler is going, and subsequently knowing where they are and how to reach in case of a natural (or unnatural) disaster, and evacuate them in an emergency.

          COVID has shown that public health risks happen anywhere, from the most remote village in the developing world to the largest and most commonly visited cities. It’s also shown another side to duty of care - knowing when and where someone was in a location, and who they were with. The concerns no longer end when the employee touches down at their home airport.

          This will require new data to be collected and analyzed, and the expense solution could play a key role in this. Using card, receipt and other expense data, organizations can see where an employee has stayed, made purchases, which Uber driver they had, and who they had a meal with. This insight can then be used for contact tracing in the event of a localized outbreak.

          5. (Even) more reliance on technology

          So what do these predictions mean overall? The main takeaway is technology adoption will become even more critical for organizations to thrive in the post-COVID world. Digitizing some of these processes may have been viewed as a nice-to-have 12 months ago, but has become an imperative for organizations to navigate the new business environment. Keeping employees safe - especially while on the road - and maintaining deep visibility into spend and cashflow will be two of the biggest issues that organizations will face in 2021. Business leaders should take every opportunity they can to ensure they have all the tools to tackle these issues head on.

          So there you have it. Hopefully at the very least, 2021 will bring a measure of stability to both our personal and professional lives. Although I don’t expect we will see either of these quickly revert to how they were pre-COVID, a combination of precaution-taking, widespread vaccination, and more stable economic and political climates will lead us in the right direction.

          An abridged version of this post first appeared on Forbes.com.

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