It’s the end of the expense report as we know it

June 5, 2024 | By Christine Gibson

To understand how much employees dread filing expense reports, consider this: In a 2019 survey by SAP Concur, nearly 20% of business travelers said they’d rather have their teeth drilled at the dentist than fill out an expense report.

Universally reviled for their tedium, expense reports are particularly onerous for those who work at places that rely on manually written forms. These employees often find themselves shuffling through envelopes stuffed with receipts, squinting at faint type to find what cab company they used in Phoenix or straining to remember who came to happy hour on the last day of the trip.

The work isn’t any easier for those receiving reports. Travel and entertainment, accounting or finance administrators depend on whatever fuzzy details employees can recollect to confirm that their spending complies with company policy, as well as the destination’s regulations and tax laws.

The average cost to a business of correcting an expense report — and as many as one in five reports contain errors or need clarification.

In addition, handling reports often eats up time that could be better spent on other responsibilities. For example, one in five reports contain errors or need clarification — often  because of something as minor as a stray typo, a missing field, or a misremembered date, according to a 2022 Global Business Travel Association study. On average, correcting a report takes 18 minutes and costs the business $52. At companies where travel is the norm — or where every minute comes at a premium — that adds up fast.

And business travel is not going away. Despite an increasingly hybrid workplace, a 2023 Mastercard study showed that large corporations are planning to raise their travel budgets over the next couple of years to fuel new growth. Expense reports are here to stay — but they can get easier.  

To simplify the task for business travelers and their employers, Mastercard is exploring ways to fuse expense reporting with the payment process to bring much needed relief to both business travelers and finance managers. By focusing on partnerships with software providers, Mastercard is playing a critical role in modernizing the age-old expense report.

Take its work with SAP Concur, a world-leading brand for integrated travel and expense management software. The two companies recently extended their long-term relationship to further simplify expense reports. Through a new integration, purchases made on Mastercard corporate cards can be captured and automatically populated in the Concur Expense platform, which can then alert employees immediately if additional information is needed. With this real-time spend data, companies can achieve better expense policy compliance while travelers can enjoy an improved experience with automated expense creation.  

“Marrying software with payment is radically changing how companies think about travel and expense,” says Chad Wallace, Mastercard’s global head of commercial solutions. “We’re seeing a convergence of platforms — where systems that previously didn’t speak with one another are coming together to drive efficiency. The impact is transformative on the employee experience — for those on both sides of the expense report.”

Now business travelers can simply dip their card or tap to pay, and purchases made on Mastercard corporate accounts are automatically entered into Concur Expense. Integrating into the payment channel allows SAP Concur to automatically pull in additional relevant information — such as a cab company’s mailing address — from Mastercard’s merchant network.

With embedded AI technology, Concur Expense also assesses compliance, sending immediate feedback if an expense is questionable, so employees won’t continue to spend money that might not be reimbursed.

These capabilities enable companies to connect with the user at what Chris Juneau, head of market strategy at SAP Concur, calls “the moment that matters”: just as they are making a payment. By requesting more information at the time of the purchase — before you forget who else was at dinner on the third night of the conference — businesses reduce errors and speed up approvals.

“AI can take over the more error-prone manual tasks, and mobile apps connect to the traveler via something they always have with them,” Juneau says.

For instance, SAP Concur built artificial intelligence into its Concur Expense solution to streamline expense reporting. When a business traveler refuels their rental car, they can upload a photo of the receipt to the SAP Concur mobile app, ExpenseIT. AI models extract the payment amount, date, tax, value-added tax if applicable, and other relevant information and fill out the expense report automatically.

The software also infers the expense category — it can distinguish a hotel bill from a gas receipt, for example. That means an employee can seamlessly submit an expense with just the snap of a photo, before even driving away from the pump, giving finance teams real-time visibility into spending to ensure T&E policy compliance adherence.

According to SAP Concur’s data, only 1.2% of reports filed using ExpenseIT are returned to the employee. That efficiency confers savings: For every 1,000 reports an organization handles using Concur, it cuts 273 hours of work and $47,320 in productivity costs. In some countries, businesses can also take advantage of tax benefits for reports that are filed promptly.

Going forward, these improvements in visibility and transparency could bring benefits beyond savings. As sustainability requirements tighten around the world, digitized travel data will help companies document their carbon footprints — and possibly even shrink them.

“Imagine a world where your booking tool automatically recommends a flight on the most fuel-efficient plane or a reservation at a local farm-to-table restaurant,” Wallace says. “Exposing the environmental ramifications of each option will help employees make better choices.”

With access to Mastercard’s real-time spend data, SAP Concur can continue to update its AI models to enable more new functions, allowing the software to manage every step from travel request to reimbursement. “This is not just about expense reporting,” Juneau says. “This will enhance the entire end-to-end process, starting with booking. We want to give employees back their time, whether they're the traveler or the folks in finance and accounting, so they can focus on other strategic priorities.”

Christine Gibson, contributor