When a small to midsize business (SMB) finds itself in the red or close to it, there are two likely ways to get back on track, short of its owner winning the lottery. Get a handle on the two largest controllable line items in the budget: salaries and employee-initiated expenses. Cutting salaries or laying off personnel are extreme measures that may not make sense, since most SMBs tend to operate with lean business plans.
The second option is the far easier choice. The cloud, with its numerous expense reporting, tracking and management Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) products, makes controlling employee-originated business expenses much more attractive. Why wait until you can't sleep? Open the expense books and find a solution now.
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Before you can choose a SaaS expense reporting software solution, you have to know your company. Is it based in the United States? Does it do international business? What about the workforce? A good place to begin is with a thorough audit of how many employees in your company submit expenses for reimbursement including travel, business meals and even office supplies. What are those average expenses? Are they reasonable or do you think individuals are taking advantage? Create an organization map including the reporting/supervisory structure. This may sound like overkill but it will come into play if you need a multitier approval feature. Use this information to create loose policies and rules based on location, your company averages and what you deem appropriate.
Next, take a look at the technology and your business is using and add this to your must-have business intelligence (BI) data. It's important to minimize employee learning curves so they will be up to speed on the new product with minimal brain damage and collateral costs. The last thing you want to see is a bill for a new phone running your approved platform because the employee's initial device was not.
For example, if most of your staff uses Windows phones, you can overlook products that only have mobile apps for iPhone and Android. If your mobile workforce uses iPhones or Android-based smartphones, you're in luck since most SaaS products do have apps for these platforms. On the finance side, does your bookkeeper and CPA use , Sage, or Intacct? Choose a product that will integrate with their existing software; they'll thank you for it.
The makings of a good product
Building a great SaaS expense reporting and tracking product is not easy. It must serve at least two masters: the finance department and the employee. Doing this well means providing accurate expense reporting, adhering to company policy compliance and providing timely employee reimbursement. Often the result of deploying one of these products is increased productivity and collaboration, reduced frequency of adversarial relationships, and measurable, significant cost savings.
One of a finance department's major product requirements is that it drives company compliance with the . This law addresses employee expense abuses and imposes draconian penalties on companies that lack effective internal expense controls. Because of this, the product you choose needs to have comprehensive and customizable policies, rules and approval designation abilities. Another top-of-mind capability is data storage for at least seven years as required by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Data must be available to create a full audit trail should the request be made. Accounting software integration is another must-have so report data can be automatically folded in to the company chart of accounts. It's important to both finance and employees submitting expenses that the product's interface be accessible in the user's local language. It should also be able to slice and dice expenses in currencies the company and employees use, be it USD, Euro or Yen.
On the mobile side, users need simplicity in their smartphone app, but simplicity that delivers the maximum level of performance in as few keystrokes as possible. Users should be able to capture images, glean as much specific data from those images as possible, manually input expenses, and create and subsequently submit their expense report for approval. Taking this a step further, the end-to-end process flows more smoothly when products pull in expenses from users' credit cards and facilitate reimbursement into designated bank accounts.
The bottom line
I tested a combination of demo websites and free trials in the five SaaS expense reporting software solutions in this review roundup. The free trials gave me a better idea of the products' setup complexity and the issues a regular customer would encounter. I looked at product features, the software's Web and mobile interfaces, setup and ease of use to get an overall impression before zeroing in on end-user points such as camera image capture quality, speed of image analysis and efficiency of expense report submission and approval.
(OCR) is the electronic conversion of typed, handwritten or printed text images into machine-encoded text. The four products I tested that use OCR -- Certify Now, Concur ExpenseIt and Concur Expense, ExpensePath and Xpenditure Small Business -- reduce the amount of required manual data input. Abacus uses geo-location technology suggesting restaurants, etc., to help users. That said, the products that glean the most data from receipt images are Certify Now and Xpenditure Small Business, both of which garner our Editors' Choice. ExpensePath doesn't pull in currency amounts or date data. Concur ExpenseIt and Concur Expense has a nifty blue screen overlay to assist in trimming out the surrounding visual noise.
Another factor to consider when choosing SaaS expense reporting and tracking software is the amount of time the server takes to analyze or process the image into serviceable data. Certify Now wins out here, with Xpenditure Small Business taking slightly more time. It's important to try the products at peak business hours to ensure that this is actually a time-saving feature.
Overall, Certify Now and Xpenditure Small Business's mobile interfaces are the easiest to use to create expense reports, although Abacus comes in a close second. Abacus also sports a cool, text-like internal communication tool that none of the other participants had, and it provides the most expeditious route for reimbursement.
From a finance point of view, Xpenditure Small Business has the widest choice of accounting software integrations, and has the best international environment features. Certify Now and Concur ExpenseIt and Concur Expense come close in this respect. Abacus is only available for companies doing business in the U.S., and all of the participants maintain data storage for the required seven-year period, if not longer.
From the end-user perspective, Certify Now and Xpenditure Small Business tie for Editors' Choice due to their ease of use, and their simple yet sophisticated interfaces available for a wide range of mobile platforms. On the finance side, their policy and rule-setting capabilities are the most comprehensive.
Pricing is competitive, although Xpenditure Small Business beats out Certify here because of Certify's setup fee. While Concur ExpenseIt and Concur Expense offer cool, seasoned and full-featured expense management services, they lose ground because it was so difficult to ascertain value without pricing transparency. They may well be a great value for a fast growing SMB, though, so don't overlook them if that's you have an SMB.
Any of these products would be good choices depending on your business needs, though the combination of usability, expense functionality and price gave Certify Now and Xpenditure Small Business the tie for our Editors' Choice. Choose a service that's affordable, easy to use now and will scale as your business grows. You won't have to revisit the decision down the road.
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