Finance automation: How to modernise your financial processes
Automation is all the rage. Businesses are quickly figuring out that there are things that machines are better suited to than people.
Repetitive and boring jobs are nothing for robots - they do them with a smile!
(Maybe not quite a smile.)
Software is more efficient, faster, and usually cheaper than having finance team members do certain tasks. And more importantly, it frees finance professionals up to do the work they were hired to do.
In this post we're going to highlight a few crucial areas in which automation tools are absolutely worth the investment. We've already explored this topic in a live webinar with our friends at Chartmogul. It's well worth your time.
First, why do we care so much about finance automation?
Finance teams have one big problem
Modern workplaces automate countless menial tasks. Sales, marketing and customer support all rely on workflows to communicate with prospects and customers.
But what about finance teams?
Plenty of finance professionals still rely on manual processes. These old ways of working can be hard to break away from - after all, they’ve worked for pretty much all businesses for as long as we can remember.
Which is fine. The trouble is, data entry (especially) takes away from the real value that finance teams add. Every hour you spend copying data from one spreadsheet to another is an hour that you’re not giving strategic advice.
Your other teammates have found more efficient ways to work. So why is finance so far behind?
Thankfully, we’re living in the future. And automation tools make lots of your least favourite tasks history.
This post focuses on two key areas for automation. In 2019 and beyond, these are processes that just shouldn’t be done manually anymore.
1. Automate expenses and spending processes
For many employees, claiming expenses is when they have the most regular interactions with the finance team. In their eyes, you’re there to make sure they’ve done the right thing, and to send reimbursements their way.
But that’s not your job! That’s just a tiny (annoying) part of it. And for most finance professionals, it’s the part you have to do, not what you want to do.
And in fact, you really shouldn’t have to do it at all. Team members should know what they can and can’t claim, and the process should be so easy to follow that it manages itself.
Even if it's easy to follow, you still spend days on reconciliation. But you can avoid most of that time with a few sensible changes:
Connect your spending policy with payment methods
One reason that spending is hard to manage is that we don't use spending methods built for businesses. For example, the company card seems like a good idea. But you never really know who has it, what they're buying, and who's supposed to oversee all this.
When you give the corporate card to a team member, they're going to have a hundred questions.
What can I use this for?
Do I have a daily limit?
Do I need to ask for approval for each payment?
So either they turn to your written expense policy (hopefully you have one), or they ask all of those questions in person. Either way it's costing the company time, and there's a huge likelihood that something will go wrong.
Instead, you can get smart, secure spending methods that are built for work spending. Whereas your company card is basically the same as your personal one, these prepaid expense cards give you:
Customisable spending limits (daily, weekly, or monthly, or based on the type of spending the person does)
Approval workflows that ensure each payment was approved
Spending categories to show users what kinds of expenses they can spend on
Clear guidelines for users to follow as they pay
The major benefit is that your teams don't need to pore over the written expense policy. Instead, spend management platforms will walk them through each payment, and record everything automatically for you.
That's easy spend management and reconciliation in one!
Get rid of expense reports
We go on about this a lot, but there really isn’t a place for expense reports in a modern business. It’s hard to think of a more old-fashioned, out-of-date process.
And of course, most businesses are still addicted to them.
We’re all so used to this boring process:
A team member has to pay for something with their own money. This is usually because they don’t have access to the company card or another means of payment.
They make sure they have approval from a manager, then diligently keep their receipts.
At the end of the month, they put all these little payments (and those receipts) into expense reports.
The finance team then validates these reports, and makes sure the employee gets reimbursed.
This whole process exists because we don’t give employees a way to pay for things on-the-go. Unless they have a company credit card - and of course most won’t - they have to pay with their own money.
And all these inefficiencies flow from there.
So how can you give your team secure and flexible ways to pay while on the road? We suggest prepaid expense cards. These let you set specific limits for different teams (and individual team members), and track every single payment in real time.
Then you have no need for expense reports, since nobody has to pay out of their pocket.
Track expenses digitally
If prepaid cards aren’t an option just yet, you can stick with the expense report method. But at least get a little help from technology.
There are lots of good expense management apps that help you track every payment as you go and then collate these into expense reports. They remind your team to share receipts, and will categorise payments for accounting.
A few things to look for in a good expense tracker app:
It covers a range of different expenses. You’ll want to record online payments (flights and hotels) as well as payments on the road (food and ground transport), and even office supplies and online subscriptions.
You can take photos of receipts using your smartphone. Then team members won’t have to keep a pile of crumpled paper in a corner of their wallets.
It lets you create your own payment categories. If not, you’ll have to re-categorise them all during accounting.
You can assign payments to different teams (or purposes). If you want to manage a global budget, it’s important to track what each team is spending.
Again, we think it’s better to fix the payment method first. But if you don’t have that option, you can at least make tracking expenses a lot easier for everyone.
One issue with managing company money is the need to have certain people overseeing payments and budgets. This is obviously necessary - the company card doesn’t belong to everyone.
But you quickly run into problems if you rely on approvals for every single payment:
What happens if a manager is away?
Does every staff member know who they need to ask?
Is it always the CEO’s job to validate payments in the end?
And the more manual you make this process, the less efficient it becomes. In other words, if Tony has to go and ask Kim - in person - whether he can get a tool for the marketing team, and then we extend this out to every payment for every team, there’s just a lot of messing around.
At the same time, approvals are important. You need to know who’s validating payments along the way, just in case you discover something suspicious or hard to explain.
You just shouldn’t rely on face-to-face to make all this happen.
Instead, you want payment methods with approval workflows built-in. When Tony tries to make a payment with Spendesk, for example, Kim is automatically notified and she can approve it from her own office. (Or using the mobile app, just by the way).
And because it happens electronically, every approval is logged.
There are plenty of spend management tools that’ll help you do this. Just make sure that they’re flexible enough to include different budgets for different teams.
2. Automate financial reporting
Just as managing expenses forces most finance teams to copy/paste amounts from expense reports into other spreadsheets, financial reporting is the same:
Finance teams build these reports to report to investors, share results with the company, and give them to any other stakeholders involved.
These reports are important. But too often they’re created manually.
Instead, you should have reporting tools integrated into your existing finance stack. So you won’t have to go into five different spreadsheets and copy figures into your reports.
The reports will build themselves.
Automated revenue recognition
Case in point: revenue recognition. The process of taking your “booking” numbers (the amount of money you hope to receive) and converting these into actual revenue received.
This is “business critical and non-optional.” It’s also slow, boring, and can be highly complex.
And most finance teams still rely on real people to spend real time and energy on producing revenue recognition reports.
Chartmogul has a better idea:
In short, if you leave reporting to the end of the process - an add-on - it will always be more burdensome. Instead, incorporate real-time reporting tools into your finance processes.
Then you don't have to "build" a report - the report is always live and ready to go.
Otherwise, here's a great revenue recognition guide for SaaS companies to help you build your own reports. But the simpler solution is just to let Chartmogul take care of it all for you.
Automate the tasks you shouldn’t have to do
Automating certain finance processes is a clear win for most businesses. Over the years, these have become the tasks that finance teams have become known for. Many of your colleagues may now believe they are your job.
But what companies really need from finance is guidance. Your data and observations lead to better business decisions and a more sustainable company long-term.
To give your team the time it needs to do this well, you have to get rid of the menial, repetitive stuff.
We’ve highlighted how spend management and financial reporting can both be automated - at least the most painstaking aspects of each.