Artificial intelligence is omnipresent these days. From planes that fly on autopilot to smart personal assistants like Alexa, AI is the trending topic in various domains. Its takeover has not skipped the corporate travel expense management domain. In a survey by Grant Thorn, CFOs ranked advanced analytics and AI among their top planned investments for the years to come.
As far as the T&E domain is concerned, AI can help firms’ travel and finance teams control spending, optimize their travel programs, and improve the travel experience for their employees. When implemented as a part of an expense management system, AI helps in cost saving and reduces the burden of compliance monitoring by automating many of the tasks performed by these teams. Ultimately, AI saves time and reduces the manual intervention needed from administrators to make the best of their T&E system.
Here are a few ways in which AI (either as a stand-alone tool or part of expense management software) helps travel and finance teams with travel expense management:
Personalized travel experiences
Travel managers are usually neck-deep in work: managing business trips, negotiating and re-negotiating contracts with vendors, coordinating with the finance team, and other tasks. As an additional responsibility, they have to ensure that the employees who are travelling have a convenient and comfortable experience. Things are likely to go haywire if the travel team isn’t paying attention to the employees’ convenience. If employees are not pleased with the policy-compliant travel and accommodation options provided by the company, they might decide to book through their own channels instead of sticking to the preferred booking tools and vendors. This is a major headache to the travel team, since it affects policy compliance and drastically reduces the company’s visibility into factors like the vendors and the status of the booking process.
The solution to this problem is to provide options your employees will be satisfied with, and AI facilitates this by gathering data to understand your employees’ preferences. Machine learning algorithms are used to analyse employees’ behaviours and recurring patterns, based on the geographical location they are travelling to, to predict the most suitable options for travel and accommodation. These options are tailored to both the employees’ interests and the firm’s travel policy. Properly trained and optimized, these algorithms can provide the perfect travel options within just the first 3 or 4 suggestions, simplifying the travel planning process for everyone.
Using an AI-powered recommendation feature offers a more convenient and quicker way of booking, and saves a substantial amount of time which would otherwise be spent in searching for the best option. Also, your travel manager can use this feature to keep an eye on the booking patterns in employees’ choices to know which vendor contracts to evaluate or renegotiate.
Data-driven booking optimization
According to GBTA’s Global Travel Forecast, airfare was expected to rise by approximately 2.6% in 2019. This naturally motivates travel and finance managers to assess their T&E budgets and figure out how to accommodate this increase. AI is a major help in this situation: AI-powered tools are now predicting airfare prices with impressive accuracy up to one year in advance. Now your travel team can simply pick the date and location for a trip, and see predictions for the best time to buy the air tickets and the best airline carriers to choose. If your travel team uses this feature consistently, its accuracy will improve to the point where its suggestions match your travel team’s needs.
Improved policy compliance
Employees can get pretty crafty in claiming reimbursement for fraudulent or personal expenses. They can easily miscategorize an expense or submit it under a generic, but believable description. A finance team member reviewing these expenses could miss these minute details, which is why you need AI to help. AI spots miscategorized expenses by cross-checking the merchant names across several online sources, so the system can recognize different merchants and know the categories they fall under. Additionally, AI automates the detection of policy violations and duplicate expenses, and its efficiency is significantly better than a human auditor’s. In case of a breach, the employee and their line manager will be notified.
With AI detecting fraudulent reports, your finance team can work on rectifying the problems instead of spending time spotting them. The team can limit its manual intervention to when an auditor needs clarification about certain expenses or needs to resolve an ambiguous error.
With AI’s assistance, you can identify issues and risk areas to nip them in the bud before they snowball into major problems.
Automatic policy adjustments
AI is making waves in the role that travel policy plays in the travel expense management cycle. You might be surprised to know that AI can now automatically adjust travel policies within a company’s expense management system, based on the data it has mined.
For example, if a business traveller books accommodations or plane tickets to London at a price that exceeds the allowed limit, they would normally be flagged for violation. However, if the AI-analysed data shows that there are no hotels or air tickets to London available at a lower price, then the policy is automatically adjusted to reflect the price of travel in that particular city at the given moment. This way, the employee does not get flagged for violation, your travel team does not have to intervene manually, and the finance team does not have to slow down the reimbursement process.
For most trips, the worst that is likely to happen to your employees is a delayed flight or some hurried unpacking at a security checkpoint. However, very rarely, your employees might find themselves amidst natural disasters, accidents, or other major mishaps. When something of this sort happens, your travel manager needs to know right away if any of your employees are in peril so they can implement the steps to get them to safety.
AI has enhanced duty-of-care in many ways:
- Travel managers can get instant alerts about emergency situations around the globe through SMS and email. These alerts are constantly updated, so the travel team can know about ongoing emergencies before travellers set out on their business trips.
- AI paired with a TEM (Travel and Expense Management) mobile application allows both travel managers and employees to see pre-trip risk factors and alerts. Employees can use the expense management application to update their check-ins and their location.
- Travel managers can view the real-time whereabouts of their travelling employees. AI uses machine learning to provide insights on the travellers locations through itineraries, credit card information, and other sources.
The best reward for an employee who complies with the travel policy is prompt reimbursement. However, the fact that most finance teams have to sift through several expense reports every day and audit them thoroughly before reimbursing them tends to delay the process. A major part of the finance team’s time could be saved if they only audited the expense reports that contain policy violations and fraudulent expenses, instead of reviewing every single expense report submitted to them. AI can help the finance team here by auditing and auto-approving the compliant expense reports. This ensures faster reimbursement. Now, while AI handles the compliant reports, your finance team can manage the tricky ones.
Finance managers are always looking for ways to cut travel-related costs. To do that, they need to find the areas that are prone to cash leakage. If your finance and travel teams work together to gather data on this, they will have to collect data from various silos including travel agencies, booking tools, corporate cards, and vendors. Though it is an effective way to get a clear picture of the company’s travel spend, it is not very convenient. Moreover, by the time the finance team presents their findings, the figures are already out of date.
AI can make this process more efficient by gathering data from all the possible sources and then analysing them to single out the most valuable and cost-effective options to offer to employees when they are making travel arrangements. This gives you an overview of your firm’s T&E domain, including travel expenses, spending patterns, employees’ behaviour, and more. With this big picture showing the strong areas and vulnerabilities of your T&E domain, your travel manager can make needed changes, such as analysing the best times for booking and re-evaluating contracts with vendors. Meanwhile, your finance team can save the time and effort of sifting through multiple data sources, and work on finding the root causes and solutions for your spending issues.
Here’s your takeaway!
AI can transform your T&E management in many different ways. It helps your finance and travel administrators in controlling the expenditure, improving compliance, and streamlining the travel management process. As for your employees, AI ensures their comfort and safety throughout their trip. Additionally, the features we’ve discussed above help in reducing cost and manual intervention while increasing visibility. To sum it up, AI falls short of nothing in boosting your travel expense management processes.