by Angela R. Garber
Business trips are hell. first there’s the airline ticket. Then a couple of tasteless meals in the airport, a rental car and a few tanks of gas, or perhaps countless cabs to and from the hotel, client dinners, overpriced phone calls from the hotel room, and copies at the copy center. Finally, the trip comes to an end. Then comes the biggest headache of all: T&E time.
Now you’ve got a wallet full of receipts. The trick is not to lose them or forget what they’re for before you get back to the office and have a chance to write up an expense report. If the business trip was for multiple clients, or multiple projects for just one client, it can be nearly impossible to get everything right.
PR 21, a 110-employee public relations firm with $12 million in annual revenues, knows well the difficulties of recording, approving, billing, and reimbursing travel and entertainment expenses. It has four offices and about 75 clients, but when it launched almost three years ago, depended on its parent company’s T&E “system.”
“It was a word processing document that had been printed out and copied a hundred times,” Bob Taylor, PR 21’s CFO, says. “You wrote out your expenses, pulled out a calculator, and totaled them up.” The paper-based reports were then handed off to a supervisor who reviewed them and passed them on to the accounting department, where the information was keyed into the billing system. The old system was time consuming, wasteful, and left too many opportunities for delay and error.
Since then, PR 21 has solved many of these problems. After trying out different automation methods, the company purchased software that gave them a Web-based T&E package. Now employees can enter expenses into their reports from the office or on the road, managers can approve them on line, and they are automatically entered into the accounting program with no duplication of effort.
The basics of travel and entertainment expense reporting are the same for most companies. Each client is identified with a letter-based code. For each client there may be a string of associated job codes — usually a series of three- or four-digit numbers attached to the client code. As a public relations firm, PR 21 may have one client for which it is promoting several different products, and each product may have three or four different projects going at any one time. Most often, each project has its own distinct budget.
It all becomes quite confusing, and anyone trying to fill out a T&E report manually can get a serious hand cramp. PR 21 was growing quickly and realized that if it wanted to keep up, it needed to automate the process. The first foray into automated T&E was a baby step, Taylor says. “There was an interim phase where we were on a client-server software package where you could enter your T&E information on screen, but you had to have the software on your computer and you had to be inside a networked office environment.”
It certainly was an improvement over the old hand-written reports, and it cut down on the re-keying of data by the accounting department, but it didn’t help with the problem of accumulating receipts while on the road, or allowing managers to approve and submit reports even if they were out of the office. In September 1999, PR 21 signed on with Maconomy, a Web-based time and billing package. In January 2000 the accounts payable process went live and by February 2000 it was fully integrated and up and running.
“Now the entire backbone is TCP/IP,” Taylor says. “If you have a live modem line and a Web browser you can access it from anywhere. It points you to a HTTP address, and you’re in.”
PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER
During the five months they spent getting the new system up, there was a lot of data to be transferred and no opportunity to troubleshoot it on the fly.
“It took an average of about two consultants from Maconomy and a half-dozen people internally to get all the information transferred over to the new system and in working order,” he says.
So far, Taylor has had no complaints. The system does more than just keep track of employee travel and entertainment spending. It links with accounts payable, time and billing, and payroll. There is a Maconomy icon on each employee’s desktop, and it can also be loaded onto laptops and PDAs. An employee just has to click on the icon and the Web-based graphic template is launched. Entering an ID and password allows access to any number of functions, depending on the employee’s position in the company.
Ninety percent of the workforce needs just enough access to enter a time sheet and an expense report, review them, and submit them for approval, Taylor says. But account supervisors, VPs, and other account leads have the ability to pull up client- or project-specific information to review their teams’ time and expenses. At any point during the project or billing cycle, they can check to see if actual expenses are on track with budgeted expenses. They also have the opportunity to approve or reject reports on line without having to shuffle papers and run back and forth between offices.
“The system allows users to work on their T&Es as they incur expenses and save them for later completion,” Taylor says. “A closing routine sends a signal to the system that the employee is done playing with it. The manager is notified with an e-mail that a report has been submitted by her employee for approval. She pulls it up, reviews it, and hits the approve button. It is then automatically submitted to accounting.”
In addition to approving reports on line, managers can also flag any items that seem questionable. If necessary they can “unsubmit” a report and send it back to the employee for clarification or correction.
Of course, once the expenses have been approved, an employee is eagerly waiting to be reimbursed. PR 21 has created a template that works with its ADP payroll account to speed that process along as well. Now it’s as easy as e-mailing a file.
“Obviously there’s a process you have to go through to generate that cash request out of payables, because it’s a payable system,” Taylor says. “We set up an interface with ADP, so we can now send them a file with the basic cash information for each employee, including employee number, the number of the expense report, and how much they need to be reimbursed. ADP automatically kicks out that request and cuts a check for direct deposit.”
If they didn’t have to keep all those receipts for the IRS and tax auditors, they’d really be in business.