Managing travel and expense (T&E) is a complicated business. Employees who travel frequently want to follow their own preferences, regardless of rules; and employees who travel infrequently can’t remember the rules. At the University of Colorado (CU), we approached changes in this area from the perspectives of both the university and its employees: How could we deliver cost savings while improving the customer experience?
With four distinct campuses and an administration office, CU encompasses multiple stakeholders and a variety of cultures, none of which is inclined toward mandated policies. We used multiple travel agencies, which did not always provide consistent advice; and the paper-based expense reimbursement process was slow—and exacerbated by department administrators’ habit of forwarding unallowable expenses, relying on accounting staff to say “No.”
To bring structure and consistency to T&E, the university completed its rollout of a new expense system in March 2010, followed by the travel side in May 2011. We followed these steps:
- Understand the customers and the process. Our paper-based process required a manual audit of 100 percent of expense reports, whether those reports related to simple mileage or a complex international trip. CU employees often waited three weeks to receive reimbursement.
- Identify advances in technology and best practices. Our research prompted us to implement Concur Travel & Expense, an automated expense management system, eliminating the need for piles of papers and receipts that can easily get lost in campus mail. It saves time for both travelers and accounting staff by applying per diem and mileage reimbursement rates. We also use the system to reconcile our procurement cards, reinforcing users’ understanding of the system across multiple applications.
- Incorporate policies into systems. We went from using five travel agencies to one company familiar with the new system. Travelers can book either through the company or do it themselves online in the system: most (61 percent) prefer the latter. We also negotiated with three airlines for university pricing, available through either booking option. On the expense side, the system prompts users for information, such as official function and receipt, to promote compliance with CU policies and reduce auditing.
- Provide support. CU provides general instruction and one-on-one support to employees through 24/7 online training; onsite training; and a finance/procurement help desk. We recently introduced a series of e-mails targeted at the 66 percent of employees who travel infrequently (less than once a year) to provide just-in-time training. Booking a trip triggers the first e-mail reminder about travel procedures; subsequent messages arrive five days before a trip and on the last day of a trip.
- Establish meaningful communications. Throughout the transformation, CU surveyed employees’ reactions and gathered metrics to assess progress. Through bimonthly newsletters and semiannual town-hall sessions, we reported back on decisions and new directions.
- Regularly assess and refine. A T&E survey conducted every fall provides feedback for changes and updates. Currently, we’re promoting two mobile applications: Concur Mobile (to book trips and review/approve expense reports) and TripIt Pro (to consolidate travel bookings and trip information in one place).
Results of our T&E transformation are impressive:
- We eliminated manual review for simple expense reports (for example, mileage/parking under $500). In FY14, almost 11,000 reports (26 percent) were auto-processed.
- The vast majority (93 percent) of CU airline tickets are booked through the system or the travel management company.
- Savings from our new airline contracts totaled $260,000 in FY14.
- Reimbursement turnaround has plummeted from three weeks to one day, with funds deposited into employee bank accounts via the automated clearinghouse network.
- The number of FTEs processing expense reports has decreased from 6 to 1.75, allowing us to reallocate resources to other areas.
Most important, we’ve improved the overall T&E experience at CU: User satisfaction is 81 percent positive.
SUBMITTED BY Sandy Hicks, assistant vice president and chief procurement officer, University of Colorado.