5 key tips for implementing an expenses system

25th Mar 2021
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I’m a big believer in there being nothing as valuable as real-life experience and some of the most useful skills I have picked up haven’t been as a result of training, but have been a by-product of being on a project team.

One of the first projects I ever led was implementing an expenses system and I learned lessons that I still use today, many of which apply whatever type of project you are involved in.

1 - Understand what you are trying to achieve before you try to achieve it!

When I joined the company they sat me in a room with a bunch of literature about the system they had committed to and told me that it was probably the best place to start. So I spent a day learning all about the system, what it could do and how all the little buttons worked and at the end of the day I was really none the wiser!

You see modern systems are so function-rich that it’s a waste of time trying to learn all about what they could do for you. So what I did was to go out into the business and try and understand what this new system should do for us. What problems were we seeking to resolve? What issues had we had in the past? What extra features would add value or reduce lost time?

Then when I had a list of what I wanted to do, I could match it up with all of the things that the system could help with. This was very useful because it meant that I didn't waste time setting up, configuring and training people on things that we just didn't need. It also meant that I thought a little more creatively about the whole process rather than simply copying what we already did.

2 - Get your data right before you start

I’d like to say that I thought this one up all on my own but I’m afraid I can’t claim the credit. We had a consultant from the software provider who told me over a coffee that one of the things that would save me the most time was making sure that any data I was thinking of bringing into the system was right before I migrated it over.

She was spot on, it was much easier to cleanse the data where it was or on an excel spreadsheet rather than trying to do it in a brand new system and this had an important side-benefit.

Even though we weren’t bringing in much in the way of data, having any errors would take time to correct, but even more importantly they would erode trust.We noticed for example that one of the department names had been spelt incorrectly in the original system, a problem that everyone had ignored because they had got used to it. But if we’d brought across the error it would have shown people that the project team had a lack of attention to detail and would have just encouraged them to find other faults with the new software.

Getting the data right from the start means that you can spend time making sure the system works properly and that people know how to use it, rather than sorting out spelling errors.

3 - The projects holy trinity

You can have speed, quality or a low-price, but not all three. Simple.

This doesn’t just apply to projects, it crosses into all parts of your life. So you want your software implemented quickly and you need it to be good quality? Then you are going to need to employ a lot of resources to do it. You want a meal really quickly and you don’t want to pay much, then you aren’t going to get gourmet cooking!

As any project manager will tell you, you can have two out of the three with the holy trinity. But you can’t have it all.

I’d always advise anyone that they have to decide which two are most important and then concentrate on those aspects. Most companies would go for a good quality system at a reasonable price in my opinion but there are legitimate reasons why you may need to prioritise speed. The important thing to note though is that every time you increase quality, or you want something quicker or cheaper, then another aspect of your project is going to suffer.

This isn't to say all expense management solutions are created equal, however. Some solutions have greater functionality and useability despite being similar in price and implementation speed. Shop around to make sure you get the best deal.


4 - Time spent planning is never wasted

As I mentioned at the start of the article, this was the first project I had ever led and so I was determined to get a good outcome for my client. When I started work I spent a long time planning my project, making sure that I had covered every area. I did this because I’d been a member of a project team in a previous job that didn't go brilliantly and the reason was that none of us knew what we were supposed to be doing from one day to the next.

The project manager had done so little planning that every time a new task came up it was a bit of a shock and so we’d done no preparation at all. I was determined to make sure we didn't suffer from the same problem so I planned all the tasks I had to get done when they were going to be completed and who was going to do them.

Yes, it feels like you are wasting time at the start when all you want to do is get moving but what you will find is that the project moves along quicker and suffers fewer issues if you have a great project plan in place.


5 - Not everyone has a smartphone

So this was a bit of an odd one but we implemented an awesome system that worked fantastically well and had a great app. We wrote up all the training and rehearsed a superb initial introductory webinar. It all looked great. We’d even tested it ourselves using fake data just to make sure that the system worked and we tested it on iPhone, Android and even a windows phone.

All was going well and we delivered the first introductory webinar. When we got to questions we hit a rock.

“Will it work on my Nokia 3110?”

Unbelievably our wonderful app worked great on smartphones but of course, it was totally useless for dumbphone users and unforgivably we hadn’t thought to put together an alternative way to use our system.

So when you are implementing any solution, make sure you have multiple ways to use it, whether that is by an app, laptop or desktop.


Bonus tip 6 -  just because people are reluctant, doesn’t make them bad people

This was one I couldn’t leave out of my 5 best lessons as it happened on the same project so I’ve slotted it in as a bonus item. I had two heads of department who I got on really well with.

I talked them through the project and they both seemed really keen until we got into a project meeting when all hell broke loose! They argued like cat and dog and I just couldn’t get them to agree to anything.

The positive people I had spoken to had suddenly gone to change reluctant obstructors who wouldn’t let anything go. I couldn’t reconcile the two until I spoke with one of the other managers who explained that there was history between them. They’d both been with the company for 20+ years and both wanted what was best for the business, they just habitually disagreed with each other about how that would be achieved. So whilst they both agreed with me, they disagreed with each other about exactly the same thing! One said black so the other one automatically said white.

It took a while and a bit of creativity to get them to (separately) agree to changes we wanted to make but in the end, we managed to get them to sign up to our improvements. They weren’t bad people, they’d just got into bad habits.

Ironically the last time I saw them was at the project wrap up party and they were having a great time chatting together about football over a beer!

Every experience is valuable

At the time some of the things I went through on that project made me angry, frustrated, upset, worried and all manner of other emotions. But in retrospect, the biggest lesson I learned is that even when things aren’t going your way, there are great takeaways that will stand you in good stead in the future.

My advice is to see every challenge as a learning situation, I promise that you’ll find your blood pressure will benefit as a result!

If you're looking for a modern expense management system, check out Access Expense. Designed to make expenses easy, Access Expense removes manual processes, helps enforce your expense policy, improves the employee experience and enables you to make better financial decisions - freeing you up to focus on what’s important. Download the brochure today.