Four ways to simplify expense reports

Even the smallest business can streamline the expensing process--it doesn't take a whiz at the Web, and it doesn't have to cost you a penny.

Even the smallest improvement in your business processes can return a hefty bonus to the bottom line

There are plenty of places to look for such returns. My pick for the week: expense reports. Businesses that send workers out into the real world, whether overnight for a sales call or for months on end as part of a consulting contract, have to learn how to manage employee expense reports. And from where I sit--in front of a PC--that doesn't mean shuffling a bunch of paper forms.

YES

Even the smallest business can streamline the expensing process--it doesn't take a whiz at the Web, and it doesn't have to cost you a penny. I've drawn up a four-section strategy for small businesses that want to put expense reporting in its place: on a PC, or on the Web.

Templates save time
Armed with a laptop and a copy of Excel, your on-the-road employees can create and file down-and-dirty expense reports, or they can wait until they're back in the business place to crank them out. Either way, you can cut out the paper by using an Excel template.

Excel 97, 2000, and the soon-to-be-released 2002 (part of the new Office XP suite) come with a simple Expense Sheet template. To bring it up, launch Excel, pick New from the File menu, browse the available templates, select ExpenseSheet, and click on OK.

If you don't see it the template on your PC, head to Microsoft's Template Gallery for a fresh copy. Click the "Edit in Microsoft Excel" button, and the template downloads and opens within Excel. Use File/Save to save a copy of this template to your hard drive. And if you or your employees forget to pack the template when you travel, you (and they) can go online and grab it from the Microsoft site.

For something more sophisticated, check out Expense Report Manager, which offers a pair of templates: one handles a week of expenses, while the other accounts for up to a month. You'll need to shell out $20 for this shareware after you exhaust the 10-launch trial run to continue to use these templates.

Filling out all those expense reports won't do any good unless your people can ship them to the appropriate person to authorize the expenditures and cut a check. Employees can take care of this chore in several ways--I'll name three in the next section. In keeping with the no-paper concept, you'll want your workers to transmit their expense reports electronically. E-mail's the obvious answer, but not the only route from employee to accounting.

Ship them via e-mail. E-mail is the most efficient way to send spreadsheet-based expense reports to their destination. Workers can mail reports to the appropriate person in Accounting with Excel's File/Send To/Mail Recipient, or if there's an established authorization chain-of-command, to all those who need to know using the File/Send To/Routing Recipient command. Routing Recipient lets you set the order of the people that a file, in this case the expense report, reaches. And if your business upgrades to Office XP later this year, employees can use the enhanced Send To command within Excel to create an e-mail message and attach a file with a single click.

Send them to an online file storage site. Sometimes e-mail's just not practical--perhaps because the employee is filling out an expense report from home, and your business doesn't allow remote access to the company's e-mail. One alternative route is to use an online storage site.

Both Office 2000 and XP, for instance, can save files to and open files from an online storage site at Microsoft's MSN Web portal. The storage space is free--a Microsoft Passport account is the only requirement--and as long as all parties know the Passport account's ID and password, they can all use the space to access all the documents. A field rep could, for instance, file her expense report from the road by saving it to the storage site from within Excel; later, her supervisor could open the file from the online "drive." This feature's built into Office XP, but Office 2000 users need to download and install an add-in from the Microsoft Web site.

Fax them. Employees can also fax expense report to the home office from within Office, although this does nothing to trim the paper tide. Use this option only as a last resort.

Even though the Excel solution works well for most businesses, it's not as elegant as the kind of all-on-the-Web expensing system that application service providers (ASP) deliver. . I'll cover this idea next. The slickest, though not the cheapest, solution for managing expense reports is to use an ASP that hosts online expense reports and offers a way for supervisors and business owners to approve and manage submitted reports. The profit here is in time and access: handling everything online means less paper to push around, while open availability lets workers submit reports from any Net-connected, browser-equipped computer. That latter benefit means employees can complete and file reports easily from the field, while in-house users don't need to be taught another application.

The downside? ASPs that automate expensing and put the whole process online are expensive. The going rate, about $10 per user per month, may be more than your small businesses can swallow. ASPs that specialize in delivering time, billing, and expensing service include TimeSlips, Elite, and OnAir.com.

NetLedger's an exception. Although this ASP is best known for its Web-based small business accounting software, its Online Employee Access add-on ($9.95 per month for each group of five users) gives employees time-tracking and expense reporting privileges. Of course, this doesn't do you any good unless you're also subscribing to NetLedger for accounting.

An ASP's expense report solution may sound ideal, but when the price is more than you're willing to pay, there is a poor person's substitute that I've devised. Want to know the story? It's in the last section. If you like the idea of a Web-based expense reporting system but can't afford ASP prices, you can publish an HTML version of your Excel-based expense report to your Internet site or intranet. All that's needed to access and fill out the report is Internet Explorer 4.01 or later, and Office Web Components, which are automatically installed with Office 2000 and XP. Users don't even need to have Excel installed.

Bring the Excel expense report template up on the screen. Enter your company name and your fine-print policies about reimbursement, and use Save As to save a copy to your PC. Next, select File/Save as Web Page, and when the dialog box appears, make sure to check the "Add interactivity" box before clicking Save. You'll probably want to finesse the formatting and size of this interactive worksheet before placing it on your intranet or Internet site; FrontPage works best here.

Although this is an interactive report--dollars get tallied--it's not a Web form. Users of this Excel spin-off can't submit the report electronically right from the browser, since saving the result as an HTML file doesn't include the data entered into the form. Instead, show your workers how to select and copy the spreadsheet, including the data they've entered in its cells, then paste it within another document in a word processor--the one application you can virtually guarantee is on their computer. That document, in turn, can be e-mailed, sent to an online file storage site, or faxed.

Okay, so it's no competition for a dedicated ASP. But then, it doesn't cost $10 a month per worker, does it?

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