Finance strategy 6 min read

5 finance team objectives for a productive 2020

Eve Taylor

There’s never a bad time to update your goals for the year to come. We may already be in February, but most finance teams are just emerging from the rush of January’s year-end close.

You’ve barely had time to think - let alone put big picture objectives in place.

With closing in the rearview mirror, it’s time to set some goals. We’ve spoken to countless finance teams and CFOs who are making serious changes to the way they do business. And naturally, we wanted to know what their new objectives would be.

These are the 5 biggest priorities this year for finance teams we’ve spoken to lately.

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1. Mitigate risk

In many companies, this is the finance team’s first, second, and third goal. You’re there to ensure that spending is responsible, that team members do what they’re supposed to, and to keep the company safe.

This doesn’t just happen by magic. Here are two valuable principles to follow:

Create easy-to-follow processes

Ever notice that other teams don’t take the same level of care with company money as you do? It’s probably not because they don’t care about the company. They just don’t know the correct procedures and find the information hard to find.

Finance teams want rules; employees want convenience.

So you need to create spending processes that feel natural, are simple, and keep them on-policy as a matter of course. Spend management tools are a good example. When a team member needs to spend, they simply log into the platform and follow the steps. You build the policy, limits, and approvals into the system, so they don’t even need to know the rules.

The platform does the police work for you.

Build managerial approvals into finance tools

The best example of managerial approvals is company spending. You have employees spending on behalf of the company - either online with a credit card, or out in the field. And in both cases, they should (in theory) have approval from a manager before a penny is spent.

But as a finance team, you have very little control over this.

Classic spending methods - credit cards and expense claims - aren’t designed with control in mind. Once a spender has the card in their hands, you rely on honesty and a strong company culture to keep spending in check. And the same for expenses - you have to hope that they follow the rules, but you won’t know until the claims come in at the end of the month.

This is why we recommend finance tools - especially spending methods - that have approvals built in. Even with a card in their hands, you can actually withhold funds from employees until their manager has given the green light. Which keeps managers in control of their budgets, and finance in control of overall spending.

And this doesn’t have to come at the cost of employee freedom.

2. Reduce friction

Typically, the flipside of control is freedom. The tighter your grip on company spending, the more hoops other team members have to jump through to actually spend money.

The most obvious example of this is the way some companies protect the company card. If a team member needs to pay online - a new software subscription, for example - they have to personally visit the finance team or even CEO to get the card. This way, the keeper of the card can ask all the questions they need before any money goes out the door.

Of course, this logic falls apart instantly. What happens if the cardholder is out of the office? What if they’re too busy and don’t bother asking those essential questions? What if the employee who needs the card is out of office themselves?

This whole dynamic slows the company down and leads to added face-to-face time.

The truth is, employees want autonomy and trust. They do their best work when they feel free to make decisions. But at the same time, you can’t give everybody open access to the company bank account and credit cards.

You need a way to let employees move quickly and make decisions, but with the ability to set limits and stop unwanted transactions. That goes for spending methods, definitely. But it’s a good rule for all your finance and HR tools.

Give team members hands-on access to these systems, but with limits in place to keep finance in control.

3. Monitor spending in real time

Visibility and data are so important for finance teams. If your chief goal is to remain in control of company finances, how can you do that if you only see spending at the end of the month?

Ask yourself this simple question: do I know, definitively, how much each team has spent this month?

The answer is usually “no.” Or at best, “sort of.” And in many cases, by the time you know what the business teams have spent, it’s too late to do anything about it.

Getting better real-time data involves two factors:

Use payment methods built for modern finance teams

As we’ve seen, traditional expenses are a problem because you don’t know what’s been spent until claims are submitted. Credit cards are similar, especially when you have recurring payments - you may have committed to transactions that haven’t yet been processed, and have no idea.

Finance teams need data about all operational spend available at once, in one place. In reality, this requires payment methods that are connected to a central platform or system. This way you can see spending as it happens, from anywhere.

4. Save time and increase accuracy

Wouldn’t it be better not to have to input the same data over and over? On top of that, you can also ensure that the data you have is more accurately recorded, without having to double- and triple-check it every time. And over time, data quality in general improves considerably.

What you need is automation. And in particular, automation of a few specific tedious spend processes:

Expense claims

We’re not big fans of expense reports. But if you’re going to use them, it’s best to minimise the amount of admin that comes with them. Rather than having employees fill out an Excel sheet, send it to their manager for approval, then forward it on to finance (who then has to manually enter all the details), wouldn’t it be better if they submitted all this digitally?

Modern tools like Spendesk let the user input their claim directly into the system. This includes the reason for spending, the manager who approved it, and even the receipt itself.

All finance has to do is export this data to their accounting tools. No data entry at all. This saves finance teams up to 5 days per month and collects 95% of receipts on time.

End-of-month closing

End of the month is a famously difficult time for finance teams. You have to take data from a whole range of different systems, reconcile it all, and ensure that your books are nice and balanced. Every single month.

The big culprit here is having all those different data sources. You also have important documents like tax receipts that need to be digitised and then matched up against payments in your ledger.

This is where automation is so valuable. First, if spending data is digitised from the beginning, there’s no manual entry for finance teams. So if teams are submitting paper expense claims, receipts, and credit card statements, those have to go.

But tools like Spendesk can take it further. With built-in OCR technology, Spendesk will read your receipts instantly and confirm that they match a particular expense claim or card payment. Your process goes from one-by-one to batch-by-batch overnight.

Automation = accuracy

We like to think that the more we personally have our hands on things, the higher the quality of the work. For example, if you manually enter every expense report yourself into Excel or your accounting tools, you can be sure that the data is accurate.

In fact, human error is one of the biggest problems in everyday accounting. Humans make mistakes over time, but software and machines execute the same tasks in the same way, every time. This lets finance teams from on from tedious manual data entry, to focus on more important review and validation roles.

Automation gives you better data, and gives you the time you need to do more important work.

5. Prioritise homogeneous systems

This is more of a principle than an overall objective. But as you plan your processes for 2020, keep this in mind:

If every company process works a different way, everyone has to learn every process.

And as we saw above, if processes confuse people, people won’t follow them. So instead, try to put in place systems that work the same for different outcomes.

For example, let’s talk spending again. You might have one process for purchasing subscriptions online (shared company cards), a different one for purchases in the field (expense claims), and another still for submitting invoices from freelancers (email to finance).

And it gets more complicated if you have different processes in your various offices in different countries. Essentially, everyone just ends up doing things the way that makes sense to them.

Which is why we recommend you run all operational costs through a spend management platform like Spendesk. Employees only need one process to pay with business expense cards, make expense claims, or submit invoices.

That means less onboarding to new systems, and fewer errors overall. And finance teams have one source of truth.

This approach is also far more scalable. As you open new global entities and welcome more and more team members, they all have the same spending process to follow. They just need to log in.

Simple, clear objectives for your finance team

Those were the five big themes we’ve heard from finance teams over the past few weeks and months. These come up over and over again as companies work to modernise outdated systems.

If you’re not already, your team should:

  • Automate tedious, repetitive processes
  • Build policies into systems, so employees can follow them organically
  • Free other teams to do their best work
  • Move away from policing and become a better business partner

These changes won’t happen overnight, but it’s important to put guiding goals in place.

If these goals sound good, you'll also enjoy this short guide to scalable company spending. It's full of ways to ensure that your business teams have the freedom they need, while finance teams have more control and visibility over spending than ever:

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Eve Taylor

Eve works with modern finance teams to save them time and effort on reconciliation and closing.