Growing the Network Effect Beyond T&E

SAP Concur's Big Idea for a New Network, and Other Highlights from Fusion 2019


SAP Concur recently launched SAP Business Exchange. The vision is bold: to provide an SMB community—across all of SAP and beyond to non-SAP customers—that aggregates purchasing power, provides peer benchmarking, facilitates collaboration, and promotes corporate responsibility. Also at Fusion, we heard about SAP Concur’s continuing progress towards the expense report that writes itself, their use of AI/ML, and other innovations enabling SAP Concur’s clients to simultaneously achieve compliance and employee satisfaction in T&E processes.


SAP Business Exchange

The launch of the SAP Business Exchange might be the most important announcement of the conference — provided it ultimately reaches the full potential of the vision. That vision and details of the launch were described by Christal Bemont, SAP Concur’s SVP & GM of Global Small and Medium Business. The SAP Business Exchange is a platform where small and medium sized businesses can connect with each other and leverage their collective power in several ways:

  • Aggregated purchasing power to give smaller firms ‘big company’ leverage and pricing
  • Contribute to and access industry-wide benchmarking and other data
  • Network and collaborate together
  • Access thought leadership, how-to, and other informational resources
  • Promote economic, social, and environmental good

The platform is open to companies that are not SAP customers. Christal said, “we have a responsibility to show up with a value that is beyond just technology and automating transactions. We need to represent SAP to small and medium businesses in a sustainable way.” I think the choice of words there is intentional as support for sustainability and social responsibility is an important part of the vision. Companies can do well and do good. Studies1 have shown the responsible companies have superior performance.

Monetization Is Not First Priority — Growing Site Usage and Driving Value to Participants Comes First

When asked about how they will monetize it, Ryan Demaray (Vice President, SAP Business Exchange) said, “SAP Concur is focused on meeting the needs of businesses in the SMB space. When we help our customers and partners thrive and grow while simultaneously reaching new customers and markets, our revenues will grow in kind. We are looking for opportunities that are in everyone’s best interest.

Christal added, “We will measure success based on repeat visits to our site and whether participants are getting value from the Exchange.

As of now, they have thought leadership articles and content, discounted partner offers, events, and community connections to ask questions of peers and experts. Later this year they plan to add intelligent spend guidance tools, benchmarking and business insights, a ‘Giving Platform’ with rewards aligned to giving, SAP CBG2 Integration, and expanded partner engagement.

Business Exchange Beyond SAP Concur – Face to SMBs for All of SAP and Partners

Though it is founded by the SAP Concur group, the SAP Business Exchange is intended to be company-wide, as a place for all parts of SAP to interface with SMBs (Small and Medium Businesses). Over time, it will encompass other SAP groups and offerings, such as Ariba Snap, Apparent Financing, Fieldglass, Business ByDesign, SuccessFactors,3 and any other parts of SAP that are relevant to SMBs. As Christal said, “Small businesses don’t really want 17 different SAP sales people showing up. We are trying to build a common [across SAP] platform to help small businesses solve their problems, whatever they may be. And we are doing this with our solution partners — it is not only about SAP.” The initiative has support at the top, from SAP’s board, on down to the other lines of business, with branding from the corporate office.

SAP Concur made it clear that the Business Exchange was not replacing or competing with Ariba Network, but rather compliments and connects to it. They anticipate the potential to use APIs to create combined solutions across SAP to solve specific problems. Christal said they want to challenge the thinking about what exists today. They are working on how to inspire innovation, such as new solutions for cash flow challenges, and new types of data and insights.

Part of the vision is that the exchange can become a broker, connecting people to the information, assets, and services they need. The exchange could provide guidance to community members looking for a solution and drive rebates back to community members. Community members could use the exchange to expand into new markets, find vendors that can meet their needs, learn about the services provided by those vendors, and see the experience that other community members have had with them.

Just the Beginning

Not everyone at the conference (or including the other analysts) seemed as excited as I was about the Business Exchange. I think there are a couple of reasons. First, it is just getting started, so what is there today is just a tiny fraction of what SAP envisions. Second, if you look at each piece separately, some might conclude it is just another marketplace, or just another collaboration platform. But putting them all together and innovating on top of it could create something much bigger. The real key will be adoption, which will be driven by value. Will SAP be able to create a network effect, with more and more companies on the site, more of them finding the providers and customers they seek, innovative uses of the platform such as creating new joint business models, and more. If so, this could be a really big deal for SAP. Time will tell.

Creating Employee Productivity/Satisfaction While Meeting Financial and Compliance Goals

Serving Multiple Masters — Mastering Multiple Objectives

Typically, SAP Concur serves three different constituencies: the travel manager, the finance manager, and the business traveler. The objectives of these three don’t always align easily.

Travel Manager vs. Business Traveler

On one side, the travel manager is being measured on how well they are controlling travel spend. Therefore, their interest is in getting employees to play by the rules, stay within spending guidelines, and use the preferred travel providers so the company can leverage their hard-negotiated pricing agreements. On the other side, the business traveler wants complete freedom in picking their airline, hotel, ground transport, and dining options — with few restrictions on how much they can spend. It is not uncommon for them to go around ‘the system’ to get what they want. Building capabilities to simultaneously meet the needs and wants of both sides of the equation is a large part of what SAP Concur has been doing in the travel area.

Entice and Persuade, Rather Than Mandate

With the tight labor market and critical shortage of skilled labor, along with the high cost of employee turnover (especially for skilled positions), enterprises care a great deal about employee motivation and retention. Outside of the public sector (where everything is ‘by the book’) most enterprises are moving from mandating compliance to persuading, enticing, and creating a path of least resistance that leads the employee to the right choice. Companies are trying to become more flexible. As long as the traveler is staying under budget (or close to it), they will trust employees to find the travel they need.

Going Around the TMC

Major changes in the travel distribution landscape are also causing more business travelers to bypass the TMC (Travel Management Company) that their employer would like them to use and instead go directly to the airlines’ websites to book. The traditional GDS (Global Distribution System) only supports four classes of service — Economy/Coach, Premium Economy, Business Class, and First Class. Therefore, today that is all most TMC agents can offer. Meanwhile, airlines have been making a much richer set of bundles4 available exclusively on their website. Business travelers are interested in these bundles and will book directly at the airline (rather than via the TMC) to get them. Businesses are also interested in providing more choice to travelers, potentially avoiding an expensive upgrade when the traveler would be happy with something in-between.

Select Access and TripLink to the Rescue

SAP Concur has two answers to these big changes in travel distribution. One is Select Access, which brings the airlines’ exclusive bundles into the SAP Concur application for the traveler to see during the booking process. Travel managers will have to adjust their policies to fit all of these micro partitions. They will have to decide if they want each individual traveler to see all the different offers and rules for which offers should take precedence.

The second tool SAP Concur brings is TripLink, which goes beyond just airline bookings to also include hotels, rental cars, train ticketing, and more. With TripLink, SAP Concur code is embedded into the airline or hotel’s website booking processes, thereby capturing any reservations booked directly on the provider’s website by that traveler. Enrollment in TripLink is super simple — a single checkbox for the traveler. The provider’s website (e.g.,, etc.) knows when a TripLink-enrolled traveler is booking a trip by recognizing the traveler’s loyalty number.5 The provider’s website will then present company-specific pricing and bundles to the traveler.

There is some non-trivial back-end work needed to make all this magic happen. TripLink requires an agreement and integration effort between SAP Concur and each partner airline, hotel, or rental car company. As of this writing, SAP Concur has live integrations with 17 TripLink Suppliers, including many of the largest air, hotel, and rental providers such as American, United, British Airways, Marriott, Hyatt, Airbnb, Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG), Hertz, and Avis. In addition to the 17 existing suppliers, 9 more suppliers are currently being integrated.6 This is really important for travel managers who are trying to get a handle on ‘invisible spend’ (i.e. employees not using the official travel tools or services) which averages 56% of hotel bookings, 40% of car rentals, and 28% of air bookings, according to SAP Concur.

So how successful is TripLink? Statistics provided by SAP Concur showed that TripLink is used by over 13,000 of their customers, by 7.5M end users, capturing 4.5M bookings. Currently 10% of total bookings. are captured via TripLink.

Suppliers that are already integrated via TripLink account for about half of all Concur bookings. TripIt can help capture bookings done with non-TripLink suppliers.


TripIt can be considered as the ‘carrot’ to entice employees to use the SAP Concur system to manage travel. It provides useful tools such as single itinerary organizer, travel alerts, and safety information. Building and sharing the itinerary is its core function. It is simple for the traveler, they just forward the email confirmations of any booking or reservation and their itinerary is automatically created. TripLink supplier bookings automatically flow into the app. The larger value for the traveler is alerts and productivity features. They get alerts to go to the airport early if traffic is bad, gate change alerts, and a recently added map feature for connecting flights. In that case, a traveler who is on a leg that is running late can see exactly what gate they will land at, which gate they need to go to for their connecting flight, how much time it should take to walk that far, and how much time they have. They can relax if they have plenty of time to get there, or hustle if they need to. And they are provided a map, so they know turn-by-turn how to get there.

Neighborhood Safety Scores

Another recent feature of TripIt is safety scores down to the level of individual neighborhoods and locations (hotels and restaurants). These are very specific, with scores from 0 (safest) to 100 (riskiest) across six categories: 1) Physical harm (muggings, gangs, police presence), 2) Women’s safety (harassment, assault, women’s support facilities), 3) Health and medical (pollution, sanitary conditions, medical care), 4) Political freedoms (unrest, political rights), 5) Theft (pickpocketing, burglaries, auto), and 6) LGBTQ safety (likelihood of harm or discrimination). They do this using data from a number of trusted third partners, including government and private security company data.

TripIt Pro also provides country-specific information for 180 countries, delivered directly within the context of the traveler’s itinerary.

For companies that don’t use a TMC, Concur Hipmunk provides a self-service online booking tool. Over 1,100 customers have purchased Concur Hipmunk. This allows more visibility and control as well.

Finance Manager vs. Expense-incurring Employee

On one side, the finance manager wants to ensure spending guidelines are followed, receipts and expense reports are properly submitted, and items are correctly classified — and of course keeping the enterprise in budget. On the other side, the business traveler wants to spend the least time possible gathering receipts, entering data, and submitting expense reports. People try to find meaning in their work: doctors and caregivers wants to heal and comfort patients; software engineers want to create the next big thing; salespeople want to close the next big deal. You notice none of them say “I want to spend more time booking travel and submitting expense reports.” The more time spent on administrative tasks the bigger the negative impact employee satisfaction and productivity. The people who travel the most, such as salespeople or busy executives, are often also the least willing to spend time doing paperwork.

Continued Progress Towards the Expense Report That Writes Itself

Hence, SAP Concur has an ongoing objective to dramatically reduce the time and effort users spend preparing expense reports, eventually getting as close as possible to zero. This part of their mission has been encapsulated in their longstanding goal of the “expense report that writes itself,” as we’ve written about in more detail previously. This is dependent on SAP Concur’s ability to capture, categorize, and process all receipts as automatically as possible — a capability they continue to improve each year.

Multi-pronged Approach to Receipt Capture and Categorization

SAP Concur’s multi-pronged approach to receipt capture/categorization includes: 1) TripLink, to capture and manage bookings across multiple channels, including directly with the suppliers, 2) integration into the apps of travel-related service providers (e.g. Uber, Lyft), so anytime someone uses those apps7 it automatically sends receipts to Concur to include in the expense report, 3) emailed travel receipts (such as airline or hotel receipts) that the user simply forwards to Concur, 4) physical receipts, the user takes a picture of, 5) credit card transactions automatically sent to Concur. Thereby, all purchases done via credit cards, Concur-integrated apps, or TripLink enabled sites, are automatically provisionally8 included in the expense report, without any action by the user. For email receipts, the user forwards them; for paper receipts, the user takes a picture and then in both those cases confirms that the system has interpreted the receipt correctly. This last step (interpreting photos and emails) is one of the many places that SAP Concur is applying Machine Learning.

Compliance vs. Employee Productivity and Satisfaction — Moving the Efficient Frontier

In the past, there has been a zero-sum tradeoff between achieving compliance vs. achieving employee productivity and satisfaction. Historically, if you wanted more compliance, you introduced more controls, which creates more work for the employees and introduces more delays into process while waiting for approvals. SAP Concur is using AI/ML (Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning) to move the efficient frontier9 and get the best of both — better compliance and better employee satisfaction/productivity. So far, they have been focusing on handwriting recognition (receipts and invoices), itemization of hotel bills, and a policy bot (checking whether an action or expense is compliant with corporate policy).

SAP Concur’s Verification Group Makes Their AI/ML Smarter Faster

Historically, SAP Concur used OCR10 to interpret the content of a receipt. But OCR is not always that accurate. One of SAP Concur’s advantages has been their verification group; hundreds of people, behind the scenes, verifying the accuracy of the OCR scans,11 thereby ensuring very high accuracy for SAP Concur’s customers. Now SAP Concur is applying AI/ML as well to improve the accuracy of the recognition. Their goal is to reduce the amount of manual verification over time, but meanwhile their verification team is a great resource for training the AI/ML engine. The accuracy of an AI/ML engine is dependent on both 1) the volume and quality of data, and 2) receiving consistent and accurate feedback whenever the AI/ML engine makes a mistake. Regarding 1) data, SAP Concur has the largest collection of travel and expense related data in the world. For 2) feedback, they have their verification group and the end users. When an employee takes a picture of a receipt, machine learning is initially executed on the user’s device, but only to extract the total amount of the receipt. The user is immediately asked to verify the amount. Once verified, the image is sent to the server to do the rest of the processing: extracting the vendor, categorizing the expense types, and so forth.

Managing Throughout the Spend Lifecycle

One way of making compliance easier is to push compliant options to the user, throughout the workflow of planning, booking, spending, and expensing their trip, while notifying managers at the appropriate time. Tim MacDonald (Chief Product Officer) and Deepak Seth (VP Mobile Products) gave a demo to illustrate SAP Concur’s vision. Some of what is described below is available today, some is planned for the future.

In this scenario, the traveler is planning a trip, using the Concur app. After the traveler entered destinations and dates, the app warned the employee that the duration of their stay will put them over the non-resident income tax threshold12 for one of the states they are travelling to. To remedy this, the traveler decided to shorten the trip by two days, and then sent the request to their manager. The manager was able to instantly see, directly within the approval workflow, the impact on their budget. Seeing it would be within their budget, they single-click approved the trip.

The traveler than started booking flights and hotel directly from the app. With a single tap, they found the best flight, but it was $200 over the approved $400. They booked anyway and a notification was sent to their boss. This way, there were no surprises at the end of the process. As early as possible, there is consideration of budget and policy compliance. Once booked, the travel was automatically added to the user’s calendar.

Next the traveler was on the plane and received an alert on the app warning there is only 30 minutes between expected arrival and the connecting flight boarding. But it also showed the expected walking time and there was no problem. In fact, he decides to get a bite to eat. While deciding what to order, he spoke into the Concur app and asked, “How much can I spend on lunch,” which replied, “You can spend $75.”

Then an alert popped up about an earthquake near the conference he was attending. Note that the traveler had not booked their hotel through the Concur app, but nevertheless, Concur had access to the traveler’s calendar, saw what conference they were attending, and accessed the conference’s website to determine what location the traveler would be at. This is part of SAP Concur’s multi-source approach to determining a traveler’s current or planned location. The alert also asked if the traveler was OK, and he confirmed yes. This last part of the scenario is from SAP Concur’s Locate product for ensuring Duty of Care.

When it was time to fill out the expense report, there was a big multi-item hotel bill that SAP Concur was able to correctly itemize. One of the receipts was in Kanji (Japanese text). It was able to capture the correct amount, figured out that currency was Yen, that this was an individual meal expense type, and captured the location, date, and vendor. Keep in mind these were demos, with items that they know will succeed on stage — or in some cases canned results. Nevertheless, it gives a good picture of the vision and direction — and much of this is available today.

Tim MacDonald said, that going forward they will manage the entire lifecycle, optimize the entire journey for both travelers and employers. This includes real-time alerting and dynamic controls that prevent employees from doing something or influence better decisions — he gave the income tax threshold warning or budget guidance as examples. By making employees aware of policies before they spend or commit, problems can be avoided.

SAP Concur has a strong vision and has already made much progress towards improving both compliance and employee productivity/satisfaction throughout the travel and expense process.


1 Many research studies have been conducted on the impact of corporate social responsibility (CSR) on corporate financial performance (CFP). While some differ in their conclusions, the majority of these studies show a positive correlation between CSR and CFP (per meta-analyses by Margolis, Elfenbein, and Walsh (2007) and by Orlitzky, Schmidt, and Rynes (2003)). — Return to article text above
2 CBG is SAPs Cloud Business Group, which consists of their major enterprise cloud applications: SAP Concur, Ariba, Fieldglass, Customer Experience, SuccessFactors, and Qualtrics. These will not be integrated all at once, but in a planned sequence. — Return to article text above
3 Ariba Snap is a procurement solution for SMBs. Apparent Financing is a set of financing options, based on a business’s Ariba data. Fieldglass provides procurement and management of services and external workforce, Business ByDesign is a cloud-based ERP for mid-sized companies. SuccessFactors is a cloud-based HR solution. — Return to article text above
4 These are called New Distribution Capability content (NDC) which is the technical standard for carriers to sell these packages that are broader than the traditional taxonomy. The current GDS system does not allow that personalization and packaging. Over time, GDS will evolve, but it will take many years and hundreds of millions of dollars. — Return to article text above
5 The business traveler will have already entered their travel loyalty numbers in the SAP Concur app in order to collect loyalty points. This is how the enrollment process can be made so simple, literally a single click. — Return to article text above
6 The complete current list can be found hereReturn to article text above
7 Note the user must enable SAP Concur integration within the app. This is typically in the apps settings asking for payment method and email for business expenses. — Return to article text above
8 The user must go through the list of expenses that SAP Concur has auto-included in the expense report, to confirm whether all the items belong in the report or not. — Return to article text above
9 The concept of the efficient frontier was first used by investors in portfolio theory, to describe the tradeoff showing that you can have a low-risk, safe investment or one with high average returns, but not both at the same time. In supply chain, we sometimes use that term to express the tradeoff between inventory and service levels, for which there are formulas to calculate the tradeoff — more inventory (more expense) gives you higher service levels. “Moving the efficient frontier” is achieved by having better intelligence about demand and supply and by having responsive systems, enabling companies to simultaneously lower their inventory levels while raising their service levels. — Return to article text above
10 OCR = Optical Character Recognition — Return to article text above
11 That group does a lot more than verifying receipt and invoice scans. They can check for compliance with policy as well as adjudicate with the employee/traveler. SAP Concur clients like that service since it can be difficult for an AP clerk to go to an EVP and say “you can’t do this, it is out of policy.” — Return to article text above
12 Different countries and various states in the US set a threshold of how many days you can work in their state or country before you have to pay income tax. This varies widely from state to state and country to country. In the US, some states start taxing the first day you work in the state. Others have a time period, mostly ranging from 10 to 60 days, after which you need to start paying the nonresident income tax. — Return to article text above

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