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Getting ready for VAT digitisation: automation is key

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Christiaan Van Der Valk, Vice President for Strategy and Regulatory at Sovos, says technology will power real strategic success for companies required to follow continuous transaction controls (CTCs).

A growing number of governments and businesses around the world are adopting digital-first approaches for a multitude of processes, resulting in a need to move away from traditional paper-based invoicing and embrace real-time tax reporting. This trend has been largely led by Latin American countries such as Brazil, Chile and Mexico. Through adopting real-time reporting via electronic invoicing systems, they have been able to better understand their economies, reduce fraud, and close VAT gaps.

The shift to continuous transaction controls (CTCs) allows transaction data to be automatically streamed to governments, reducing the need for resource-intensive business systems and document audits for tax administrations. Through the use of rich, standardised data, tax authorities are able to compute a business’s tax liability. Businesses are generally not required to be heavily involved in this process.

With this requirement – combined with invoicing – businesses would be able to avoid filing periodic tax returns, relieving them of the burden of running VAT compliance teams and filing reports that bring no benefit. The practice, however, calls for a more comprehensive data management approach and proactive data reconciliation across different sources of government-controlled transaction data. For this reason, companies need access to a high-quality dataset in case they must challenge government-determined tax liability.

It can be problematic to have poor data quality in a VAT environment that relies heavily on legacy reporting. For example, there have been instances in which reports were inconsistent or didn’t correspond to accounting data in audits. Consequently, fines or penalties may be imposed. However, in the world of CTCs the consequences of data quality issues are of a very different magnitude. Your financial and physical supply and demand chains can practically grind to a standstill if your data isn’t approved by the tax administration – especially in nations where the tax administration ‘clears’ the invoice in real-time such as in Italy, Mexico and Brazil.

Many businesses with responsibilities in VAT jurisdictions are missing something important here. Beginning to utilise automation and other more specialised tools for producing VAT returns is a critical step toward harnessing the benefits from the mandated transition to CTCs as opposed to focusing on the challenges.

Manual is outdated

A lot of businesses are still using manual processes like spreadsheets to manage their VAT compliance, which essentially involves the time-consuming production and submission of VAT returns.

Through implementing technology like automated rules in software, companies can maximise the validity of VAT data. As well as simplifying and re-risking VAT reporting activities, the effort required to design the steps to enhance data using automated rules engines means establishing structured definitions of ‘what’s wrong with your transaction data?’ These definitions can then be used to identify the cause of quality concerns in upstream business processes and address them in order to dramatically improve CTC readiness.

For many businesses, the majority of quality concerns are down to the manual and paper-based processes used in internal workflows and trading partner relationships. Therefore, automation will play a vital role in properly preparing for CTCs.

Preparing data in this manner for VAT enforcement means that a business is paving the way for a more data-driven approach to compliance in general. Companies will increasingly be required to coordinate data being submitted to tax administrations automatically from a range of business process and accounting systems, once CTCs and other VAT digitisation initiatives become operational.

Keeping up to date with the expanding scope of information that is handed over to tax administrations in these automated data transmissions is crucial, so that companies can maintain a level of control over the image of their business operations that is constructed for the tax authorities.

As well as this, a business may benefit from this insight across data encompassing the full supply chain and transactions.  For instance, this information gathered could be turned into tactics to help with strategic planning.

Business leaders may reduce expenses, boost resilience, and improve controls by automating tax and business operations and adopting a data-driven approach to compliance, allowing for a more accurate and detailed understanding of granular reporting needs.

Organisations should prioritise the building of dashboards utilising modern analytics tools to prepare for this huge transition. It’s also important to have a well-organised evidence base with clean digital archives. Technology and the insight it brings will be the driving factor for real strategic success as economies recover from the pandemic.

Data flow is key

As tax authorities and governments work to reduce VAT gaps, greater visibility into corporate databases is at the top of their agenda. This is accomplished through the government’s digitisation of all tax reporting, in which data is delivered at regular intervals that correspond to the flow of transactions and the government’s data requirements.

It is imperative that transaction data, relevant primarily for VAT purposes (though not exclusively), be received in a transactional manner. Meanwhile, other types of information, like payment data or inventory movement, may be requested on a weekly or monthly basis, whereas broader accounting data might be requested more frequently.

The introduction of CTCs should not be viewed as an IT formality, but as the first step in tax administrations gaining easy, timely and effective access to source data. The digitisation of tax will enable administrations to access data on a regular basis, as well as at a granular level.

As companies transition from manual data entry into this new world of automated data exchange, they should concentrate on why this change is important rather than how it is happening. The real prize here is not getting the ‘plumbing’ to work according to government specifications; focusing on this ‘how’ question means that companies may be missing out on a potentially critical business enabler, but equally they may be inadvertently setting themselves up for much higher levels of compliance risk.

With the introduction of CTCs and various forms of detailed digital reporting, companies should be prepared to be exposed to much more stringent audits. The reason for this is that data quality or consistency issues will gradually become more transparent to tax administration teams, which will increasingly be enabled to respond to even the smallest inconsistencies that may previously have gone under the radar with surgical precision.

The higher level of visibility allows tax authorities to cross-check more company data, its trading partners and third parties’ data. These abilities will be vastly improved as more governments complement CTC requirements with mandates for SAF-T and similar electronic auditing requirements. Through thorough analysis of this growing mass of real-time and historic data, a firm’s operations can be fully understood.

Successfully adapting to CTCs means investing in the journey rather than the destination. As everything becomes more digitised, organisations must stay on top of these changes and maintain the same level of data insights as tax authorities do. There will be a growing need for this as more countries introduce CTC regimes (both France and Germany are on the horizon).

Adapting business tools to deliver better data insights is essential to facilitating tax digitisation, both to satisfy global tax authorities and to achieve a competitive advantage in the market. In short, companies should remain fully alert and prepared to ensure a smooth transition and successful outcome of CTCs, which are the logical next step on the road to business transparency.

The domino effect of CTCs

The willingness of autonomous governments to accept digital tax reporting will determine how widespread its implementation becomes. Following more than a decade of success with these methods in Latin America, governments all over Europe, for example, have made major moves toward introducing CTCs. In doing so, there is a great deal of preparation that international companies need to do which can take a considerable amount of time and resources.

In all jurisdictions with indirect tax systems, moving toward increasingly digitised tax controls is the only path. With real-time data, governments can better understand and analyse their country’s economic health, while also enhancing fiscal controls and reducing fraud. It’s just a matter of time until these digital programmes become standard practice on a global level, as countries all across the world begin to recognise their success in reducing fraud, increasing efficiency and closing VAT gaps.

Finance

Is your business ready for finance automation?

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Mari-Frances Bentvelzen, Business Head and General Manager of Global SMB at SAP Concur

 

As managers continue to drive their businesses through these uncertain economic times, it is important for them to properly equip and guide their organisations. Small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are looking to save money during this inflation crisis. By looking carefully into different areas, there are many hidden costs that can be found to combat rising expenses and interest rates.

With 2023 approaching, it’s time for businesses to be more proactive towards improving their processes. Automating administratively heavy tasks can be hugely beneficial in saving time and resources, both of which can have a big impact on the bottom line.

Although travel logistics, expense tracking and invoice processing can sound like a lot of background noise, these processes can all be optimised through automation. This offers more visibility for finance leaders and helps free up valuable time and resources for employees within the organisation.

Identify which key areas need automation

The first step to adopting automation is highlighting which areas can be improved with specific technology. This includes auditing the business and identifying which areas are outdated. From this point, businesses need to determine which processes and procedures may benefit from digital transformation. High on the list are manual processes and data input — two areas that often are riddled with mistakes and delays. Automating these areas proves to be useful for both the organisation and its employees.

Another common issue that finance leaders face is lack of access into full spend visibility. To improve decision making, managers must be confident about the trusted insights, transparency and perspectives in their business. Reporting tools and automated processes can help verify expenses through integration with other vendors and systems.

Without automation, it is difficult for finance departments to ensure all data has been inputted and centralised. This can make it difficult to determine the most appropriate and potentially effective areas to target cost-saving measures. Spend management solutions can, however, provide finance leaders with full visibility into where their money is being spend, enabling any spend that does not correlate with policy to be flagged. This can help businesses to reduce non-compliant spend and increase policy and regulatory compliance.

Find the best solution for both business and employees

Once these areas are identified, the business must adjust for compliance requirements, infrastructure changes and spend changes. Finance leaders should select the best solution to streamline current processes, whilst also improving budgetary controls and employee safety and satisfaction.

It is important for companies to place employee experience and innovation at the forefront of decision making, with training and ongoing employee support. Expenses — the reimbursement process, specifically — often have an under-appreciated role in employee engagement.

In fact, the new SAP Concur Employee Experience study reveals that 70% of employees in the UK are concerned about the impact of cost-of-living increases on their personal finances. And it’s late reimbursements for expenses that are causing employees to worry, with 56% worried about delayed reimbursements impacting their personal finances. This is why it is crucial for organisations to adopt automation to help accelerate processes and relieve reimbursement worry.

We worked with Brother UK (Printing and technology solutions) to automate their processes within their internal finance department. Brother has many employees who have worked for the company for more than two decades, with many processes identical to the day they started. Unsurprisingly, these employees were reluctant to making big changes, as they were used to carrying out their work in very specific ways. And with the obvious talent crisis, Brother realised that it was more important than ever to focus on the employee experience.

Brother put their employees first, ensuring communication remained transparent during the entire project. The company also brought staff directly into the decision-making process, elevating buy-in and a sense of ownership over forthcoming changes.

Now that Bother has automated many financial tasks, employees within the finance department are able to spend more time on strategic and rewarding work, rather than menial and time-consuming tasks. This improvement has been a positive experience for all. It has also helped employees to progress further in their careers.

Plan for the unpredictable future

Do you work for an SMB considering such changes? Don’t hesitate — now is the time to take the proactive step to streamline and grow your business. Overall, SMBs are being faced with the unknown and are being forced to adapt or pivot their business models. Finance automation will help futureproof your business during these uncertain times, bringing a level of stability to your organisation. This will allow employees to focus on future growth ambitions and make more informed decisions without having to worry about laborious tasks.

It’s important to remember a key part of running any business is relationship management — both with customers and employees. It’s important to choose solutions that will help drive profit margins whilst also acknowledging employee needs. For small businesses, maintaining clear communication with employees will not only help to ensure solution implementation is successful, but will also help to soften any resistance to automation.

And there’s so much more beyond basic finance automation. By taking an even deeper dive into invoices and expenses, businesses can find key data to help underpin certain goals such as reducing carbon emissions for business travel or enabling employees to submit expenses from anywhere at any time.

In the long run, digitising tired manual processes makes it more affordable for all businesses, no matter the size, to offer a competitive advantage during this era of change.

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Finance

Cost of living: How to identify vulnerable customers

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Ellie Engley is account director at REaD Group

 

In the current climate, the cost of living crisis is a real challenge for financial services companies who need to be able to support their vulnerable customers. One in six (17%) of UK households (4.4 million) are now in ‘serious financial difficulties’, compared to one in ten (2.8 million) in October 2021 – an additional 1.6 million households – according to research from Bristol University, while it was recently reported that one in five adults across the UK – nearly 11 million people – have fallen behind with at least one household bill payment.

As a financial services provider, it has never been more important to be able to identify and communicate appropriately with vulnerable customers; those who, due to their personal circumstances, are especially susceptible to detriment. Not only that, but there are three different levels of poverty to be aware of: ranging from income below minimum income standard, not enough income and destitution.

As a financial service provider, then, it has never been more important to communicate sensitively to customers, price products appropriately and protect customers from fraud.

Identifying vulnerable customers

As a responsible brand, the first step is to proactively identify vulnerable customers to exclude from particular direct marketing campaigns, where additional credit or non-essential purchases could increase the pressure on their personal circumstances. This is an ethical approach to direct marketing which also sees companies increase ROI and improve campaign success.

Using both internal first party and third party data, it is possible to build up a detailed picture of customers in order to identify the existing vulnerable groups, as well as the emerging vulnerable groups within your customer base.

This data can identify vulnerable and potentially vulnerable segments of consumers, including self-declared vulnerability or that shared by a first party, such as a bank, on behalf of the consumer, along with high-cost short term credit applications; houses of multiple occupation (HMO data); and consumer vulnerability metrics. This latter employs a segmentation model which takes into account census data to provide information on demographics, such as age, income, housing, education, financial products, affluence measures; transient states such as health; market forces acting on the consumer and their susceptibility to those forces; and the individual’s market preferences.

Taken together this data will provide a rich and detailed understanding or levels and types of vulnerability so brands are able to work with their customers responsibly. Gaining a better understanding of differing vulnerable segments in a customer base helps drive effective communication strategies, while simultaneously ensuring fair treatment.

Other warning signs

Changes in transactions and behaviour are another way to identify vulnerability in customers. It may be necessary to identify different segments or groups of customers who are classed as vulnerable for different reasons. Those consumers who were once deemed ‘financially stable’ now feel financially stretched and are at greater risk of financial vulnerability through increased cost of living and rise in inflation.

The use of third party datasets can also support the identification of these groups which provide information on changes in personal circumstances, short-term finance requirements, loss of income or employment and changes to relationship or residential status.

Using external data variables helps companies make data-driven decisions on how to price products, reduce fraud, identify vulnerable customers and ultimately make more personalised decisions using data. Data can be used across different teams, including marketing, fraud and pricing, for multiple purposes and projects.

Being able to supplement the data they hold on a customer can help marketing teams to not only help identify risk but help define what their need state actually is, whether that’s saving, moving house or having children. Enhancing customer data helps companies make better informed decisions.

Keep it clean

On top of this, every financial services provider should be keeping their consumer data clean and accurate. Data that is up to date will help businesses make more informed and responsible decisions about how they communicate with customers and prospects.

Above all, financial service providers should be mindful of the many more people who are now vulnerable, and communicating with care should be a brand’s mantra for the foreseeable future.

 

Ellie Engley is account director at REaD Group, a Sagacity company, which uses its data products, insight and expertise to help its clients get closer to their customers.

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