Businesses are investing in financial technology for the future

If the economy’s salad days are wilting, as some indicators suggest, how are companies’ accounting, tax, and finance departments faring? What steps are they taking in response to the challenges they face? 

Avalara teamed up with Hanover Research to find out. 

Hanover surveyed nearly 400 accounting, tax, and finance professionals in June 2023. All respondents are manager level or above; 57% work for organizations with 1,000 or more employees; and 49% have more than 21 employees in the finance or tax department. Half of the companies are headquartered in North America (Canada and the United States) and half are in Europe (including Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom). Most of the businesses surveyed sell internationally.

Among other questions, survey participants were asked:

What are the top challenges facing finance/tax departments?

Economic uncertainty is the elephant businesses can’t get out of the room

In the 12 months prior to the Hanover study, inflation, recession concerns, and economic disruption had a major or moderate effect on the finance and tax teams of 45% of the global businesses surveyed.

They’re not alone. According to a separate survey conducted by Avalara and Reuters Events between December 16, 2022, and January 26, 2023, 62% of European businesses surveyed expected recessionary effects to worsen, as did 52% of North American businesses.

The worst-case scenario hasn’t materialized — yet. Many economists predicted a mild recession in 2022, only to push it back to 2023 and then kick it further out. But if the U.S. is experiencing an “‘Energizer Bunny’ economy,” as former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said in October, many businesses believe the positive trend can only last so long. 

The Hanover survey responses suggest that accounting, tax, and finance teams are preparing for the effects of recession to worsen. And the economy isn’t their only concern. 

COVID-19 is still a drag on business

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is still impacting businesses on both sides of the Atlantic, according to the Hanover study. The pandemic has had a major effect on 31% of respondents and a moderate effect on 30% of respondents. Only 11% of the finance/tax teams surveyed said the pandemic had no effect in the past 12 months.

Globally, the pandemic is affecting the finance/tax teams of large companies more than those at small and midsize companies. Of the enterprise businesses surveyed, 68% are significantly likely to have been impacted by the ongoing pandemic in the past 12 months. Just 52% of small and midsized businesses said the same.

North American businesses seem to be feeling the negative effects of the pandemic more than their European counterparts, as the chart below shows. 

What are the top challenges and priorities facing finance/tax departments?

 PandemicSupply chains
All respondents61% 44%
North America 79%39% 

The supply chain still has kinks

European companies are more stressed by supply chain troubles than businesses in North America, according to the Hanover study. However, as shown above, kinked supply chains are impacting businesses in North America too. 

This fact should surprise no one. Supply chain issues can crop up at any time, for a host of reasons. The stay-at-home policies implemented by many countries during the height of the pandemic led to factory closures and empty shelves.The Ever Given container ship created a supply chain bottleneck when it wedged itself into the Suez Canal for six days in March 2021. Heavy container ships are unable to get through the Panama Canal because an ongoing, severe drought has caused low water levels. If it’s not one thing it’s another.

What are the top priorities of finance/tax departments?

Faced with economic uncertainty, supply chain challenges, and lingering doubts about the pandemic, many of the accounting, tax, and finance teams surveyed are increasing their focus on budgeting, forecasting, and tax compliance activities and deprioritizing growth.

Fifty percent of all finance/tax teams surveyed said “improving budgeting and forecasting” was a main priority over the last 12 months, while 57% said it will be a main priority in the next 12 months. Getting more granular, two-thirds of small and midsized businesses and half of enterprises surveyed listed budgeting and forecasting as a top priority for the next 12 months. 

Risk management is outpacing growth as an area of interest for the finance and tax teams surveyed. While “enabling growth” was a main priority for 37% of the finance/tax teams over the last 12 months, just 33% cited “enabling growth” as a main priority for the coming year. Meanwhile, 39% of respondents cited “risk management” as a top priority for finance/tax teams in the past 12 months, and 42% called it a priority for the next 12 months.

Which of the following best describes the main priorities for your finance/tax teams? (Select all that apply.) 

 Main priorities over the last 12 monthsMain priorities in the next 12 months
Improving budgeting and forecasting50%57%
Risk management39%42%
Enabling growth37%33%
Transactional tax management and compliance26%27%

If emphasis on tax compliance is just inching upwards overall, as the above chart shows, there are pronounced geographic differences: In the next 12 months, 41% of North American businesses are prioritizing transactional tax management and compliance, as compared to 14% of European companies. 

How is technology helping you improve efficiency and cope with economic pressures?

Automation is helping finance/tax teams handle external and internal challenges

Many of the businesses surveyed are choosing to invest in technology and automation to cope with external pressures and achieve internal goals. 

Indeed, 75% of the organizations surveyed are investing in new technology, while 50% are increasing their use of automation. The larger the business, the more likely it is to invest in new technology: 85% of enterprise organizations are doing so, compared to 64% of small and midsize companies.

Furthermore, the study found that finance and tax teams tend to automate some routine tasks more than others. 

Activities related to payroll are most likely to be automated today: Of the businesses surveyed, 26% handle payroll entirely or mostly manually, while 41% mostly or entirely automate payroll. Another 33% use an even mix of both manual and automated processes. 

Exemption certificate management and audit management tend to be the least automated processes, for now. According to the Hanover study, 53% of businesses handle exemption certificates manually, while only 13% automate exemption certificate management. Likewise, 59% of businesses rely on all manual or mostly manual processes for managing audits; a mere 10% automate audit management processes.

That’s starting to change. Hanover found that 31% of surveyed businesses are initiating automation for managing audits. 

Automation could help finance/tax teams handle the most time-consuming responsibilities, such as tax management (21% of respondents) and internal audit/SOX compliance (20% of respondents). And indeed, tax challenges and audits are among the top reasons why finance professionals are investing in technology. A whopping 72% of businesses surveyed by Avalara and Potentiate in 2021 had been audited in the previous five years. Common causes of negative audit findings included failure to register in states where the business had a tax obligation (nexus) and missing exemption certificates.

North American businesses are more likely to automate certain essential functions than European businesses, as the chart below shows. The reason for this difference could be because North American businesses are more familiar with the intricacies of sales tax nexus and exemption certificate management than their European counterparts — even those doing business in the U.S. 

What are the top finance/tax functions that IT is initiating automation for?
(Select all that apply.)

 North AmericaEurope
Budgeting and forecasting39%24%
Reconciliations and variance analysis36%20%
Implementing financial controls36%21%
Preparing and filing sales and use tax returns30%26%
Researching and calculating taxes by jurisdiction34%18%
Managing exemption certificates32%16%

Automating certain tasks doesn’t seem to affect hiring, at least for finance and tax teams. Overall, 67% of finance/tax teams have an approved budget for hiring and staffing, and only 26% of companies surveyed say they’re executing tasks with less people.

Technology is helping to improve efficiency

Yet businesses are using technology to improve efficiency. The right tools can help them do more, more effectively, with less. 

Of the companies surveyed, 71% are investing in more tools and solutions to close overall efficiency gaps, while 69% are automating and optimizing processes specifically related to tax management.

The size of the organization matters, however. More enterprise organizations (80%) and their finance/tax departments (77%) are investing in technology tools and solutions than small and midsized companies (59%) or their finance/tax teams (58%). 

Can automation and technology help businesses overcome some of the external and internal challenges they face? The Hanover study suggests that it can:

  • 74% of finance/tax departments rate themselves efficient in producing financial statements, and 38% of companies automate these tasks
  • 69% of finance/tax departments rate themselves efficient in managing payroll, and 41% of companies automate these tasks
  • 68% of finance/tax departments rate themselves efficient in managing receivables and payables, and 36% of companies automate these tasks 
  • 49% of organizations rate themselves as efficient in managing exemption certificates, and 53% manage exemption certificates manually

Hanover encourages organizations to invest in new technology solutions in response to their most pressing challenges: The pandemic for North American organizations and supply chain disruptions for European organizations. It also encourages North American organizations to automate exemption certificate management and other manual tasks. 

Want to know more? Get the State of finance market trends report.

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