The Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, a financer of affordable housing, is using robotic process automation to quicken the pace of repetitive but necessary work. The quasi-governmental agency digitized a mortgage billing reconciliation process that previously took four employees three days to finish, but is now completed in just a matter of minutes.
Similarly, the consumer credit reporting company Equifax has turned to robotic process automation (RPA) tools to get faster in a market that, as an executive put it, punishes those that perform customer-facing tasks slowly.
Unum, a Fortune 500 insurance company, is measuring the performance of about 40 RPA bots that either assist employees with or completely handle monotonous tasks. The bots are helping Unum find weaknesses in processes so that the company can eventually redesign them using more expansive, permanent RPA software.
Unum, Equifax and the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority (CHFA) recently shared insights on why they are willing to introduce automation into workflow processes that have long been handled by humans. To them, RPA doesn't pose a threat to employees' jobs but rather frees workers from mundane tasks so they can tackle assignments that require more judgment.
By using RPA tools that reduce errors and quicken the flow of work -- and allowing workers to tackle big-picture projects -- these companies say they're in a better position to serve customers that expect service done quickly and nearly perfectly.
"For us, it's making sure our service is very good for our customers," said Jairo Quiros, a vice president of global shared services at Equifax and a site leader for the company in Costa Rica. "RPA is a means to that goal."
Involving employees in automation
The London School of Economics found that RPA delivered anywhere from 30% to 200% ROI in the first year of use. But in an interview with McKinsey & Company, Leslie Wilcocks, professor of technology, work and globalization in the school's department of management, said companies would be wrong to focus solely on financial gains, in particular those derived from labor savings.
As Wilcocks and other experts in automation have pointed out, RPA tools -- when implemented correctly -- can bring long-term benefits. Automation can improve customer service, for example, by implementing bots that can handle the standard requests and be programmed to direct the more complex questions to employees. RPA tools can also reduce risk, outperforming workers in fulfilling compliance requirements and other rules-based regulations. And, according to Wilcocks, the need for process automation will only grow as employee workloads expand due to the ever-increasing data being generated. "We need automation just to relieve the stress that creates in organizations," Wilcocks told McKinsey.
Equifax, for one, first tried RPA in 2016 -- "thinking big but starting small," Quiros said. "We had a lot of questions about RPA: 'Is it real? Will it provide the benefits we expected?'" (Asked about last year's data breach exposing personal information of more than 146 million Equifax customers, Quiros said the massive breach now influences "every single decision we make," but there is "no correlation between what we're asking RPA to do" and the event.)
Quiros and his colleagues got answers to their initial questions on automation when they ran a pilot program through an RPA software platform by UiPath. Equifax created some billing processes just for the purpose of testing and discovered the tasks that RPA handled without difficulty would have required at least 50 employees.
Jairo Quirosvice president of global shared services, Equifax
Still, two big questions remained. "Can we do this globally, and can we do this fast?" Quiros recalled. Now applying RPA to 65 processes, most of which involved work that was paper-based, Equifax can answer those big questions in the affirmative. Indeed, its RPA portfolio is expanding, Quiros said, noting that Equifax is using RPA software to handle certain product and service tasks, such as accelerating the time that's needed to complete credit highlight reports for mortgages. And in the customer service department, RPA bots now take care of data-entry tasks that had previously required employees to toggle between as many as 20 different computer program windows.
"The bot will prompt a window asking what needs to be done," Quiros said. "The bots will gather the data to, say, resolve a tough customer issue." The customer service agent's attention is no longer divided and is instead focused on communicating with a customer, he said.
RPA allows Equifax to now review "thousands of systems and thousands of processes that haven't been analyzed in a while," Quiros said.
That sort of talk could understandably cause employees to worry about job security. But Quiros said a companywide center of excellence that focuses on automation has placed RPA management in the hands of employees, enabling them to see how it works and, in turn, removing their fears.
With workers deciding how to best use RPA, rather than leaving it to IT, they are empowered to recognize the areas of work for which automation is best suited, he said. "The responsibility for running the bot is on the business side," he said. "It ensures [the growth of] a culture of automation." Employees thus don't worry about robots taking away their jobs, Quiros added. Instead, if employees advance ideas on how RPA can make their jobs easier, Equifax will try to automate those repetitive tasks so workers can do more for the customer, he said. "They embrace it."
Using bots to find inefficiencies
Unum, the insurance company, also experimented with RPA software in 2016. Customer service reps previously had to log into several different systems for simple tasks such as changing a customer's address and then copy and paste "all over the place," said Rex Price, technology capability manager, shared services, process effectiveness center of excellence at Unum. In what was a "good launch pad for us," he said Unum's trial run with an RPA program coalesced customer and policy information, and took care of the repetitive work of entering revised data in the company's different legacy system programs.
Fast forward nearly two years, and Unum has 30 desktop bots attended by human employees and another 10 unattended bots handling not only customer information in the contact center but also helping the policy administration customer services team with repetitive tasks, such as insurance policy changes and follow-up work on lapsed policies. Those bots, offered by the software company Pega, are improving customer experience by reducing turnaround time and the hand off of tasks, Price said. He hopes to have 75 bots implemented by year's end.
Price said he doesn't yet know the full measure of financial gains generated by RPA, but Unum's ultimate goal is to eventually shift away from bots and instead redesign all repetitive processes. That's because bot connections can break when data sources change; the underlying problem remains even after repairing the bot. Unum intends to eventually re-architect those processes, finding any inefficiencies and permanently automating repetitive manual tasks with the help of Pega Platform, the vendor's flagship product.
"Some of the people that were doing the cutting and pasting [for changing customer information], they're hugging us," Price said. "They're able to do more thinking about improving quality."
Reconciling 75,000 rows of data in minutes
Every month, the business unit of the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority reconciles bills, reports and other sources of data so that CHFA's customer loan information aligns with the data that's provided by a company that services the loans. It amounts to 75,000 rows of spreadsheet data and is "a perfect use case for automation," said Brian Mueller, the manager of CHFA's integrated records management division.
It previously took the four members of the business unit three days to manually move data from a series of spreadsheets into a database. Now, with Kofax's Kapow RPA software, the data is automatically extracted and placed into an SQL table, then compared with information in a data warehouse. Any discrepancies in information are presented through a UI to employees, who can reconcile data in minutes.
"They're able to move away from manual data entry," Mueller said of the business unit. "They can focus on high-level things that are more important than moving data." For example, those employees now have more time to review data on down payment assistance grants.
Just as Equifax did internally, Mueller advises companies that are considering RPA to first establish an in-house center of excellence that includes technical-minded employees and the users. Then, "start automating simple tasks," he said. "They provide immediate ROI." RPA is an out-of-the-box product, Mueller added, calling out the RPA tool's usability. "It's so intuitive. We build robots every day. The nicest thing is that even a clerical person can build a robot."