Robots. No, not the plastic, Lego-looking figures that you’ve been brainwashed to picture when you hear the term. Nor are we referring to the Will Smith movie “I, Robot,” in which intelligent robots fill public service positions throughout the world in an attempt to enslave the human race. We’re talking about the world of robotic capabilities that is emerging from manufacturing and healthcare industries into the contact center technology space.
Given the promise of fast ROI and increased employee engagement in both the front and back office, it’s easy to see why interest in automation tools is growing. Robotic process automation (RPA) is comprised of software robots that can be used to automate high volumes of time-consuming business processes, such as changing customer addresses or processing credit card applications. The robots mimic human interactions with software applications, but do so automatically, repeatedly and faster than their human counterparts.
One benefit is that employees can do less “drudge work” and shift to more complex and value-added customer-facing activities. RPA is already proving its value in BPOs, financial services providers, insurance, healthcare and other industries with large volumes of repetitive processes.
There are two main types of RPA—unattended and attended. RPA that works on a virtual desktop or on a separate server is classified as “unattended,” which is how it was traditionally implemented. For a contact center, unattended RPA might handle batch address changes submitted via a website customer service form. RPA robots can also provide guidance and assistance to employees in “attended” mode. In this form, the software robot works on the same desktop as the employee and can pop up instructions to guide them in completing a task or help by automatically completing part of the task for them. This is particularly useful when onboarding agents or helping with a task that they don’t perform frequently.
How do you know if RPA is right for you? Start by understanding how robotic process automation and other “bots” can be used to execute work in the contact center environment.
Here are three types of software robots that are used today:
- Virtual agents, virtual assistants and chatbots are often used to extend and enhance self-service options for customers by answering common questions and helping customers to find additional information. Often these functions are visually represented as an avatar to make them more user-friendly and to reinforce the company’s brand.
- Robotic process automation (RPA) is comprised of software robots that complete end-to-end processes or tasks that don’t need to be performed by a human employee. They automate work for employees “behind the scenes” as opposed to chatbots and virtual agents that interact directly with customers. Typically, the robots help with high-volume, repetitive tasks that may involve data entry or re-entry across systems, executing processes automatically by following specific decision criteria and logic.
- Desktop automation, which may be referred to as RPA in attended mode, also uses software robots to help improve employee productivity “within tasks,” completing steps more quickly, performing data re-entry and more. The solution can also help guide employees through transactions, displaying dialogue boxes with instructions and scripts to be read to customers.
For purposes of this article, we’ll focus on RPA applications and desktop automation, their use in the contact center and their value as an employee engagement tool.
Benefits for Employees, Managers and the Enterprise
As the software robots automate the repetitive portions of the work, employees are freed to focus on work that requires human decision-making, creativity or empathy. As a result, employees can build new skills as their jobs evolve. Robots can also make the work that employees do easier, providing guidance in a “show me” mode to help them learn how to do certain transactions without leaving the phone or desktop for training.
RPA robots can notify employees of process changes “in the moment.” In addition, they can build a summary script of the steps an agent performed for the customer so the agent can review it and be sure it is exactly what the customer requested.
For managers overseeing a combined human and robotic workforce, attended RPA can improve the group’s overall productivity and accuracy, and free managers to do more coaching, troubleshooting and decision making. In addition, when work is completed faster and without errors, the customer experience improves. As robots take on more repetitive and boring tasks, employees feel empowered to build their skills to perform more valuable work. As the organization evolves to provide better tools to get the work done, employees are more engaged and—quite likely—attrition decreases.
How to Ready Your Business for RPA
A natural first step for any business considering RPA is understanding which processes you might automate, and developing a method for prioritizing them. Desktop and process analytics solutions can capture the steps an employee takes to complete a transaction, and visually map those steps to help identify the most likely candidates for automation.
It also is important to have clear goals in mind to determine the right approach. Is your objective to reduce call handle time, to improve data accuracy, to enhance the customer experience? Or do you have a large volume of work that could be offloaded from employees? You will likely find that RPA delivers all these benefits, but prioritizing your goals can help you chart a clear path for your RPA journey. You might want to start small by automating address change processes, for example. Once stakeholders see the benefits, you will garner support for automating the more complex processes involved in a typical workday.
Gaining Stakeholder Buy-in and Managing the Robotic Workforce
Media reports of the increasing use of robots and automation in business might be creating anxiety among your workforce. Be sure to explain how RPA will help them do their jobs better, not replace them, and will relieve them of the more mundane aspects of their work. Your employees can apply their efforts to more complex customer-facing work and enhance their value to the organization. If positioned correctly, employees won’t see software robots or automation as a threat, but simply another tool to help get work done.
There is also a strong point to be made about how easily and quickly some RPA can be implemented. If you have lived through a business process management or reengineering initiative, it’s a big advantage that RPA can typically be implemented without ongoing IT resources and without changing processes. Some RPA solutions don’t require individual integration with target applications and can automate business processes across multiple applications. You gain tools that can be set up quickly, and that can help you respond to spikes in volume by simply adding more robots to your workforce.
RPA solutions typically provide usage statistics, reporting and security tools. Authoring studios enable an RPA administrator to easily record scripts for robots to execute. Web-based dashboards enable remote scheduling and monitoring of robots, along with alerts that keep you informed about productivity and work levels.
A Trend that Will Continue
Researchers at the McKinsey Global Institute project that, by 2055, more than 50% of all work-related tasks will be subject to automation, with organizations using software robots more and more frequently to automate specific activities. For forward-thinking companies, robots, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are at the top of the strategic priority list—especially as pressures mount on companies to do more with less.
For any contact center manager, a great introduction to the RPA topic is the ebook Introduction to Robotic Process Automation: A Primer, developed by the Institute for Robotic Process Automation (IRPA) in association with Carnegie Mellon University. Then start talking with companies that have already implemented RPA or are in the process of making the transition. If they have added RPA to their workforce optimization tool chest, they will probably be happy to share their results with you.
*Early Adopters See Big Success*
We’ve seen companies achieve big wins with RPA in their contact centers. For example, the customer service organization of a multinational IT enterprise company automated 65,000 transactions in the process of migrating customers to new service contracts upon renewal.
It was good for the company, which improved productivity 40% and scored savings of $300K. It was good for employees, who reduced time per transaction by 42%, from 12 to seven minutes. And it was good for customers, whose satisfaction increased with the increases in accuracy and speed of the contract renewal process.
In another success story, errors made by agents when updating customer addresses caused repeat calls, customer dissatisfaction and lost revenue for a leading cable company. Once RPA was used in attended mode in their contact center, the novice agents were guided through the steps, and were presented with a summary of the requested changes to easily confirm the details with the customer. The results were dramatic. Error rates dropped from 5,400 to zero over a two-month period. Quality and customer satisfaction scores increased by nearly 5%. First-call resolution (FCR) improved by 2%, and revenue losses were cut by 14%.