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Anti-automation: the importance of people in process

By Adam Jones, Head of Innovation, Altus Consulting

Adam Jones, Head of Innovation, Altus Consulting
Adam Jones, Head of Innovation, Altus Consulting

If you have paid even the smallest bit of attention to any business or technology news sources recently, you’ll almost certainly have come across at least one article promising the death of employment as we know it, and the rise of AI and software driven processes.

Robotic Process Automation (or RPA for those in the know) is one of the key phrases being thrown around in this context. Despite undoubted improvements in automation, there is still a lot of manual activity going on in most operations;copying and pasting, reading hand written documents, comparing spreadsheets and entering data are still common. At a basic level, RPA looks a bit like a traditional enterprise workflow system, but has some clever programming within it which allows businesses to automate away some of these more basic and labour intensive tasks.

Another area receiving significant attention is the contact centre where the proliferation of chatbots offers the potential to slash the workload of front line staff. Firms are moving beyond basic text-based interfaces to introduce computational logic which automates some basic functions within these text interfaces. Take the example of a retail bank. A huge proportion of the inbound calls they receive from customers will be focussed around easily automatable tasks; resetting a password, viewing a balance or finding out what a customer’s most recent transactions were.

So great; chatbots, RPA and a range of similar technologies will help us automate away a swathe of ‘lower value’ work. Which leaves us with a question; “what do we do with the people who had previously completed these tasks?” The cynical response would be to wheel in the axeman and reduce headcount (and thus costs). Whilst that may help to push a business case through, there is a problem with this approach.

While the automation of tasks brings about cost savings for your business, it doesn’t inherently improve your customer’s experience with your firm. Because it is relatively easy for your peers to copy any automation you develop, this can lead to a zero sum game where the only net impact is a reduction in headcount.

A more rounded approach would be to use this new technology as a people enabler which allows companies to deliver maximum customer value. Assuming we get to a point where, through a range of clever technologies, we have freed up between 20 and 50% of our operations staff, we should stop thinking about simply reclaiming their cost, and start to think about using this resource to improve customer communications.

At a basic level, we could start to see optimistic strategies about multiskilling staff move beyond PowerPoint and into the call centre. This however, is only one improvement and there are a range of other ways in which we can improve how we communicate with our customers by helping our staff work smarter.

Many firms have been developing enhanced CRM capabilities, and often enriching these with data from external services, to build personality profiles for their customer base. If you can apply the same personality diagnostics to your call centre staff or business development team, you can seek to understand which staff member would be best placed to talk to which customers. Increasingly, CRMs are also providing information for life stage changes and more effective data for the management of customer relationships across longer timer periods, allowing communications with them to be more pertinent and timely.

Building on this base, we could go a step further by inspecting recent communications with a customer to understand their likely mood when they make contact. Are they buoyantafter being told their investments have soared in value, or depressed about the recent loss of a loved one? In an ideal world, you would have different staff members deal with bereavement cases to those dealing with withdrawals and bonus payments. CRM and telephony technology has improved enough to make this possible and additional data sources such as device identification, GPS and digital body language could help even further to position the right staff at the right contact points.

The march of technology is endless and automation of basic tasks in the workplace will see continued attention over the next few years. Assuming your business can keep pace with this technological advancement, you will almost certainly have to answer the key question, what do we do with the savings?  Instead of going for the easy option of reducing headcount, maybe it’s time to think about reinforcing and improving the long term relationship with your customer base by drastically improving the service you deliver them.