As technology continues to evolve, we’re finding more and more ways to bring automation into the fore. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is a developing technology at the forefront across large enterprises, building upon artificial intelligence and automation to create a sustainable integration within the day-to-day running of a business.
With 41% of finance back-office processes set to be performed by robots by 2023, the developments are set to roll out rapidly. The debt collection sector as a whole can feel somewhat outdated when it comes to driving innovation, with key points of friction occurring as a result due to a lack of efficiency and limited consideration for the customer experience. But this is starting to change, with RPA becoming a tool that can make a substantial difference in making credit work better for everyone involved.
Studies have shown that as many as 15 million jobs in the UK are good candidates for automation – a statistic that initially triggers concern from the workforce, as there’s an inherent implication that robots are going to ‘steal their jobs’. This fear-factor makes it all the more important that if RPA is implemented, there needs to be clear direction and communication about what it is and what it means for employees.
What is Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?
When we think of robots, it can be hard to stop visualising a physical thing that walks and talks. For RPA, there is no physical machine that processes the data – it is all completely based on computer-coded software. RPA as a technology is defined as the automation of routine, repeatable tasks or rule-based processes.
These robots are often referred to as a ‘digital workforce’, which deliver the automated solution usually either in the background via virtual machines or through a command-based interface that consumers or workers can access and implement. Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies like natural language processing and machine learning then lead to more complex capabilities through cognitive automation.
Why RPA isn’t about ‘taking’ jobs
One of the key things to both consider and communicate when implementing RPA is which activities can be automated, rather than which professional role. When basic, repetitive tasks (often with high volumes) are automated, staff can effectively optimise their workloads and spend time on more productive and value-adding tasks.
Tasks best suited for RPA:
- Opening emails and attachments
- Data entry
- Batch processing
- Moving files and folders
- Copy and pasting
- Scraping data
- Connecting to API systems
- Making calculations
- Reading and writing into databases
When these typical low-value tasks are automated, staff are freed up to focus more on areas within the business – for the debt collection sector, it’s vital that resources can be funnelled toward areas of resolving customer pain points and potentially retrained. The RPA technology is somewhat limited – robots aren’t able to make complex decisions and don’t have the same level of specific institutional knowledge, therefore there is almost always going to be a requirement for human intervention at some stage of the process.
Key benefits of RPA:
- Reduce staffing costs
- Limit human error
- Improve service rates
- Reduce turnaround times
- Create comprehensive data logs
- Increase scalability of operations
- Improve compliance
How Lowell has implemented RPA to spend more time on value-adding tasks
With a mission to make credit work better for all, implementing RPA seemed like a logical next step for Lowell to improve internal processing and begin to evolve the performance delivery across the customer journey. Lowell specialises in combining big data and analytics, alongside stringent regulations and compliance measures at all times – the concept of breaking new ground without breaking rules.
RPA was identified as an opportunity to automate routine operational processes that would ultimately result in more satisfied clients, customers and employees. Guided by an overarching and ongoing aim to deliver the strategy of a ‘contact centre of the future’, key areas of the business were identified that would benefit most from RPA, consisting of processes that were particularly labour-intensive with high staff turnover and strict lead times.
By implementing RPA, Lowell was able to bring processes that were previously performed by a 3rd party supplier back in-house, mitigate risks associated with GDPR, save on supplier costs and successfully meet the strict lead times set by clients. Over 12,000 hours worth of time was made available to the Debt and Customer Management teams, with staff turnover greatly reduced as they are now able to take on more fulfilling tasks.
Recognising the achievement of Lowell's RPA solutions, we were finalists for the 'Innovation in Collection & Recoveries' at the Credit & Collection Technology Awards in 2019 and the winner of 'Best use of technology' at the Collections & Customer Service awards.
Our key learnings...
Allan Surtees, Head of Intelligent Process Automation at Lowell, recognised the need for transparency when introducing the new technology to gain the trust and support of employees:
“With any change to the way people work as a result of new initiatives, systems or processes it is imperative that there are clear communications from the outset, RPA is no different.
The mere mention of the term ‘robot’ or ‘robotics’ immediately strikes the fear of god into people who think that their job is at risk or redundancies are not far away. This couldn’t be any further from the truth. I have worked in this industry for over 9 years implementing RPA from an IT perspective, business operations perspective and external consultancy perspective and have not witnessed a single business case that had ‘job redundancies’ as its prime objective. Yes, staffing costs will reduce over time, but this is normally as a result of natural attrition or reduction in recruitment as the digital workforce takes up the slack.
At Lowell, we had a clear strategy right from the start, making use of regular communications channels, running ‘open door’ sessions or presenting at the monthly face-to-face operational updates to ensure that all staff knew ‘what’s in it for them’. The key message here being that any roles displaced by the use of RPA will result in re-skilling and people being moved into more value adding roles that require complex decision making, additional investigation or superior knowledge.
The best thing about the project is that this happened with the second wave of processes we have automated. Use of RPA has resulted in a team within the Customer Service Administration area being disbanded and people developed and re-skilled to take on work in an area that is more complex by its nature. This has resulted in a really positive impact from a ‘trust’ perspective and created some RPA Champions and evangelists within business operations that help overcome concerns from other teams in areas where we are looking to automate some of their processes.”
There are limitations to RPA and in many ways, this level automation simply forms the building blocks to more advanced integrations. As robots struggle to make complex decisions, Lowell is looking to utilise complementary automation technologies like Natural Language Processing and Virtual Assistants to further push boundaries and expand the automation capabilities of the company, driving forward their digital agenda and catering for every customer on their channel of choice.
To learn more about how Lowell is continually evolving to deliver better outcomes for clients, consumers, our people and our investors, connect with our LinkedIn page, where you can keep up-to-date with the latest news and insights.