Amongst all the uncertainty and confusion that Covid-19 has dealt industries and workforces around the world, organizations have either been thrust into a mad dash to increase their use of automation or are anxiously making plans to do so. And those that had a robust automation infrastructure to begin with, are undoubtedly reaping the operational benefits.
Entire industries have been shaken to the core. Some because a dead halt in operations has led to dynamic shifts in supply and demand, while others have seen volumes skyrocket because this pandemic has thrust extraordinary demand on their services. Industries have seen unprecedented surges that they are struggling to meet and serve.
One glaring example is aviation and tourism. Airlines for America reports that passenger volume is down 97%, a logical consequence of the countless flight cancellations due to closures of borders, quarantines, and mandated social distancing, leading to airlines grappling with an overwhelming volume of refund requests. The result has been frustrating customer experiences and service demand beyond the bandwidth support centers were built to handle. Similarly, customers of WestJet, a Canadian airline, have reported wait times of up to 600 minutes or 10 hours on their dedicated customer service channel while trying to re-arrange or cancel flights. Automating even a portion of the processes that govern refunds and flight alterations which follow similar, repetitive flows would alleviate a lot of pressure from manual hands and deliver a better experience for customers in an already-trying time. Processing these requests with the help of automation would make them much more efficient, not to mention elastic, giving them the flexibility to absorb surges for unforeseen events like natural disasters.
The financial uncertainty and shockwaves that have been a by-product of this pandemic have also resulted in severe resilience tests for customer-facing support teams in financial services. A simple browse on social media for any major bank will reveal the frustration customers are experiencing at being unable to connect with service agents regarding any number of pressing issues that has thrown personal and commercial finances into disarray. Issues range from inordinate wait times to crashes of online and phone systems due to intense spikes in volume. Like every other industry being heavily impacted, financial service organizations are aggressively looking for the solutions to meet this surging demand and deliver better customer experiences. Vista Bank, a small but relevant example, based out of Texas, has employed Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to automate loan applications for small businesses under the $2.2 trillion US Coronavirus stimulus package and cut their loan application process times from 3 weeks to 3 days as a direct result of automation, helping to reduce the friction blanketing the entire sector.
The most tragic part of this pandemic has been the strain it has put on the healthcare industry that is battling to meet their own demand where the stakes are the highest. The impact globally on healthcare has been nothing short of profound—both the brave professionals and care providers battling the virus on the front lines and putting their safety and wellbeing at risk for the safety and wellbeing of others, and the afflicted that are in need of medical attention. In this arena, there are also examples where automation is proving to be an asset; hospitals using robots to process testing kits, administrative work being automated to allow healthcare workers to spend more time tending to patients, and supply chain automations helping equipment get to healthcare centers quicker.
What this means when the dust settles and we return to some kind of normal is that any industry that has been impacted during this chaotic period will look for ways to make their services and operations more resilient in the face of dynamic and unexpected change. Dan Shimmerman, CEO of Blueprint, a leading provider of software that helps large organizations scale their use of Robotic Process Automation notes, “From what we’re hearing and seeing, never has the return of value for automation been clearer. Our customers are in some of the most impacted industries from this pandemic like tourism, healthcare, insurance, and financial services. We’re working hard to help them leverage our platform so they can meet surges in demand and also transition to new operating models. Simply put, there’s a greater demand to scale robotic processes to meet fluctuating service needs, adapt business models, and account for a remote workforce so people can focus on strategic initiatives instead of mundane tasks better performed by a bot.”
Through numerous examples, automation has shown it’s a part of the solution. There is still a consensus among detractors that automation is something to be feared and avoided; that it will change the economy in a bad way by eliminating countless jobs. That’s not what we have seen. The reality is that the economy is already a digital economy, and automation has already taken a strong foothold. Automation is connected to reduced costs, but it’s simply because more can get done quicker and with fewer errors. When routine, common processes are automated, they’re no longer prone to human error and can be completed at the fraction of the time it takes a human to do so. What that’s meant for the people that were in charge of completing those tasks isn’t that their jobs have disappeared—only the mundane and repetitive tasks they had to continually perform like extracting information from an email or attachment and placing it into an ERP did. Instead, it liberated their time so they could focus on more critical tasks with higher business value.
Judging from the examples we’ve seen through this troubling and shaky time, automation has only contributed to the solution and because of that, will be in ever greater demand once this crisis recedes.