Is Enhanced Automation in Your Future?

As a mature technology, business process automation is well-known and well-understood by your potential customers. However, the spike in remote workers over the last year or so has spotlighted a few holes in this decades-old product offering. Are you positioned to enhance your automation offering to suit the hybrid workplace of the future?

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Hybrid work is the new normal

It’s become impossible to ignore: work-from-home (WFH) during the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for businesses to offer a work-from-anywhere (WFX) option for knowledge workers. Also called remote work (working from any location other than a traditional office), hybrid work (dividing work time between traditional offices and alternate locations) is likely to become the dominant work location strategy. The statistics below paint a compelling picture that encourages companies to implement hybrid and WFX policies in order to hire and retain top talent in the future.

• A survey conducted by analysts at Valior showed 40% wanted full-time WFH last spring versus 70% expecting it as of April 2021.

• A PwC study showed 94% of employees expect to WFH at least one day per week.

• A Zapier survey shows a surprising 3 out of 4 of us will leave a job that doesn’t offer WFH to find one that does.

What is enhanced automation?

Business process automation has been around for decades as companies offered basic workflow to route information from step to step, but the process automation needs of businesses have shifted into a higher gear thanks to remote work. Simple routing will provide some benefits to customers, but if that’s all you’re offering, you’re leaving money on the table and you’re shorting your customer’s potential benefit. An enhanced automation technology solution includes all of the following capabilities:

Electronic routing

The core of process automation, electronic routing moves digital records automatically through business processes by routing documents and information from one person to the next until a process is completed. It’s also referred to as workflow technology. When choosing a product to offer electronic routing, look for one that includes pre-configured templates for common business processes, so you have a place to start when helping new customers define what they’ll need. You’ll also want one that offers extensive customization capabilities, because every business does things a little differently. However, make sure that flexibility is simplified with a graphic workflow interface that enables you (and your customer) to quickly assess a process and make changes as needed.

E-forms and e-signatures

When thinking in terms of electronic processes (e-processes), it’s important to understand how information enters the process and what is done with it once it’s received. To create fully automated processes, businesses must eliminate the need to complete forms in person as well as the need for hand-written signatures. Electronic forms (e-forms) collect information online by sending a secure link to the individual who must provide the information, enabling them to type directly into the form in their web browser and retaining a digital version of the form within an enterprise content management application. Most e-forms products embed the ability to also collect or add electronic signatures (e-signatures) as well. For example, medical providers move away from the clipboard filled with a stack of forms handed to patients when they check in before an appointment, to instead sending a patient the link to access the appropriate forms online prior to their visit. What’s the benefit? You’re cutting down expensive data entry for the healthcare provider who is your customer and their patient is happier because their appointment is focused on the reason for their visit rather than updating the provider’s files.

If your customer is still using paper forms, they’re falling behind competitors who offer fully electronic interactions with customers. Encourage them to move toward enhanced automation by converting all forms to e-forms that simplify collection and data management.

Automatic data collection driven by AI

Speaking of data entry, did you know artificial intelligence (AI) technology has advanced to the point where you can virtually eliminate data entry for your customers? To enable enhanced automation that minimizes data entry, look for capture technologies that use AI to embed the ability to extract information from documents as they’re being scanned. For example, when invoices are received, many businesses still hand-sort them and then a finance clerk types the important details into the accounting application. With enhanced automation, the process is streamlined. When the invoice is scanned, the capture application “scrapes” details such as invoice number, date, vendor, and amount and uses it to populate not only fields in the document management application, but also to complete the same data in the accounting application via integration or robotic process automation (RPA).

How it really works

As you begin talking about enhanced automation with your customers, you might choose to start by asking them which processes were most affected/slowed during the pandemic. Really dig into what caused the slowdown, so that they begin to understand how hardcopy forms and signatures, paper records, and the need to physically handle documents compromises their ability to be effective in the hybrid workplace model. Sharing existing customer stories can help them see the potential to increase their automation benefit by adding these enhanced capabilities.

Likely candidates for automation

Known as horizontal industries, some business functions are common across all organization types and sizes. For example, all (successful) companies need to pay bills and collect revenue, so accounts payable and accounts receivable (AP and AR) are common candidates for automation. In addition, companies need to hire and pay workers, so human resources (HR) also benefits from process automation. Finally, as businesses interact with one another, they typically use contracts to document the terms of their relationship. Contracts get passed back and forth between businesses many times and they require signatures, so e-forms and e-signatures offer a significant simplification over the traditional paper or pdf contract management process.

Example

How does it really work? Let’s look at a contracts-intensive process from the real estate industry. As buyers retreated to virtual showings and online interactions, the real estate industry is one especially affected by the stay-at-home orders of the 2020 pandemic. Some providers were already well-positioned to weather shifting customer preferences, because they leveraged enhanced automation to streamline interactions for customers and staff.

Located in Vancouver, Washington, Real Property Management Vancouver (RPMV) is a full-service property management company that had optimized processes prior to the pandemic. Managing both commercial and residential properties, they create listings for rental properties, check potential renters, and negotiate leases for owners. Setting up new properties is especially complex, because each owner packet contains dozens of pages and nine contracts, including property contracts, all of the rental agreements for each tenant, and potentially marketing, utilities, and maintenance information. RPMV converted the forms in the packet to eforms that owners could complete online. Now they simply send a new owner the links for the forms, the owner fills them out, and automated routing notifies RPMV so they can review the information and sign the forms electronically with esignatures. Enhanced automation allows them to setup new properties in about 30 minutes versus the 3-4 hours it used to take, which saves them more than $100,000 annually. The owner, Bob Butterfield, credits these enhanced automation capabilities for enabling remote and hybrid work arrangements. He said, “Business is operating at normal speed. It hasn’t hindered our processes in any way to have people working remotely.”

Enhanced automation also enhances your revenue

As you shift your thinking from providing imaging services or document management to a perspective that emphasizes business efficiencies through enhanced automation of processes, you’ll discover that your revenue from each customer and sale grows. Now, in addition to digitization services and ECM, you’re adding process automation, e-forms, e-signatures, and data extraction technologies and services, and each layer adds licenses and professional services revenue. Just be sure to leave room in your prices for your customers to enjoy the additional financial rewards as well!

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Christina Robbins is marketing manager at Digitech Systems LLC, which enables businesses of any size to more effectively and securely manage, retrieve and store corporate information of any kind using either PaperVision Enterprise content management (ECM) software or the world’s most trusted cloud-based ECM service, ImageSilo.