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2017 Will Be the Year of Business Process Automation

By Steve Smith, U.S. Chief Operating Officer, Esker

Steve Smith, U.S. Chief Operating Officer, Esker

As we move toward the close of another year, organizations are beginning to analyze opportunities for improvement in 2017. With technology evolving at such a rapid pace, members of the c-suite have a near endless choice of new tools and innovations to optimize business operations. The advent of cloud technology and automation capabilities is opening up opportunities for organizations to increase efficiencies in nearly every operational area.

Historically, if sales teams, customer service divisions and supply chains wanted to increase their value, the only options were to sell more or move more quickly. But today’s technology offers opportunities to increase efficiencies on the back end. Business process automation presents a way for managers to significantly increase value by strategically streamlining core operations such as sales order processing. Manual management of such processes is time-consuming and prone to error, and requires valuable resources to manage each process. Sales, customer service and supply chain departments can be held back by the sheer hours it takes to process each order.

"The truth is that the nature of customer service is changing faster than many industries realize”

Thanks to automation, manual touch points can be virtually eliminated from traditional document management, resulting in fewer errors and faster processing. In addition, many automation tools provide an extra level of visibility throughout a document’s lifecycle.

Enhance your EDI

Many organizations use an electronic data interchange (EDI) to exchange data with customers or vendors. This is a big first step toward modernizing sales order processing. Inbound information is fed through a mapping system, where it follows a set of digital instructions to output the data in the correct format.

EDI goes a long way toward simplifying back-office processes, but it stops short of adequately handling exceptions such as incorrect pricing or invalid material numbers. This creates gaps that require manual correction, which sort of defeats the whole point. While EDI technology was enough to give businesses a competitive edge a few years ago, the advent of automation has given operational leaders the tools to fill the gaps created by exceptions. The goal is zero-touch processes, and only automation enables that.

Reap the benefits of automation

When manual processes are automated, businesses reap significant rewards.  No matter how a document enters the system—fax, email, online portals—the system will convert the information into data that’s automatically populated and routed to the appropriate department through the correct channels. These electronic workflows significantly speed up business cycles, allowing businesses to increase production and their bottom line.

As we all know, humans are fundamentally imperfect, and even the most proficient worker makes mistakes. The elimination of manual entry carries an intrinsic reduction of errors. Technology such as optical character recognition (OCR) extracts data automatically and then routes it directly into the appropriate fields in your ERP or other business system. Automatic verification detects any exceptions and flags them for attention from customer service representatives (CSRs), helping to ensure a smooth and streamlined process.

Perhaps the biggest benefit to automation is the ability for departments to have increased visibility and access to analytics that can further drive business improvements. CSRs know at a glance how many orders are in the queue waiting to be approved, how many have moved on to supply chain for fulfillment, and which orders take priority. Managers can generate long-term performance forecasts and identify areas in need of improvement, as well as use actionable insights to better manage resources and increase efficiencies.

It’s vital that supply chains, sales teams, accounting departments and CSRs can track an order or payment through every phase of processing in order to avoid operational hiccups. A truly comprehensive document automation system organizes and displays information in customizable dashboards so managers can track key performance metrics and identify problems as soon as they become evident.

Improved operations lead to happier customers

There’s nothing more frustrating to customers than an order or payment being hung up while a company frantically tries to resolve exceptions or gain the necessary approvals to move a document further along the workflow. Not only does automation help resolve exceptions, it provides the capability for customers to be notified at every step of the process so they don’t have to call and ask for updates. Online portals let customers place orders online at their convenience rather than during your customer service hours and give them real-time access to inventory, pricing, and order status.

Any company’s most valuable resource is its people. Automation frees employees up to perform tasks that add real value to business operations and the customer experience. Any business that is still using employees to perform menial tasks that can easily be performed by automated technology is missing a huge opportunity and giving their competitors a significant head start.

The truth is that the nature of customer service is changing faster than many industries realize. Today, the majority of our customer service interactions are with humans. But Gartner estimates that by 2017, two-thirds of all customer service interactions will no longer require the support of a human intermediary. Instead, devices will be talking to devices, transmitting information automatically. As we move into 2017 and IT departments are working with a line of business executives to determine which priorities to write into next year’s budgets, automation is a critical line item that deserves concentrated attention.