The Promise of Automation in a Time of Crisis


Until the outbreak of COVID-19 upended the world, crisis management was not the highest priority for most of us. But organizations of all sizes have had to quickly adjust to the global scale of the pandemic in sometimes radical ways simply to continue business, often with reduced workforces and shrinking revenues. Against this backdrop, some enterprises are looking to automation as a way to address needs across the enterprise, from infrastructure to customer experience.  

It’s an opportune time to consider the power of intelligent automation, especially if an enterprise is wrestling with any one of the following questions:

  1. Has my cashflow been negatively affected? If a business is unable to collect its accounts receivable, its cash flow is significantly impacted. In times when many businesses and customers are facing cash issues, timely collection is more important than ever. For most businesses, the collection of cash is a manual task and one that would benefit greatly from increased efficiency.
  2. Has my business continuity plan (BCP) worked as well as I expected? Many BCPs are written for localized disaster, so their fall back is to duplicate the same human processes in a different unaffected location. Few businesses anticipated the fact that all locations could be affected by a global pandemic such as COVID-19. Today’s crisis is spurring a serious dust off of BCPs.
  3. Have I been able to protect my income streams? A great many organizations are reliant on their people for maintaining income streams. The flaw in this relationship has become painfully apparent for many businesses during the current crisis as offices and warehouses have emptied out and important workflows have been interrupted and are going undone.
  4. Have I maintained a positive customer experience? How an organization handles a crisis lives on much longer in their customers’ memories than how it handles a customer when everything is going well. Many companies are experiencing increasing volumes in the contact center, which presents an opportunity to provide either a memorably bad or memorably brilliant customer experience.
  5. Has anyone missed the tasks I’ve stopped doing? One of the opportunities in a crisis is to identify what is business critical – and what is not. Under normal conditions, this can be hard to discern because everything tends to be viewed as business critical. Today, organizations are having to make difficult decisions about which work does and does not get done, allowing true business-critical tasks to float to the top. Businesses can seize this opportunity by observing how they prioritize tasks during the crisis and, perhaps, eliminating the expense of some non-business critical tasks altogether. Falling back into the way things were done before COVID-19 fails to take advantage of this valuable learning experience.

The current crisis presents an opportunity to reflect on these questions and – in response – take practical steps to harness intelligent automation. ISG research shows that just 7 percent of enterprises have created significant scale in their intelligent automation initiatives, which means most organizations are likely too-heavily reliant on people for their core business processes. This also means they are unable to make rapid changes required to survive at times like these.  

Here are four practical actions to help you identify and mitigate risk in your business:

Action 1: Assess your business-critical processes in light of those activities you have stopped and those that are still taking place. Use this to help you prioritize what you automate. Then automate it now – don’t wait. Supply and demand will continue to be exceptionally volatile over the next few months; automation can be implemented quickly to alleviate pressure and stress on your human workers and can be scaled rapidly if demand skyrockets. In processes that directly influence cashflow, imagine a bot that is configured to take an output of what you are owed and send an email to your outstanding debtors every day until payment is made. The bot checks responses with the use of natural language processing and updates the internal system with relevant information or passes it on to a human for appropriate follow up. Then imagine a bot that can call your clients and negotiate discounts for early payments, so you receive the cash you need to maintain operations. These are business-critical processes that can be easily optimized with automation.

Action 2: Consider not just the savings associated with automating a process but also the broader impact on other businesses processes. A recent ISG client found that, when it automated a process that took just half of the allotted hours for a full-time employee (FTE), it also eliminated human error in the process and lead to a 20 percent reduction in contact center volumes, or about 40 full-time employees’ effort across an entire week. The key here isn’t the savings, it’s the reduction in work and the increase in capacity. When another ISG client automated via its website a previously manual product fulfilment process that had been possible only when employees were in the office during business hours, it began fulfilling more customer orders and getting them out the door quicker. It isn’t a coincidence that the 7 percent of enterprises that have scaled automation are focusing on benefits other than FTE savings as a core reason to automate.

Action 3: Use intelligent automation to improve and further personalize customer experience. Making use of intelligent automation in your contact centers can reduce the time you need to spend with a customer both in the live contact and in the post-contact work by anywhere from 30 to 70 percent. Add to this the ability to use conversational artificial intelligence (AI) to reduce the volume of contacts coming into the contact center in the first place, and you are well on your way to offsetting your reliance on your human workforce and improving your customer experience. Incremental capability in many of the RPA tools allows you to kick off processes via dynamic forms, which can be used in processes like requesting a mortgage or payment holiday as a result of the COVID pandemic, reducing volume from the contact center without the complexities of building conversation journeys using a chatbot.

Action 4: Make sure you build these learnings and automation plans into your BCP to ensure you can pivot rapidly in the face of the next crisis. A BCP should contemplate multiple strategies beyond location, including virtual duplication of employees through working-from-home (WFH) policies and digital workers. WFH policies leverage human workers reliant on corporate-issued laptops operating via home internet services. These are less reliable and more susceptible to security breaches than corporate services – especially in developing countries. A viable alternative in a BCP would be to lay out plans to conduct the work with a digital workforce instead.

Whether you are just starting out with automation or already at scale, the economic impact of COVID-19 will be long-lasting. Enterprises that implement intelligent automation now will relieve pressure, reduce risk and create capacity in the short term – and will ensure they are better prepared for the future.   

ISG Automation helps enterprises seize opportunities for intelligent automation, scale their automation initiatives and realize substantial return on their investment. Contact us to discuss how we can help you.


About the author

Wayne Butterfield

Wayne Butterfield

Wayne is an automation pioneer, initially starting out as an early adopter of RPA in 2010, creating one of the first Enterprise scale RPA operations. His early setbacks at Telefonica UK, led to many of the best practices now instilled across RPA centres of excellence around the globe. Customer centric at heart, Wayne also specialises in Customer Service Transformation, and has been helping brands in becoming more Digitally focused for their customers. Wayne is an expert in Online Chat, Social Media and Online Communities, meaning he is perfectly placed to help take advantage of Chat Bots & Virtual Assistants. More recently Wayne has concentrate on Cognitive & AI automation, where he leads the European AI Automation practice, helping brands take advantage of this new wave of automation capability.