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Up-leveling customer communications infrastructure with RPA

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The word “robotic” brings to mind the sci-fi cartoon comedy series “Futurama,” in which sentient robots live side by side with humans. The Futurama robots have jobs delivering items or cooking food. Some of them appear to have been designed to replace human workers on a one-to-one basis. 

The series’ illustration of how robots can be used—that is, replacing humans by operating a machine that was originally designed to be used by a human—is similar to the idea behind robotic process automation (RPA). Rather than buying into new software stacks, RPA allows for the automation of existing software, which helps if there isn’t an API available or if integration proves too difficult.

With RPA, AI-powered robots observe humans using software and then learn to use the software themselves. For contact centers with legacy tooling, RPA could be one way to introduce AI to the contact center without having to replace proven yet inflexible systems.

Meet RPA

RPA’s roots are in screen-scraping tools where software scripts load websites and extract content from them. An example of this is the early days of online banking: Software logged in to various online banking accounts and extracted balance information from the web pages, presenting banking and card accounts in one interface. 

This process was clunky, requiring developers of those bank account aggregator tools to manually configure their tools according to each bank’s interface and to find the relevant information in the HTML. If a bank made a change to its interface, the aggregators would be thrown for a loop, as they had no “intelligence” to try something different. In addition, many site owners disliked the idea of third parties automatically extracting data from their websites, and that led to the use of captchas. 

A far cry from old-school screen scraping, RPA tools transcend rigid rules and “learn” how to perform tasks. 

RPA and customer communication

AI is poised to change how we think of customer communication. Already, simple bots are helping to handle customer queries. The one stumbling block is finding a way to integrate AI with existing systems in an easy, cost-effective way. Take this example scenario: In the next 5 years, increasingly intelligent artificial agents will be directly handling customer contact. For straightforward queries, an AI-powered bot with a speech interface could handle telephone queries at a fraction of the cost of human agents. But what happens if your company’s customer management system doesn’t offer an API to integrate with the AI-powered bot?

Using RPA techniques, the bot could log into your customer management system through the web interface and update the customer records itself. As far as the legacy customer management system is concerned, the bot would be just another user of its web interface. But the AI would be software sitting on a server somewhere. What sets RPA apart from basic screen scraping is in how it learns to automate processes.

Always learning

Powered by AI, RPA relies on humans first showing the software how to do something. The human completes the required tasks multiple times while the RPA tool observes what is happening. It then builds a picture of the workflow. Human operators can then modify the workflow or even seed it at the beginning with the optimal workflow. But the important thing is that the RPA tool never stops learning.

If, for example, the “Submit” button on a form changes to a “Go” button, then the RPA tool should have enough data and independence to give that a try. As time goes on, the RPA tool can learn more and more tasks, either by observing humans or by making its own deductions.

While RPA sounds like the first steps toward replacing humans, it actually is more about making better use of human agents. Just like all robots, RPA excels at helping humans avoid repetitive work. So, in the near future, we’re more likely to see RPA tools that make case notes for a human agent—à la a smart digital assistant—rather than the RPA tool handling the entirety of the interaction and thus replacing the human agent.

As customer communications becomes increasingly automated, RPA will help to fill in those gaps where other forms of integration aren’t possible. It’s a great example of pragmatism in how we approach changes in business. In principle, automation offers enormous opportunities to save on costs and deliver better customer experience. Practically, though, it’s neither possible nor desirable to wipe away legacy systems and start with a completely fresh slate.

Humans and machines in harmony

Gartner found that the worldwide RPA software market grew 63% in 2018. The industry growth is more evidence that organizations of all stripes are turning to RPA and other similar technologies to help humans become more efficient. Moreover, for companies wary of introducing more overhead, RPA offers the ability to introduce AI into an organization without having to fully replace existing systems. While there is no technology panacea, RPA represents a cost-effective way to make humans more efficient without making major changes to existing technology or personnel. 

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