How robotic process automation can unlock the potential of human employees.
Human interaction is the primary selling point of independent agents—the one-on-one attention given to each client, the individualized approach to risk mitigation and the relationships built with their community. It's ironic that one of the best ways to capitalize on that human element is by enlisting some helpful little robots.
Robotic process automation, RPA for short, is the use of an automatic program to complete repetitive data processes. Using RPA, independent agencies can delegate tasks like tedious number-plugging to a tireless and dedicated bot, freeing the humans to do what humans do best: connect, collaborate and create.
“RPA is just doing the automated tasks that human beings really shouldn't be doing," says Christopher Cook, president of Alliance Industry Services in North Carolina. “Stuff that requires data entry, or as I like to call it, flying a keyboard."
“I want to make sure my team members are spending time building relationships," he continues. “The more keystrokes and mouse clicks that we can take out of the process and give that time back to our team members to build relationships with our customers, the better."
That focus on human connection prompted Alliance Industry Services to seek an RPA solution for a time-consuming data entry task. The property-casualty space has existing software that allows the agency to manage commission statements and carrier downloads, including information on which customers are active and which ones have experienced a rate change.
“But we didn't have anything of that nature in the life-health space," Cook explains. “Commission statements from carriers may or may not be in a digital format, something you can run a formula off of, or manage in Excel."
Cook's agency is in the process of creating an RPA bot to apply to a health insurance commission statement, allowing them to update their management system automatically with pertinent information, such as which policies are active, which policies have been canceled that month, and more. “It was the only way I know to get accurate information when you're talking a scale of 1,800-2,500 customers," Cook says.
Facilitating the cooperation between multiple systems and information from multiple carriers is a key RPA driver in the independent agency world.
“It's a pain point in our industry," says Sarah Applegate, implementation and success manager of automation and efficiency at b atomic, an InsurTech founded by independent agents. “We have a lot of great technology, but there are times where we have a legacy system that doesn't automate things that would help make our jobs easier."
“Insurance is an industry that relies on its back-office processes—which can be data-intensive, inundated, slow and inefficient," says Sathya Sethuraman, director of global insurance practice at UiPath. “Traditionally, this would require several employees to log information into insurance core systems, especially independent agents—often handling hundreds of policies and customer service requests for multiple insurance carriers, adding up to hours of menial work," he says. “RPA can be used to free employees of that and allow them to focus on higher-value work."
Sethuraman highlights one particular brokerage that leveraged RPA and ultimately “reduced average handling time of new business quote submission from 30 minutes to eight minutes, achieving 100% accuracy in transaction fulfillment and increasing the efficiency of writing new business by an average of more than 40%."
“RPA can run any time of day, 24/7," says Holly Uhl, operational excellence & robotics director at State Auto Insurance Companies. “And it's not limited to any type of system. So, if you receive an invoice via email, it can open the email and read the invoice, scrape the data off, apply it into the system that could pay the invoice, and then update your agency management system."
Human data entry increases the likelihood of mistakes, such as typos and incorrect information, leading to problems further down the line in the customer experience. With RPA, data accuracy nears 100%, which enhances the agency on multiple levels.
“Data quality leads to accurate reporting and decision making," says Scott Ziemke, director of data science at Vertafore. “In general, manually entered data is not preferred across any industry. Using RPA to collect data removes the random human element that can at times be error-prone."
“Data integrity is a huge benefit," agrees Rusty Roark, systems administrator at Burton & Company in Martinsville, Virginia. The agency uses RPA in its Salesforce ecosystem to generate data in multiple places at once. “Our agents have a button they click, they enter a few pieces of information, and then the RPA puts that information in the five to 10 places it needs to be to make the system work."
“The RPA puts the data in the same places every time, whereas your agent may or may not remember to do so," he adds. “Our data integrity and reporting are much more efficient and higher quality."
Applegate, who worked at multiple agencies before joining b atomic, has used RPA for several tasks, including a book transfer.
“We had to set out a path leading up to each client's renewal date, but the system we were using didn't allow for good parameters around that," she says. “I built a bot that went in and set over 800 tasks on those policies so the account manager simply had a daily to-do list she could work through. We got this knocked out on a Friday night in a couple of hours, and it would have taken the account manager a week to set them all individually."
An additional benefit is that humans are happier when they don't feel like robots. “Overall broker morale is a great product of RPA," Ziemke points out. “I think we're all happy when we feel our time is spent adding value. Ultimately, your customer will feel the direct impact of a happy broker with long tenure."
Vertafore is working on a new product that harnesses the power of RPA by allowing agents to collaborate with clients on fully digitalized ACORD forms. “Instead of having to replicate the data into another system, the RPA will allow the agent to select the carrier and send that digital ACORD form to a carrier API in real-time, getting real-time, quote-combined communications," Ziemke says.
RPA for Beginners
RPA, when used correctly, can free humans to move beyond data maintenance into relationship-building and producing. But how does an agency go about implementing RPA? Here are five ways to get started:
1) Don't be scared. “There are so many user-friendly types of RPA software out there available for end users," Applegate says. “I'm self-taught, with some help from a few tutorials and throwing ideas around with other people at the company."
2) Start small. “We're always learning and we'll get better, so try getting some little wins to learn the process," Cook says.
“Try something that's only a few steps," Uhl agrees, “whether that's scraping some information out of your customer relationship management system or sending a renewal email."
As Sethuraman points out, starting small doesn't mean you have to end small: “RPA is highly scalable, so agencies can expand to high volume transactions once they've experienced true value from the technology."
3) Know the process manually. “This was a big lesson we learned," Roark says. “Our RPA failed at first because we were missing a couple steps, so we went back through the process manually to correctly map out the task."
4) Make sure your humans are on board. “When you say the words 'robotic process automation,' some people may automatically jump to the fear this will eliminate their job," Uhl says. “Of course, anybody who has worked with these applications would tell you it allows your people to focus on growing or enhancing your business. But acknowledge any fears, and make sure you're open with your employees about the purpose of RPA. Are you trying to reduce staffing? Or free up current staff to add value to the customer experience?"
5) Don't set it and forget it. Just like any other technology, changes and maintenance to RPA are required. “Acknowledge that the process may need to be updated or your agency may even stop doing this process at some point, and that's okay," Uhl says. “It's a wonderful tool to have, but it's an application like anything else."
The most important element of RPA is a skill only humans can bring to the table: imagination.
“Question everything," Applegate says. “If there's a process that frustrates you or that's inefficient, don't settle for it simply because it's always been done that way. If it's something you can automate, have that conversation—is there a better way?"
Do You Need RPA?
If your agency is considering whether a tedious data processing task should be outsourced to a friendly neighborhood robot, here are some questions to ask before you dive in:
Does the task take up a significant amount of your agency's time? Before taking the plunge, Uhl recommends an analysis of what tasks are causing the most bottleneck. “Have every person in your operation write down the processes they perform—not necessarily the steps yet, but just how many times a day they look at invoices, applications or payments," she says. “Then have them write how long it takes them to do it."
“Have each person create a list of the first five things that take up most of their time," she continues. “Then you'll see which tasks are actually taking up the most time for the most amount of people."
Is it a repeating, simple set of steps? “Sit and look at the process, breaking it down step by step," Roark says. “Are there any repeating sections of it? Are your agents or your users doing the same thing over and over? Repetitive tasks are great for RPA implementation."
“The candidate's process should follow a known sequence of steps with minimal variation," Ziemke agrees. “And it should be simple—we're not working with Terminator here. If a human can't replicate it, then it would be very hard for a machine to do."
Is it worth the investment? “Understand what your investment is, and what your potential return over time would be," Ziemke says. “That's based on cost savings or agency growth from freed up resources."
“How many people does it affect?" Applegate asks. “Who does it affect? Is it the best use of their time? If hiring a developer who can build the bot in a couple of hours that can save you nine hours a week, the answer is pretty clear."
In the ultimate robot team-up, agency owners can determine if RPA is right for them with … even more technology.
“This is where process mining is valuable," Sethuraman says, referencing a type of software that analyzes transactions and other log entries to provide performance analysis. “Process mining solutions offer deep insight into broken business processes and provide suggestions for what can be automated to yield better business performance and high ROI."AnneMarie McPherson is IA news editor.