Process Automation in Customer Communication: More Flexibility Through API

Carsten Luedtge // January 12, 2021

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Is the world of batch-driven document processing soon over? A world in which customer inquiries are collected as letters or e-mails and processed over several days or weeks? Analyses have shown that the average "life cycle" of a business transaction of this type is three weeks. Are such long processing times even accepted today?

The fact is that corporate customer communication is currently undergoing rapid change; not only because there is a diversity of analogue and digital channels, but also because the diversity in document and output management is increasing. Typically, for example, information about one and the same business transaction is exchanged via different media. Today, the consumer or customer wants to have the choice of which channel to use to contact their insurer, bank, telecommunications provider and other business partners. If, for example, he is on the road and wants to read the message on his iPhone or tablet - then the corresponding document is required in HTML format for optimal display. On the other hand, if the document issensitive or has a valuable tactile value, such as the purchase contract or insurance policy, then pressure still plays a role. One would like to file a valuable document in the main folder, sometimes this is still required by law.

Communication Today Is No Longer One-Dimensional

A high degree of "suppleness" in customer communication is therefore required in order to be able to switch quickly from one medium to another if necessary or to be able to "serve" several channels simultaneously. In general, expectations of quality and speed are rising - the latter is certainly also the result of experience in online trading, where it is now almost taken for granted that the product ordered will be shipped the same day. The time factor is playing an increasingly important role in customer communication, because short response times ultimately also mean a piece of quality in general. Of course, there are gradual gradations in the individual communication media in terms of processing time: e-mail is certainly more accommodating than video and audio messages. And of course, various socio-cultural factors such as age, education, IT affinity, language, etc. also influence communication behaviour.

Added to this is the "fragmentation" in communication. For example, in order to repair damage to a building, you need a craftsman's workshop. The communication required for this could be as follows: First, the responsible insurer must approve the settlement. To do this, it would be sufficient for the injured party to photograph the object with his smartphone and send the image file together with important data (insurance number, time of damage, address etc.) to the insurer via a messenger service (WhatsApp, SMS etc.). The following maxim applies: The earlier, the better, because once the basic approval has been given by the insurer, the injured party can already take care of commissioning the repair company.

The details of the settlement could then be clarified at a later date between the insurance company and the injured party - whether by electronic means (e-mail with attachment, web portal, etc.) or by traditional mail. In either case, the injured party would benefit from a quick settlement of the claim and ultimately the insurer (image).

This example illustrates two fundamental aspects of modern communication: firstly, quality plays a decisive role; secondly, despite all digitisation, both analogue (paper-based) and electronic channels will retain their authorisation for some time to come and exist in parallel; even the "good old" fax will not disappear any time soon. The challenge is therefore to take into account the omnichannel character in both input and output for all conceivable application scenarios.

More "Smoothness" with API Services

The question remains how to achieve this agility - and without a lot of effort. A basic requirement is that the IT systems used in a company have so-called open programming interfaces so that applications, both internal and external, can operate efficiently and smoothly with each other, i.e. exchange data, can be easily combined (for example, via a cloud) and can be easily integrated with each other. In principle, this is all about "collaboration" within the so-called API economy, which offers companies undreamt-of opportunities to flexibly adapt or expand their business areas to market requirements without having to invest heavily in the development of new software solutions every time a change is made. This ability to integrate new applications, software solutions and services into existing IT structures at will will will help companies add value, especially in their customer communication. Suddenly, completely new approaches and scenarios are possible in document and output management.

Just think of the integration of a translation service available on the web (DeepL, Google Translator etc.). If, for example, a Spanish customer asks his German insurance company for a new quote for his life insurance, he can send his message in his native language - whether as a WORD document, e-mail attachment in PDF format or as a WhatsApp message: the text or audio document runs through a translation app used by the insurance company (whether developed in-house or an external API service) and is then automatically sent to the clerk in German.

Or take the topic of accessibility: Since autumn 2018, authorities and public sector organisations have been required under EU law to offer all their communications barrier-free. According to this law, the content must be "perceptible, operable, comprehensible and robust". Users with disabilities have to be able to navigate through the pages and perceive and understand the information provided. Against this background, how nice it would be if an API service could be used to automatically prepare the content as an audio file (for recipients with visual impairments) instead of just making it available as a PDF or HTML file?

Identification by Telephone through Chatbots

Some scenarios are not so new and have become part of everyday business life. In private health insurance, for example, apps for recording doctor's bills have now become widely accepted: Instead of collecting the individual paper receipts and sending them to the insurer by post at the end of the month (including adding a cover sheet and manual signature), the insured simply photographs each receipt immediately and sends it to the insurer via the app.

In countries such as Denmark, they are already further ahead - no wonder, since the Scandinavians have always been among the pioneers in terms of digitalisation. Here, insurance companies are already using chatbots in their call centers, which are able to request the necessary information from the caller to identify the customer's request, for example: Are you already a customer? What is the policy number? The chatbot thus carries out a telephone authentication and ideally, in the ideal case, i.e. routine tasks such as the request for a new offer, automatically triggers a response e-mail with the offer as a PDF attachment immediately to the caller. In the meantime, chat bots have become so intelligent that today 70 to 80 percent of all processes typical for an insurance company can be handled in this way (changes of address, submission of damage reports, etc.) These self-learning AI systems can even deal with customer-specific features such as unusual intonation, special expressions and voice pitches, etc.

Clearly: The processes in customer communication today are so complex that the applications and software systems used are increasingly made up of components from different manufacturers and communicate with each other via web services. Incidentally, this is also a reason why many companies are increasingly turning to the cloud.

Whether one wants to admit it or not, the business world is moving towards the API economy, as "rigid" batch processing is increasingly being displaced by agile or transactional communication. Ultimately, this means that case processing time is becoming an important indicator of customer service.

APIs Are Business Critical Factors

So in order to achieve short "turnaround times" without neglecting quality, companies need a way to parallelize applications with a high volume of communication so that they can ensure transactional work in the required Service Level Agreements (SLA). In other words, it is all about application scalability and the intelligent use of resources. Against this background, APIs play a decisive role, because they enable companies to respond to changes in communication behaviour (increasing data volumes, new channels, higher customer expectations in terms of processing time and quality) quickly, satisfactorily and with the best possible utilisation of the existing infrastructure in document and output management.

A look at the current figures underlines the importance of APIs. For example, the www.programmableweb.com platform currently lists around 23,000 Web API offerings, around 80 percent of which are based on the widely used REST architecture. According to the web directory, there has been a rapid increase especially between 2010 and 2018. This certainly has to do with the role of big players such as Google, Amazon & Co., which have been "pushing" the issue since 2012. Platforms like Netflix, PayPal or eBay, which have made a lot of progress in the cloud, are now also among the leading API providers. The "API Integration Report 2019" concludes that the majority of companies and organizations consider APIs to be a business-critical factor.

According to the report, API services are used by almost 55% of them to develop new B2B solutions, followed by products for mobile communication (approx. 36%) and consumer goods production (B2C, approx. 28%). Every year, 2,000 new services are added. The pioneer in the development and use of API services is the financial industry. What is certain is that the business world, and with it communication itself, has become more agile, which is reflected not least in a growing demand for microservices. The fact that companies are increasingly switching to the cloud also "fires up" the API issue.


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