by Robert Bijster, Kodak Alaris

Efficiently processing incoming paper documents can cause major headaches for business leaders, especially in organizations that receive large volumes of customer communications from traditional mail, e-mail and the Internet. In recent years, companies have been able to substantially reduce processing costs per business transaction by implementing response management solutions for digital communications. 

In comparison, handling conventional mail is still very inefficient. In addition to the burden of logistics and paper storage, the numerous manual steps required to handle “snail mail” make it very expensive. What’s more, transferring document content to business applications for further processing requires companies to spend a significant amount of resources on data capture.

Paper-based transactions represent a significant opportunity to decrease costs while increasing business efficiency. They also present companies with an opportunity to design service processes around customer value. The most successful organizations are the ones that adopt a solid digital mailroom approach that analyzes, understands and automates the process for managing large volumes of incoming mail and text-based transactions.

The problem with snail mail

While companies across all industries have certainly made progress in digitizing mailroom procedures, most have not fully tackled the challenge of implementing a true, all-encompassing digital mailroom. Many document processes still depend on manual labor. For example, incoming documents have to be read, sorted and distributed multiple times. In this process, they can get lost, or searched/sorted incorrectly or inefficiently. In addition, processing requires switching media: search/archiving takes place in third-party systems.

Valuable resources are consumed by executing the same daily core processes over and over again. Consider this: companies easily invest between $8 and $20 dollars in the transfer of a single document by the time the underlying business transaction is resolved.1

Automating mail processing can create huge opportunities for efficiency. Relatively small efforts to avoid mistakes at the beginning of the mail handling process can have a huge positive impact by the end of processing.

Paper-based mail transactions represent a substantial opportunity to decrease cost and to design services around delivering greater customer value. Optimizing classification and extraction processes creates business efficiency, and extracting customer data and content in real time while handling incoming mail yields valuable information as part of a larger enterprise content management (ECM) strategy.

Ultimately, business data is the lifeblood of a modern, networked organization. Understanding and processing relevant content and customer data, as well as its secure and efficient transfer, represents one of the most important goals for a successful company.

Artificial intelligence — not just for science fiction movies anymore

Pop culture and science fiction have ostensibly redefined “artificial intelligence” (AI) to describe a futuristic world with robots and space-age innovations. Today, however, AI delivers plenty of tangible benefits. It makes a significant impact by helping businesses better manage big data while improving responsiveness to customers, automating business processes, driving revenue and achieving better overall outcomes.

AI is a powerful technology that can be leveraged to recognize text patterns and contexts, and based on dynamically weighted probabilities, it can make decisions about the type of an event as well as the known specifics about a person or a case. Virtually no administrative intervention is required – the most intelligent system self-optimizes by integrating behaviors of select specialists as they evaluate and extract information into the knowledge base. In other words, the system “learns” how to classify documents correctly, whether they are emails, Web forms, or paper documents.

AI can also be utilized for customer-value-oriented processing, which is based on the principle that creating positive service experiences for particularly “valued” customers has a profitable effect on customer loyalty and referrals. It can identify the top customers who are responsible for brand loyalty and revenue at the time a transaction is processed, which enables businesses to be able to execute transactions to positively influence transactions, thereby creating an intelligent customer service experience for strategic interaction management.

In truly productive installations, AI-based mailroom solutions can reach a high degree of straight-through processing by automating classification and data extraction. Significant time and cost savings await businesses that invest in the right systems, which of course has a direct, positive effect on customer satisfaction.

Five keys to making mailroom processing more cost efficient

1. Create a centralized knowledge base: adaptive, AI-based across all contact channels. While interest and excitement continue to build regarding the profitability of digital mailrooms, other technically feasible options are still being developed. It is true for rule-based system solutions, which search for keywords to classify processes, that in order to achieve an optimal degree of efficiency by today’s standards you need to expect high design costs coupled with challenging and potentially even costlier maintenance. Unstructured documents, in particular, require highly complex rule sets that can become enormous and confusing. They don’t follow any dynamic and they continually need to be adjusted. By the time a false classification is noticed, rule sets are adjusted and a process is restarted, valuable time has been lost. A great knowledge base is auto-adaptive – meaning it is capable of optimizing itself based on daily observation. Its contents are subject to rules and permissions. Plus, it is centralized so that it can also be applied to email and Twitter inquiries, for example, or suggestive responses in the Web FAQ system. Leading AI-based system solutions integrate with existing mail processing solutions through Web services. The knowledge base becomes the foundation of your input management. It can and must be applied to all existing and future system constructions.

2. Create one workflow platform for processing all input sources. Consolidating multiple systems that are optimized for different document formats (structured and unstructured documents) and document types (email, letter, Web form, social media, etc.) can be challenging. All have to be maintained, mastered and managed. What to do? Implement uniform procedures. Modern communication platforms are not restricted for use in mailroom environments. Efficiency rates for classifying and extracting unstructured content (e.g., email in running text) and structured content (e.g., e-mail from a Web form) greatly exceed those of conventional mailrooms. Content from social networks (Facebook and Twitter) should be supported as well.

3. Optimize optical character recognition (OCR) results. Mistakes made at the content capture stage of the mail handling process can lead to significant costs and a loss of quality further down in the process. If OCR software generates false data, all subsequent measures to enable automated processes will be rendered ineffective. Using industry-leading document scanners will increase read results with advanced technologies, especially if you’re processing communications from different sources (fax, letter) and formats (forms, free-form text).

4. Implement extraction approaches to enrich input management. Features that identify customers (name/address fragments, customer IDs) as well as content specifications (product names, order numbers) are crucial to processing efficiency. You should be able to define for each processing step which data is needed for handling the transaction at that point.

5. Set the stage for customer-value-oriented processing. Reliably identifying personal and organizational data, and conducting a fuzzy search for matching characteristics, will be very important for the input management of the future. This reduces the potential for errors and improves subsequent processing, as it supports classification (customer history), processing (transaction data), and archiving. It also enables companies to implement customer-value-oriented processing.

Conclusion

The Internet brought a paradigm shift in the way consumers communicate with each other and with companies. It altered the accepted concept of conventional mailrooms; documents going hybrid is increasingly common now. But electronic letter mail will certainly not banish snail mail from mailrooms within the next few years.

Digital mailrooms must inevitably merge with customer service operations. Measures to increase the loyalty of business partners, as well as customers, should be a top management priority. The only place to implement them is at the point of customer interaction: communications at branch locations, by phone, by email and conventional letter mail, by text message, and on the Internet.

While conventional mailrooms will not disappear overnight, the time is right for measures that will position a company to take on the challenges of the decade ahead.

1 Dr. Gerhard Wohland & Matthias Wiemeyer – “How Dynamic-Robust Organizations Create Market Pressure”
Robert Bijster is worldwide product director, Advanced Capture Solutions, Kodak Alaris Information Management. For more information visit http://www.informationdynamix.com/
 
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Workflow.