The Back Office and the Digitization Myth

Is the back-office being ignored when there's a push towards digital transformation? It shouldn't be.

Digital transformation has taken center stage.

Every time I go to an IT conference or talk with an IT consultant these days the watchword has changed from “cloud” to “digitization.” It’s as if every vendor and consultant has rebranded their products and services to help customers with their “digital transformation.”

That’s all well and good. And I applaud the many organizations—in financial services, insurance, health care, oil and gas and elsewhere—as they embark upon their digital transformation journeys.

The beneficiaries, invariably, are users and customers. The efforts seem to be focused on the interactions between user and the enterprise, the customer and the enterprise or the employee and the enterprise.

Digitization succeeds when you remember to include the back office.

Too often, however, key processes in the back office that support customer-facing systems are themselves connected by spit and baling wire. Too often paper, digital forms, phone call records, social media posts, and (gulp!) fax are “integrated” by human hamsters trying to tie it all together in a far-from-digital manner.

Our best clients are thinking about digitization in a much more holistic manner. It’s far more than the user interaction. Digitization truly succeeds when you also include the back office.

Most of our clients start with end-to-end automation of high-volume transactions. That’s great, but the challenge comes with the vast number of “exceptions”—those requests that require some human intervention. Often these are the transactions that begin on the phone.

Customers know when the back office is disorganized.

Examples include hardship withdrawals from a 401(k), un-collateralized consumer loans or changes to beneficiary information for a trust. In these cases, customers usually try to fulfill their requests using their supplier’s web site. But if customers are unable to figure out a resolution within an average of just one minute, they pick up the phone and make a call instead.

That’s costly—around $20 or more per call for these types of inquiries. And those costs are rising. It’s also, unfortunately, an “opportunity” for the client to experience the ugly intricacies of the back office.

Customers hear the call center representative tapping away at different systems—and the CSR often will describe in detail all of the different systems and steps needed, perhaps so the client can appreciate their hard work and service!

Once the call is complete, there is usually another activity to complete: a check is issued, a change is made to a system. Often, the completion of the request is memorialized with a document that needs to be mailed. This can take several days. In the meantime, the client waits—and may call again to get a status update.

Unfortunately, these types of examples are neither high-volume nor low-volume. They sit just below threshold for high-priority digitization efforts. But if there are say 300 to 500 different customer requests, that ends up becoming a real cost to a financial services firm.

The fax machine is still (unfortunately) alive and well.

Let’s take another example: my doctor’s appointment. Thank you for the slick front end telling me (by text and e-mail or even Facebook Messenger) that my 18-year-old’s appointment is next Wednesday at 4.00 pm. I’m thrilled that you’re a digitally-savvy medical provider.

But wait, I need to change her appointment day—and I also need access to her records to make a different appointment with a second specialist. Oh, HIPAA rules require her to give me permission as she’s no longer a minor.

Fair enough. No problem, I get it. Direct me on your consumer-facing site where she and I can access the permission? And tell me how to do it and what to query. What, you don’t have any such instructions. And I have to fax the permissions?

Another phone call to figure that out? Another $10 or $12 or $18 an hour of provider service time wasted. Productivity? Don’t even go there.

There's a direct connection between seamless customer access and back office systems.

Much of what I’m describing requires direct customer access and the ability to make changes to back office systems. Or it may require the automation of tasks in the back office. Or the enterprise may need to change and automate the systems.

There is hope. Most organizations are in the process of aggressively modernizing back office systems. As they do so, it’s important that these systems work well with customer self-service goals.

Be careful to focus on the actual customer more than the internal user.

Strangely, some business or IT leaders object. They refurbish the systems with the customer service representative in mind, making servicing more efficient for the rep, rather than the actual customer.

There always will be some transactions that require human intervention, but there may be fewer of these than you think. We always ask our clients if customer service representatives truly need to be involved.

If they say “yes” customer service needs to be involved, we ask if that is because the tasks cannot be sufficiently simplified. Or is it, instead, because of long-held assumptions in the organization about what clients can and cannot do—or are even willing to try and do?

The goal of a modernization effort should be self service.

The goal of any simplification and modernization effort should be self service. Integrating front-end access points with the back-office systems is difficult, but not impossible.

True digitization is a total business journey. It runs from the customer through integrated back office systems and back again to the customer. As a customer, I should be able to access beautifully presented information about my accounts. And I should be able to query multiple back-end systems with what-if scenarios.

Other Doculabs blogs on digitization and the back office.

In the past, we’ve written about the business case for digitization and we’ve described the importance of end-to-end digitization of business processes.

Rich Medina
James Watson
I’m President and co-founder of Doculabs, serving as executive sponsor on consulting engagements for financial services clients.