Businesses will probably always have customers who want to place their orders by fax. When there are manual tasks involved in processing those orders, they can present a serious problem because companies may fall short in meeting expectations of the customers who place them. There is a fundamental conflict between the level of service that customers expect and the costs of meeting those expectations with orders received via fax.
Companies have come to understand the day-to-day pain of in-bound fax orders. They know manual processing causes errors that drive up costs — not only the hard costs of productivity that can be quantified, but also the soft costs of low customer satisfaction and lost customers. They realize EDI is not the answer for everyone, and there are limits to what optical character recognition (OCR) and templates can do. But no business is about to refuse an order, and many end up accumulating numerous tools and technologies to process orders received by fax.
Even if in-bound fax only represents a small percentage of a company’s total order volume, it can significantly handicap initiatives to drive productivity, improve customer service, quit paper, and boost profitability through automation. Estimates of the cost to manually process an order run as high as US$60 or more, compared with $1 to $3 for automated processing.
Companies have devised a variety of mechanisms to cope with the pain of in-bound fax orders. But without careful consideration of some key factors, these efforts ultimately are destined to fail.
What’s Standing in the Way?
Historically, many companies have tried to push customers toward EDI. The emergence of EDI even prompted some to declare that fax would become obsolete for business transactions. So far, this has not happened, because a segment of the business world remains unwilling or simply unable, financially, to leverage EDI. Companies who are able to use EDI themselves face the dilemma of whether or not to try to force all of their customers to do so.
One approach that companies have taken is to follow the Pareto Rule, also known as the “80/20 rule,” which holds that 80 percent of a company’s revenue generally comes from 20 percent of its business. Conversely, companies must ask themselves if focusing on the 20 percent is really a solution to the fax-to-order problem or simply a decision to ignore it. In terms of productivity, the 80 percent is what causes the majority of the pain and cost. The vast majority choose to accept fax and email orders because they cannot get everyone to move to EDI.
If the fax-to-order problem is to be solved through automation, a key issue that companies must address is how to handle variations in order document layouts. Often, companies accumulate a variety of different tools that cost time and money to implement and maintain — and still don’t address the core issue. The result is that companies become highly proficient in handling paper but not in managing the process.
Paper Kills Customer Service
Out of necessity, companies have developed specialized skills in running their particular paper-based order processing steps. The result is, companies become proficient in handling paper but not in managing the process as a whole. What they have in common is a maze of manual touchpoints. People touch documents over and over again throughout the process. Each touch increases not only the risk of something going wrong, but also the restrictions on speed. Continuing to refine the skill of pushing paper orders around the office can have a major impact on the business.
Paper proficiency is extremely labor-intensive and error-prone, and it makes poor use of employees’ time. With paper, it is difficult if not impossible to know when orders came in, where they are in the process, who is working on them at the moment, and how long it takes to answer customer questions. When customers call to check or modify orders, they get put on hold while the rep finds the order. If the order has been entered into the ERP system, it can be pulled out of the file cabinet, but that takes time.
Responsiveness suffers, and the company does not have the control to actually improve the process beyond doing the best possible job of moving paper. This leads to a drawn-out order-to-cash cycle, extending the time it takes to collect the cash that runs the business. Effective order management demands the ability to know where an order is at all times. Companies need a clear view of when orders come in, where they are in the process, who is working on them at the moment, and how long it takes to answer questions when a customer calls.
Reliance on paper order documents consumes high-value resources to do low-value work. And ultimately, a company’s proficiency with paper processing is of no benefit to its customers.
Failed Attempts to Automate
One typical cause of failure in fax-to-order automation efforts is the notion that solving the problem requires numerous separate technologies to perform the various tasks. The issue here is that companies often end up with a complicated architecture of point-to-point systems. The resulting IT landscape might include an ERP application into which orders are entered, legacy applications, a CRM application, and custom-developed applications in addition to the corporate email platform.
On top of this, companies add fax servers, imaging systems, OCR and other capture-related technologies and formatting tools. All of these technologies then need to be linked for presentation of fax orders to the customer service team in a user-friendly interface for validation, workflow and exception handling. And once companies are able to massage and route order data, they need to be able to convert it so it makes sense to the ERP systems into which they need to push the data.
Introducing all of these systems into an already complex IT infrastructure creates process bottlenecks. The cost can be astronomical — not just to purchase the technologies, but also to implement and maintain them, and to train customer service to use them. When any pieces of the puzzle change, as they inevitably do, modifying all of the affected applications is expensive and time-consuming.
Knowing the Limitations
Another common mistake in fax order automation is applying technology without considering its limitations. OCR is a prime example. OCR recognizes characters on an image, so when a fax order comes in, letters and numbers can be identified. Imaging is commonly used to refer to taking a paper order and making it electronic. OCR and imaging have limits to what they can do for end-to-end automation.
For example, accuracy. A numeral “5” might be captured as a letter “s,” or a letter “l” might be captured as a numeral “1.” Beyond inaccuracy, OCR does not account for the context of content and how characters relate to each other. Another downfall is handwriting, which OCR does not handle well. In the end, companies hoping to use OCR and imaging technologies to put sales orders straight into their back-office application find that it does not work that easily.
A third pitfall is the variable nature of order documents. Each customer may have its own purchase order layout and format. To make up for the limitations of basic OCR and imaging, a common approach is to use templates to tell the OCR and imaging engine exactly what to look for and where to look, and then hope that everything is captured correctly.
Templates can do a passable job if all of the data to be extracted is in the correct position — but on the whole, they are highly impractical. A company with 2,000 customers might have to build 2,000 templates, which is costly and time-consuming. If a company only creates templates for its top customers, there is still the question of how to handle orders that do not fit a template — which companies usually answer with paper handling and manual intervention.
Successful fax-to-order automation requires investment in a platform (or access to a platform on demand through a Software as a Service approach) with capabilities that encompass document routing, data capture, data entry, electronic approval workflow, an audit trail, reporting and automatic archiving. The ideal is a solution that provides visibility into the entire process, not just the fax piece, and can receive multiple formats of in-bound orders — email, Web, EDI and even mail orders in addition to fax — with a front end available for entry of phone orders.
It also needs to play well with e-commerce tools and other systems that a company already has in place, so that fax orders can be converted to EDI and all orders can be treated the same. Intelligent technology overcomes the limitations of basic OCR and templates by recognizing data based on document content rather than defined areas, and by getting “smarter” the more it is used.
Companies also need 100 percent throughput to handle exceptions and manage all orders on a unified platform for a full view, at the individual order level, of where an order is the instant it comes in — even before it is entered into the ERP system. So when a customer calls right after sending an order to change the order or confirm that it was received, the customer service rep can instantly find it. This also offers the ability to manage priority orders, which can significantly enhance a company’s ability to deliver high-level customer service. And no matter how the customer service team is set up, orders automatically get to the right person.
Solving the fax-to-order problem can deliver real results.
Steve Smith is U.S. COO of Esker.