Retail Automation: Low Code Kicks it into High Gear

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A fast-moving, dynamic environment is forcing retailers to be agile and adaptable, and boost performance at the same time. Yet most organizations haven’t made enough progress and are still missing opportunities. Only a few have true omnichannel offerings that use data at scale and have agile processes for working within their organizations.

As a result, employees struggle to meet customer expectations because outdated systems don’t provide the tools they need to use data in a meaningful way. Typically, the problem can be blamed on disparate CRM, ERP, POS, and other systems (including paper-based systems) that leave data siloed.

On top of that, the development of modern, omnichannel solutions can be an expensive and slow process. With increasing demands for new and improved solutions, retailers find it difficult to prioritize requests, and the business users, those closest to the customer, often don’t have a seat at IT’s design and development table.

It can be overwhelming — but it doesn’t have to be.

The potential for innovation

Process automation eliminates or reduces reliance on manual and paper-based tasks, and should be considered for any process that requires little to no human decision-making. No one likes copying and pasting data across applications. No one likes keying data into multiple software applications because the data is not shared. No one likes doing tedious, mundane work when it comes to data capture, or moving data around.

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Over the past three years, the McKinsey Global Institute has conducted a broad-based research initiative on automation across sectors. This research has shown that about half of the activities in retail can be automated using current, at-scale technology.

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When you combine automation with low-code application development, you can work fast, iterate often, and include all business stakeholders in the effort. And you can push automation out in low-code applications via self-service portals, mobile apps, or on an eCommerce platform. The result: reimagined retail business processes that integrate apps with workflows in your core systems for end-to-end departmental, cross-departmental, and organization-wide improvements.

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The need for digital resilience has never been clearer – companies that embrace technological changes and adopt low-code transformation will continue to grow.

Forecast Analysis: Low Code Development Technologies – Gartner, January 21, 2021

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Evaluate your processes

So where do you start? Put yourself in the shoes of your core customer and your employees. Think about all the ways they interact with your business and each other. Are there weak links? Do customers have to provide the same information across different systems? Consider these processes:

Then ask yourself these questions: Are they complicated? Paper-driven? Have you received feedback that they’re inefficient, tedious, and could potentially decrease customer loyalty?

This assessment helps provide a complete picture of how customers are interacting with your business, and how your current systems serve employees and customers alike. It’s important to do this upfront work because getting these answers helps determine where you need to begin, what you should focus on, and what can be deferred. As a result, prioritizing becomes a much easier task.

What makes a good use case?

Once you’ve identified processes that need improvement, conduct a litmus test to determine when low code automation will provide its biggest benefit. Consider:

  • Standard processes if the process is well understood and consistent in how it needs to be executed
  • High-frequency processes that run routinely and the ROI is clear
  • Predictable processes that don’t require ‘judgment calls’ by humans
  • Processes that are prone to human error during manual completion, for example, a process that has many steps
  • High-risk and high-impact processes where the risk of failure could be mitigated by automation

Some of the best retail automation candidates are scenarios related to customer service, customer onboarding, and inventory management, as well as the procure-to-pay and order-to-cash retail scenarios.

For example, let’s say a customer service employee enters an order into a CRM system. A flow can be created to sign into the organization’s SAP system, access orders that are tracked in a Microsoft Azure SQL database rather than an Excel spreadsheet, and create a purchase order. The flow can then submit the order to the supplier’s web application, monitor the email system for invoice and delivery emails, and then extract the information from the attachments to close the process in the Accounts Payable system.

The above example uses Robotic Process Administration (RPA) a feature of Microsoft Power Automate that directly connects and interacts with Dynamics 365 and other related applications. We recently published a blog on all things RPA, and you can read that here.

Noteworthy customer stories

At Hitachi Solutions, we’ve been helping customers identify and prioritize modernization efforts through automation for many years. Here are some impactful low-code automations, where you can clearly pinpoint the ROI. These examples are just the beginning — there are hundreds of (if not more) potential processes that organizations can automate.

Return process

Hitachi Solutions helped a leading manufacturer modernize an antiquated product return process, where hundreds of agents had to navigate between multiple, disparate systems and create multiple records to process a return, including copying/pasting inbound and outbound codes without any system validation. The process was time-consuming, leading to high error volume and customer delays.

By building a process-driven Power App solution with automated workflows, the agents could complete a transaction, while capturing and verifying data in multiple back-end systems, including CRM and the company’s on-record ERP. Users are guided through the process, automatically verifying the customer information, creating the interaction, and retrieving details for service types and codes.

Order taking

A distributor with multiple production facilities, segmented by product group, wanted to standardize its customer sales experience, allowing customers to receive products more quickly, and with little disruption to production systems. With product groups working independently, they needed an easy-to-use solution that would drive adoption and usage, while providing an omnichannel connection to their CRM system that integrated with their order management system.

Using the client’s ERP of record, an embedded power app was created to connect all sales channels with service representatives who receive call notifications for orders. The power app allows service reps to copy earlier orders and edit for reorders. It also integrates the order entry with the client’s Intelligent Order Management System, which, in turn, suggests the best production facility to fulfill the order based on manufacturing specifications, margin, location, shipping schedules, and time to delivery.

RPA workflow automations

In addition, we recently worked with one of our brand customers to automate many of their labor-intensive, manual processes using RPA and Power Automate. These automations included:

  • Identify pending expiration for contractor site access, and kick-off approval workflow to avoid unnecessary lockouts, work delays, and contractor frustration.
  • Updating account lists in SAP with third-party information to determine a set criterion for action, saving countless errors and thousands of manual clicks.
  • Pulling information from a legacy AS400 and combining it with SAP data to create critical product documentation.  This has improved compliance, warranty information and reduced or eliminated shipping delays.

When NOT to automate

If tasks have a high volume at scale, and are repeatable and valuable, they should be automated. Low-volume, one-time projects won’t have as much value, such as tasks that:

  • Need constant human oversight
  • Are too complex
  • Deal with unstructured data
  • Won’t yield a profitable ROI
  • Are immature or poorly defined

Workflows that require a human touch, involving high-level strategic decision-making or face-to-face interaction probably shouldn’t be considered. That said, even if you can’t automate an entire process from start to finish, you may still be able to automate parts of it. For example, you might use a chatbot to field initial customer service requests and then escalate cases to a live agent as needed.

Getting the right advice

Low-code apps and automation can’t solve all your retail problems, but it can help with many. If you can help an employee regain time to support customers, or shave hours off administrative processes and tasks, you’re moving in the right direction.

Although it’s certainly possible to implement automation on your own, it’s far better to work with a partner that has a proven track record of successful implementations. A skilled partner can leverage its expertise to help you determine which of your existing workflows are prime for automation, define goals, establish metrics, and proactively identify potential points of failure.

At Hitachi Solutions, we work side-by-side with our clients using Microsoft’s Automation Center of Excellence (CoE) as a blueprint. The (CoE)provides the tools necessary to embed a culture of automation—from adoption to governance and provides resources and best practices to get the automation right the first time.

Check out the following workshops where you can learn more about low-code automation and how to leverage it to modernize your business, empower your employees, and boost profitability. Then contact us and we’ll get started today.