Businesses across all industries experience the same problem: fixing inefficiencies created by manual tasks while ensuring quality work. While it may take time to identify pain points – and sometimes there is an upfront cost to fixing them – the long-term cost and time savings of adding automation pays dividends. When effective automation is used to solve problems, quality assurance is also a natural byproduct.
Complex manual work may involve training associates to understand policies or learn technical processes. The opportunity cost of using highly trained people to do repetitive tasks can be great – and morale suffers when associates work long hours doing tedious work. When repetitive tasks are automated, productivity generally increases – and the risk of human error can be reduced to improve customer experiences and outcomes.
Introducing Nelnet Automation
The Nelnet Automation Team is a small group of developers who create significant time and cost savings, providing value for Nelnet Diversified Services’ clients and customers.
Operating with a guiding philosophy of “find a problem, fix a problem,” there are many ways this small team has a big impact. If an operational area or a department lead identifies an inefficiency to remedy, or a large-scale project they would like to avoid doing manually, they ask the Automation Team to find a solution.
The Process of Creating Automation Solutions
The process of creating effective automation poses challenges that require planning and best practices to ensure successful implementation. Working with diverse teams and projects across Nelnet requires the Automation Team to take a custom approach to automation. However, there’s a standard process for scoping out each project that includes identifying the exact requirements before coding starts, so the team doesn’t waste time programming incorrectly or for elements that aren’t part of the ask.
Maintaining excellent communication with the team they’re helping and having access to all related resources are also important steps in scoping projects.
Scoping Automation Solutions
- Clearly understand the ask.
- Maintain excellent communication.
- Ensure access to necessary documents.
- Analyze manual processes you’re replacing.
Scoping also requires examining each step within the existing manual processes. This allows the team to determine whether processes align with prior automation projects. If so, the Automation Team is able to repurpose code from a previous project – and, if not, the team figures out what they need to learn and execute for the new project. For some projects, the steps aren’t well defined. A manual process may make sense to the stakeholders, but the Automation Team has to connect those steps with how a computer “sees” the process. In scoping the project, the team walks the stakeholders through the digital process, receiving the input they need to program rules for it.
Automation Solutions in Action
Here are a few examples of how Nelnet Automation is helping customers and bringing value to the business.
Saving time by eliminating repetitive tasks has been a visible outcome for many of the Automation Team’s projects. Documentation validation is a critical, but time-consuming, process for banking and loan clients, making it a perfect area to use the team’s skills – with proven outcomes.
- The team automated document validation for a loan portfolio from a large bank. Their work saved about 20,000 hours of manual work and proved what they were capable of doing on a large scale.
- The team took on another document validation project for thousands of loans that Nelnet Consumer Services onboarded from another bank. Halfway through the loan portfolio migration, automated validation had already saved about 87,000 hours of manual labor for the operations team.
By handling tasks so that associates don’t have to work on weekends to complete them, automation can both save time and provide accurate records that benefit customers.
Borrower Status Backdating. The team developed a code base that can interact with the front-end client for one of our servicing platforms in the same way that agents do. This project helps borrowers emerging from non-pay statuses into repayment. Without automation, a customer exiting a forbearance on a weekend would have a gap in their status history because repayment wouldn’t be entered until Monday. Automated status backdating makes sure there are no gaps.
Automation creates an opportunity to control workload more effectively because work can be completed in large batches. This is particularly useful when a client wants to proactively manage a large volume of work – and it may require planning to develop an automated solution to deal with consequences of the last automation.
COVID-19 Forbearances. Before pandemic-related forbearances in the federal student loan portfolios began in 2020, the team was working to automate a quarterly email campaign. This campaign reached out to certain late-stage delinquency borrowers to help prevent default and roll them into forbearance. Nelnet Consumer Services receives as many as 30,000 responses each quarter to this campaign.
The team was using automation to reduce the volume of delinquent borrowers, but realized there will still be an enormous delinquency bubble when COVID-19 forbearances expire and borrowers emerge from repayment. As the emerge date nears, the Automation Team is updating operational processes – including automating processes to ensure they recognize that borrowers have not been required to make payments for almost two years.
The Automation Team also understands that future decisions at the federal level could affect forbearances. The team is proactively working with multiple teams across Nelnet to consolidate and streamline processes that support two federal loan portfolios as they move into repayment status.
Measuring the Impact of Automation
The Automation Team clearly saves time for Nelnet associates by reducing manual work. Tracking return on investment (ROI) is important for the team, since it’s one of the criteria that Automation uses to prioritize projects.
However, the ROI is often qualitative, not quantitative. Many prioritized projects are focused on reducing a high risk of error. Increasing accuracy is a huge value-add to a business – and removing human error from a process can positively impact customer experience.
For example, the Automation Team worked on a project to support the onboarding of commercial loans from a platform used by a company Nelnet acquired. Each loan had a 100-page PDF file of supporting documentation. When Nelnet agents began processing loan activity, they went through each PDF manually to find and use specific data fields. This was a time-consuming and error-prone process until the Automation Team streamlined it by pulling the data from the PDFs and loading it into the Nelnet platform.
For 2022, the Automation Team is eyeing projects that will better track ROI and improve the customer experience. One of the team’s goal is to work with operational leaders to uncover the error rate in a process they are asked to automate, and then track the rate, post-automation. The team is also considering an automation project that would directly impact student loan borrowers calling the contact center.
Gaining efficiencies and improving processes and experiences through automation is a priority for Nelnet, and the Automation Team actively supports that. The team’s role within Nelnet is expanding, allowing them to create greater efficiencies and better experiences for our customers, clients, and associates.
Interested in learning more about how Nelnet’s Automation Team can benefit your organization? Contact an expert today.