The financial crunch of the pandemic placed banks in a tricky spot last year. They simultaneously needed to manage major operational changes while processing an avalanche of loan requests through the Paycheck Protection Program.
"There was a high degree of stress because the product had to be available to all these customers who were actually facing a severe economic crisis here," said Amala Duggirala, senior executive VP and chief operations and technology officer at Regions Bank, speaking Thursday at the Forbes CIO Summit.
The bank used natural language processing (NLP) to validate documents in real time. Because some of the loans went to existing customers, the bank also turned to in-house systems and data to speed the application process.
The whole process also needed to be responsive, Duggirala said, as banks adapted to changes in the program from the Small Business Administration.
Leaders last year used AI to tackle repetitive processes and speed resolution time, tackling an onslaught of PPP loan requests to mounting help desk tickets from workers operating remotely. With lessons derived from the pandemic, companies can further investments in automation — and in the challenges left to address.
Eric Johnson, CIO at SurveyMonkey, saw the workforce began to "move around the globe," changing not just where they were working, but where they were living.
"People started to change their location," said Johnson. The shift helped the company gauge the potential of AI applications to support workers in a mobile environment around the clock and year-round.
"We started recognizing that the bot technology that was out there was going to potentially help us [support workers] more effectively," said Johnson. "There was a real double-down of things like virtual agents for help desk and how we start to integrate RPA technologies into driving business processes instead of having humans doing that work."
RPA was an early mandate for Johnson. As he became SurveyMonkey's CIO in 2019, bringing past experiences at Talend and DocuSign and two decades in IT, the technology was among the shopping list of programs to deploy, alongside data integration tools, and an overhaul of the data infrastructure.
As the technologies available evolve, workers have a chance to move faster, Johnson said. The next move SurveyMonkey is focusing on is prescriptive analytics, where technology helps identify opportunities in the market, "driving that opportunity through automation," said Johnson.
Linking AI to business upside
Understanding where AI can deliver the highest impact begins with finding the projects that can ease time or economic constraints for the company. Those tasks should rise atop the automation to-do list.
Deploying AI during the pandemic means the technology underwent a pressure test, giving leaders insight into ideal use cases.
At Regions Bank, data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning tools helped on multiple fronts, including the prediction of future customer needs in order to improve retention. "Just in 2020 we were able to secure close to $49 million in net new revenues because of those tools, so they are here to stay," said Duggirala.
Another avenue where AI has proven ROI was in fraud prevention. "Our fraud losses have substantially gone down," said Duggirala. Regions Bank saw fraud losses drop 45% to 50% in 2020.
The missing piece of the puzzle for many leaders is to connect automation tools to tangible outcomes. Many companies are still struggling to drive actual business results with technologies such as AI, according to Johnson.
"I feel like we finally jumped over that gap," said Johnson. The solution starts by changing the mindset.
Leaders must start with the impact they want to have through technology and working back from that, "as opposed to starting with 'let's build some machine learning models, and hopefully can find a use for them,'" Johnson said.