Cushmans sees ‘significant positive impacts’ from business rates automation
Global advisor Cushman & Wakefield has improved productivity, speed and efficiency in its business rates teams in Europe, Middle East and Africa through robotic process automation implemented in partnership with Open Box Software and others.
In the UK, C&W rating managers typically receive 10,000 demands from 400 different councils every two months.
The demands are normally received in paper and have to be opened, sorted, manually reviewed and compared to estimates on the Riverlake Rates Management system, a commonly used UK rating database.
Once processed, the paper demands are filed away, making it difficult to retrieve these quickly when queries arise later in the year.
Last year, C&W started working with Open Box to develop robotic process automation (RPA) programmes to automate corporate real estate processes within the group.
RPA uses software to automate repetitive, manual and rules-based human activities, and the software is developed to complete activities in the same way a human would.
C&W’s technology steering committee including EMEA CIO, COO, and head of service lines identified the rates demands process “as a high priority candidate for automation” and it became one of the first projects approved by the steering committee.
The format of the rates demand documents was found to be similar to a vendor invoice, and this suggested that the use of invoice scanning AI software would allow for the entire process to be digitised. The captured fields might be different from an vendor invoice but they are similar enough in nature; property description and address, billing authority, rateable value and total due.
Following the successful implementation of the new system the “value for the rating team was efficiency and productivity gains, and creation of capacity in the team to focus on more value-add activities for clients. It was also expected that there would be a downstream impact in reduced physical filing and ease of retrieval.”
The Solution involved several partners brought in by Open Box to deliver asepcts of the new system such as emailing scans and sharing files.
- Rossum processes email attachments containing scanned documents and performs an automated data extraction
- SharePoint, Microsoft’s document management and storage system used for filing all scanned demands
- Riverlake’s database of estimates is compared with demands and if there is a match it is automatically queued for one-click approval
Any demands that do not match are summarised in a report that is sent to the team. The business rates administrators are then able to review issues in bulk, make any necessary corrections, and send the file back to the automation to request a retry.
Teams from the different tech suppliers worked together to map the process and iron out any issues in the data capture workflow.
Testing included manually processing 2,000 samples over several weeks to train the system to follow the rules needed.
In the first month of operation (March 2019), 4,866 demands were processed through the automation. Of this, 2,737 (56%) were successfully matched and approved for payment by month end.
The team estimates that the AI is scanning well over 90% of demands accurately, and improving all the time.
The rating team have reported certain positive impacts:
- While additional effort is required to scan the demands when they arrive, this is offset by no longer needing to sort, date-stamp, label and file the paper invoices. All invoices are uploaded to SharePoint as well as linked to the item in Riverlake for easy retrieval.
- The downstream impact of having the files digitised was immediately obvious. A client requested a copy of all the demands for their 50 properties in the middle of what is usually the Rating team’s busiest period, and the team was able to retrieve these and respond within 20 minutes, a task that would have taken much longer when sifting through paper copies.
- The bulk validation of the files against the Riverlake estimates allows majority of the checking and correction to now be performed by the business rates administrators rather than the managers and senior managers who previously did the demand-by-demand comparison and approval. This allows them to prioritise other activities and focus on providing optimum service to clients.
- Managers now are only required to review demands that have genuine issues that need to be queried with the councils (about 10% of demands); simple typos and incorrectly entered information can be identified in bulk and corrected by the administrative team.
- The ability to identify causes of validation failure at a high level and in bulk has created insights into the team’s upstream processes that were not evident when processing the files one at a time. Process changes have already been identified that can be actioned throughout the year to improve the quality of the data in Riverlake and drastically improve the number of automatically matched demands in 2020.
- The automation will be continually evaluated against the original success criteria, and it is expected that significant downstream positive impacts will become evident later in 2019; these include error reduction which will reduce costs from penalties for late or incorrect payments, easier retrieval of demands for other business processes, and improved staff and client satisfaction.