Reloading customer service through Robotic Process Automation (RPA)

Published: July 15, 2020

No industry has been left unscathed by the current crisis that’s rapidly gripping the entire economy. Despite well-defined business continuity plans, the freight forwarding industry, just like any other industry, hasn’t been immune to the crisis. Constraints imposed by the pandemic have severely disrupted operations breaking the crucial link between buyers and suppliers. Sealed borders, restricted freight movement, storage limitations, delivery delays, and its cascading effect on customer service have severely tested the freight forwarding industry. However, despite the uncertainties, the industry must embrace the new normal and develop strategies to adapt to the evolving crisis.

Impact on customer service

Customer service, responsible for running the show from the front, is a segment of freight forwarding operations that has borne the crisis’s maximum brunt. Delivering a seamless customer experience has proved to be more challenging than ever before. In the new scheme of things, customer service inevitably falls short of expectations leading to increased dissatisfaction and lower retention rates. To determine how this can be fixed, it’s important to understand how customer service operations work and their key intervention points in a typical freight forwarding organization.

Customer service intervention points

RPA Customer Service - Virtusa

The customer service operations team continually juggles interactions involving external (Air Carriers, Ocean Carriers, Custom Brokers, Truck Companies, Overseas Agents) and internal stakeholders (Sales, Finance, Operations). In addition to managing these complicated relationships, the team must stay on top of every shipment and status update. It’s no surprise then that their jobs’ complex nature makes them vulnerable to errors and omissions, which are further amplified by the pandemic.

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) delivers a seamless customer experience

To ensure a seamless customer experience, freight forwarding organizations must deploy an RPA solution that automates processes at each of the customer service intervention points and simplifies the customer journey.

An RPA solution can effectively eliminate manual, rule-based, voluminous, low exception, and repetitive tasks involved in the customer service cycle. By reducing the need for manual intervention, the scope of human error and omissions can be significantly brought down. The benefits of RPA go far beyond error rate reduction to encompass the following:

  • Reduces cost by decreasing the man-hours needed for duplication effort
  • Improves productivity by optimizing processes
  • Increases process agility and accuracy
  • Enhances responsiveness with round-the-clock customer support
  • Improves customer satisfaction and customer loyalty
  • Solves scalability challenges due to high volume of data
  • Helps gain a competitive edge

How does the robot engagement work?

Lead-to-prospect identification

The robot logs in to identified portals (Import Genius and Customs Database for Importers/Exporters) and mimics human intervention to glean customer details with keywords and updates the same in CRM/Sales Force tools for further action.

Quote-to-order process

The robot accesses emails from a dedicated mailbox and ingests details into the pricing system. It fetches rates from the database based on trade lanes, attaches the terms and conditions, and forwards proposals to the customer, offering a touchless experience. The assumption here is that the pricing database is always kept updated, and the margins are pre-fixed for the first quote. Any exceptions that need human intervention can be dealt with using rules and workflow.

Onboarding to booking

Customer onboarding

Customer KYC is another activity that the robot can accomplish, eliminating the need for manual effort, and saving a lot of time. Exceptions can also be managed through rules configuration with possible human interventions.

Customer order entry into operational systems

Robot extracts details from the email body/shipping instruction document/attachment and logs in to the application to complete data entry based on system fields, thereby reducing manual effort and rate of human errors. Robots can extract all the documents such as commercial invoices, packing lists, certificate of origin, VGM, etc. from the email and upload it into the operational systems.

Pickup-to-delivery confirmation

Shipment execution

The robot’s role here is multi-fold. To schedule pickup and delivery windows with the shipper and buyer, the robot:

  • Sends pre-alerts to the contacts with all the documents attached (based on rules configured)
  • Tracks shipment throughout the journey by collecting timely inputs from all the stakeholders (agents/office emails/carrier websites and reports)
  • Retrieve proof of delivery document from customer and upload it into the system

Invoice processing

Invoice processing is another important area where robots can contribute both from the payable and receivable perspective.

  • From a payable perspective, robots extract details from the email body/attachment and check the same against the shipment reference (bill of lading/other defined reference). It enters charges into the ERP/operational systems, matches the invoice and sends it for posting. Human intervention is called upon whenever any exception happens, or should the process need any approval workflows.
  • From a receivable perspective, robots extract the invoice and send it to the customer as soon as it is generated. Robots also send reminders based on the payment due dates.


Robots can be of great help when dealing with disparate systems and emails. They can easily extract and compile the information into a reportable format in a fraction of the time taken by humans.

Claims processing

Claims processing is another key area where robots can significantly reduce manual intervention. Right from fetching details from the operational system (in line with the claim document details) to triggering emails to partners in the ecosystem, they can take care of the entire support process.

Closing thoughts

While the above applications of robots allude to their growing significance in customer service, opportunities for automation exist in other freight forwarding functions as well. These include, but are not limited to, warehouse and terminal management, procurement of services, load search, build and close-outs, and contract management. If processes were analyzed with a fine-tooth comb, new candidates for RPA would emerge rapidly. The interest of the freight forwarding industry in RPA has been growing at an accelerated pace, given the value it adds in terms of cost and time saving by reducing manual effort.

While the adoption of automation will vary across the spectrum depending on various factors (process maturity, business agility, and level of automation lever), the pandemic has pushed all organizations to reimagine business processes and future proof them against the next normal, whenever that may happen.

Related content