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ZINNOV PODCAST   |   Intelligent Automation

Banking on Automation – How RPA is Elevating Customer Experience in the Banking Sector

Laura Hendrix
Laura Hendrix SVP, Director - Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Process Improvement First Horizon Bank

In this next episode of the Zinnov Podcast – Hyper Intelligent Automation series, Dushan Garg, Engagement Manager, Zinnov, chats with Laura Hendrix, SVP, Director – Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Process Improvement at First Horizon Bank about how Automation has transformed the Banking industry, not only accelerating growth, but changing the very nature of customer experience. Laura explains how the pandemic has streamlined the functions performed by Automation and made banking more personal. Through anecdotes, she details her career in Automation and how learning and curiosity should be key.

She also touches upon how talent can stay relevant alongside Automation, the current need for upskilling and reskilling, especially as technology adoption accelerates, and how Automation will be key in delivering customer, partner, and employee experience. Listen to this episode for the answers to these relevant questions.


Dushan: The Banking and Finance sector has witnessed rapid process automation over the years. It emerged stronger in the face of the 2008 financial crisis and has once again shown the same resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. While adapting and adopting new technologies, this sector has also changed according to customer requirements, solving for time and effort efficiencies.

Hello everyone, I am Dushan Garg, Engagement Manager at Zinnov and your host for today. I have with me today Laura Hendrix, who is the Senior Vice President – Director for Enterprise Robotic Process Automation and Process Improvement and Quality at First Horizon Bank.

Dushan: A very warm welcome to the Zinnov podcast Hyper Intelligent Automation series, Laura. We are delighted to have you here.

Laura: It’s a pleasure to be here, Dushan. Thank you for inviting me.

Dushan: Laura was recruited from FedEx to stand-up RPA and Process Improvement programs at First Horizon Bank in 2018. Since then she has established programs that currently provide over 90,000 annual hours of savings. After working in different roles with different organizations across industries. Laura believes that curiosity is vital to companies and that the leaders have the opportunity to nurture it for organizational success. The rest we will hear from the lady itself. So, Laura, you’ve had an interesting career so far spanning almost over 16 years in multiple industries. Can you walk our listeners through your exciting journey so far and share some of your career highlights?

Laura: I’ll be happy to, Dushan. My career goes back even further than that. If I had listed it all on LinkedIn, I would have to attach a novel, quite frankly but I hope that the listeners will be able to learn from it and then maybe have some encouragement to it as they go down their path.

For 15 years before I went into business and working full time, I was a stay-at-home mother, raising three children. When I was able to start working, I did it part-time and built my own business in retail while going to school and getting my MBA. When 911 hit, it pretty much destroyed my business and I saw the writing on the wall and it coincided with my MBA completion.

And so, I reached out and got a job in Civil Engineering, which is what my bachelor’s is in, doing grading and drainage. All of these experiences have led to where I am right now. When I was doing Civil Engineering, I did site development, did grading and drainage and worked with CAD programs, a lot of technology. As part of that, one of my favorite things that I found that I loved doing was Value Engineering. So once we would initially grade and drain a site, then I would go back in and determine where we could do it more efficiently, not move around as much.

Which directly corresponds with what I do now with the bank is we need to achieve a certain process, but how do we do that more efficiently? Then we got into the 2008 crisis and another change was needed. And so I went to FedEx fortunately. And, I had a wonderful time at FedEx. I did a lot of their quality management process improvement.

I received excellent training there in change management and they also have a great program called Quality Driven Management at FedEx that is based on Lean Six Sigma in Baldrige. And became a leader in that and so I was recruited from FedEx to come to the bank. The Executive Vice President of Operations had a really good vision for the operations at the bank of combining an RPA program and a Process Improvement Program and having them work synergistically together, which was very intriguing to me. So, I accepted this position and came here in June of 2018 and have stood up both those programs here at the bank.

Last July the bank had a merger of equals with IberiaBank. And at that point, I was promoted to be the enterprise lead for RPA and Process Improvement and have been doing that ever since. It’s been a very exciting bumpy journey for us because the merger was announced in March of 2020. We received an email to everybody that we could work at home. We went into COVID pandemic. We had the small business administration, payroll protection program loans lumping into the bank. We had a lot of the operations people and people across the bank suddenly getting new laptops to be able to work remotely. And the laptops were faster and some of their connections were slower.

So a lot of our automations were breaking and we were adapting to that. And then the merger was official in July 2020. Moving on to that and the adaptability there, we had our consistent from origin schedule last October and hurricane Ida hit New Orleans where my kid quarters is now. And once again, we were called to adapt and postponed our system conversion until this month, February of 2022 which enabled a lot of people across the bank to realize that they could get a bot built to help with the conversion. So we’ve been quite busy and that helped that that’s just succinctly tells what is really a much longer story as far as where I’ve been in my career.

Dushan: That’s a great journey, Laura. I didn’t know about the Civil Engineering part at all. So glad that you shared it with us. Now if we talk about your current industry focus, that’s the banking and financial sector.

It has been a pioneer in adopting and reaping the benefits of Process Improvement, Process Automation for a long time now. Given this, what would you define as the most critical challenges for a BFS enterprise where it’s starting its automation journey given that the whole industry is highly regulated? And also, if you can share any key recommendations that you would suggest to such enterprises in overcoming these challenges.

Laura: Of course it’s critical in banking you maintain compliance, regulatory, IT security. And so what we did from the very beginning is we hired in consultants for nine weeks and we identified our stakeholders and meeting with them regularly and having their inputs or concerns and incorporating that into our policies and procedures was really critical. So we met with IT security, risk, fraud, compliance, later we added a SOX, reconciliation, we had operations, stakeholders input, and listened very closely to them while building our policies and procedures. It was very, very critical to us that we made sure that we were doing automation and achieving efficiency, but doing it very safely for the bank. And so we started out very, very slow, very, very cautiously. And, we put in very good guardrails. So now we’re moving much faster. We’re able to, because we have these safety guardrails in place. I still meet monthly with IT security, IT infrastructure, fraud, risk, SOX, reconciliation, and compliance. And I go over all the new automations that are coming into the pipeline and I get things from them and they ask questions if they have concerns, they ask about it.

If it’s something I can’t answer, I get back to them. If somebody’s getting started in it, I would say to them, just be sure you have your stakeholders on board and be sure you listen to them and realize that you’re going to have to continuously improve your own policies and procedures.

What came out of one meeting with this is a risk that we should include business continuity because if the systems crashed and we had to have our operations people or across the bank where we have automations revert back to manual processing, in the beginning, that would not be too challenging because we had people on board that had done manual processing.

But as time proceeds, we will lose those people from retirement or attrition or whatever, and we will lose that knowledge. And so, I met multiple times with the Business Continuity department, a new RFPA team be tasked with maintaining manual job aids and keeping them up to date and still do our jobs. Business Continuity didn’t really want to meet monthly because it would be a bit of a waste of their time. And we came up with a really ideal solution working with them. What we came up with was that we send the process definition document to the business owner when we migrated to production and our detailed step-by-step section that was in, that would be used in their initial job aid.

We CC Business Continuity. They put it on their list for annual review. It was a very much improved way to handle business continuity, and did not overtax anyone too much. And, and just a representation of how working collaboratively you can achieve the goals.

Dushan: Yeah. That’s very important feedback. I think a lot of what you just shared where we should actually take inputs from every type of team to succeed in the overall automation strategy. And what we are also increasingly witnessing from our customer conversations is along with these types of teams which you already mentioned, information strategy leaders are also learning the technical expertise of implementation as well.

And if I know it correctly, you’ve also done a couple of Developer certifications around the same. So, can you please tell our listeners what benefits you foresee when top hierarchy such as yourself is able to acquire such implementation skills as well?

Laura: I think it’s very helpful. I wouldn’t say it’s just critical for them to do it themselves and learn it. For me it’s been very, very helpful. I think if you’re outside of the RPA COE realm or being the Director, there’s no benefit getting that. But certainly if you’re the RPA Center of Excellence Lead or you’re the Director, then you can learn a lot and be able to help/guide during development, during the process definition, documentation stage, as well as troubleshooting if you have that experience hands-on of actually developing. So when we chose our platform in the fall of 2018, I started doing training online. They had free online training that did the foundation training. And then I did, what’s called the Orchestrator Training. Orchestrator is the control tower r the automations and sets the triggers and timings, et cetera for them to do. I was very thankful I did that, because our first automation, I was an individual contributor standing up these programs. I did not have a team. I didn’t have to have a developer. I did not have a business analyst. It was me. And so once the consultant pulled out what they had done of the initial part of the first automation, we found pretty quickly that there were some steps and vital portions of it that we needed to add. And so I jumped in and did it. Which was great.

I do not have access to change any code. We have a very strict segregation of duties, so I have completely stepped away from anything like that. But if I have questions about an automation, I can open the automation and go look and make sure that our qualities are up to speed on it and that we don’t have any gaps in there, but again, with segregation of duties, I do not have any access to change any code, which is paramount in a bank. When you gain this type knowledge and then if you’re on your scrums with your developers and your business analyst, it’s very helpful because you have the high level view of what the Center of Excellence needs to do and where we need to be and how we need to standardize the developments and that process definition documentation to make your throughput going as quickly as it can be in the quality going well. And so it helps having that detailed knowledge to be able to help guide the team.

Dushan: Yeah, absolutely. I think this was a good eye-opener for many of our viewers. And now if I just deep dive on or the automation platforms as well. So within the last couple of years, what we’ve seen is kind of an evolution of some automation platforms where they have become very niche and verticalized platforms in terms of their use case or specific industries which they want to cater to. So I’m curious to know if you at First Horizon have any plans in the near future to work with such niche platforms to develop BFS process expertise, or would you continue to work with a more generic horizontal platform?

Laura: We already use a lot of vertical platforms across the bank. They’re highly specialized. And so they’re able to approach all the nuances of their specialty better than we would be able to with RPA. So what our role with RPA, a lot of our role is bridging the gap between the platforms and also bridging the gap and taking it from manual entry to automated digital entry so that we can improve the speed and also the accuracy of going into these platforms. Just for example, our automations touch over 70 different systems and platforms across the bank.

Dushan: I was about to touch on this point as well. f we talk about the automation evolution further, RPA was traditionally seen as more of a band-aid technology. And now we have advanced applications such as Low code/No code, integrated workflows, and Intelligent Virtual Agent which provides a more agnostic solution to any enterprise. So what is your view on this evolution and more, if I may have to call it the phasing out of RPA to more Intelligent Automation solution?

Laura: I think we’ll continue to do that. It goes back to having the best solution in place for each use case. And so we already use Low code/No code. We already use virtual agents Our bank is very focused on having close personal interactions with our customers.

There’s only so many times we want a bot to ask somebody to direct their call, for instance. If they want to speak to a person at the bank, we want them to be able to get to that person quickly. And we want to, when they get to that person, then be able to understand that person well and sound like somebody that’s next door and be able to address them and take the time to listen to what they are needing help with.

So we’re going to continue with that balance. But, we also continuously look for improving both the employee experience, the efficiency experience, and the customer experience, but we will not sacrifice customer experience.

Dushan: If we talk about sustainability as a whole, sustainability has become a foremost requirement for any enterprise while they’re adopting newer technologies these days. Maybe if we talk around only automation adoption, because it’s the buzz of the town. So how do you see the way forward for First Horizon when you are driving sustainability through adoption of modern technology?

Laura: For us, in the RPA COE sustainability means several things. Number one, when we are automating and bringing out these automations very quickly for production. Sustainability for us within the RPA COE means that we need to be able to monitor those. Automations in production are just not a one and done, and they’re out there and they fly solo. We have to monitor those and we have to enhance them. We have to adapt when the underlying systems and platforms change. So we are constantly looking at the sustainability of our automations and our RPA COE functionality. Then as far as for the sustainability of the bank, it’s actually absolutely paramount that while we’re maintaining a very high customer experience level, we also have to be extremely efficient or we cannot compete and do the best that we can for our customers.

And so we’re constantly weighing those and looking towards technology and then our beneficial that will help us achieve everything we need to do to be able to provide the best solutions for our customers and for our employees.

Dushan: That actually makes sense. So I would lastly want to touch upon what would be your views on the major trends within automation? And also what are the big bets from First Horizon as part of its digital strategy in financial year 22?

Laura: First of all, it has been a surprise to me when I first came in 2018 to the bank it was a really a novel idea to combine the process improvement with the RPA.

It was a match made in heaven. It was great. Now over the past couple of years, that’s really has caught on and people are really getting on board that they do need to have these problems working together synergistically, not just talking about it, because everybody would say, ‘Don’t automate a broken process’, but they really didn’t have a program in place of taking that broken process in getting it through a process improvements.

As far as us going into our digital strategy in 2022, we are so excited, because like I said, we’re getting ready to be through with our conversion activities which is taking a lot of efforts across the bank.

And we have a very healthy pipeline of our RPA opportunities, as well as our Indian process improvement opportunities that we’ll be able to start back in and work full-time on starting in March post-conversion. So we’re very excited about that. We’re looking forward to it.

Dushan: Great. This was such a wonderful conversation, Laura. Thanks for sharing all the details with us and how, even it’s critical to incorporate the feedback of key stakeholders from different teams and also the crucial point, how it is beneficial for automation leaders to have hands-on knowledge on the implementation tools where they can actually troubleshoot some of the critical things in the automation program themselves.

I hope our listeners had a great time listening to it as well. And once again, thanking you so much for taking the time out today to do this with us.

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