Elevating digital prowess to transform the visa services

Ben Boesch, Chief Digital Officer, VFS Global, highlights how VFS is automating the end-to-end visa and citizen document processes by strengthening its digital and AI capabilities

Elevating digital prowess to transform the visa services-CIO&Leader

"Customer insight has shown that most of our customers would welcome a solution to upload documents before their visit, reducing the anxiety of incomplete or erroneous documentation." - Ben Boesch, Chief Digital Officer, VFS Global

The sudden outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic posed a big challenge for VFS Global, a leading outsourcing and technology services company: How to rapidly transform its services to keep pace with customers' changing needs.

Conventionally, the visa application processes have primarily been paper-intensive and involved largely physical interactions such as document check and submission, payment, and biometric enrolment at Visa Application Centers (VACs). But the recent health crisis overnight made such processes cumbersome and in many ways obsolete.

Founded in 2001 based on the idea by Zubin Karkaria, the company's current CEO, VFS Global manages administrative and non-judgmental aspects related to visas, passport identity management, and other citizen services.

While it started some of its ambitious digital experience projects, leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), well before the pandemic, it had to accelerate its digital initiatives by months or even years to make VISA application processes quicker, contactless, and more convenient once the outbreak was evident.

"Pre pandemic, tech players mostly pushed innovation to market. Smartphones are a good example – customers didn't ask for a keyboard-less phone; tech companies convinced them that this design is superior. Post pandemic, the tables have turned, and the heightened expectations of customers confront corporates," says Ben Boesch, Chief Digital Officer, VFS Global.

Automating the processes

VFS Global manages operations across over 140 countries, 63 client governments, and millions of visa application customers. With such an extensive range of customers, the first primary concern for the company was to provide accurate and timely information to travelers on changes or disruptions in the visa application process. "We built a unique information hub, enabling our customers and partners to check for travel and pandemic-related updates across all geographies. The hub, leveraging emerging intelligent technologies, quickly became our most visited web page globally," apprises Boesch.

Next, the company focused on the new friction of testing requirements, building a booking portal for PCR and other tests in more than 40 countries in weeks. "Finally, we managed the reopening process with a streamlined workflow. Without the technology platforms already in place, these activities would not have been possible, allowing a fast response," Boesch adds.

Mindful of the changing requirements, VFS Global automated a significant part of the visa processes. "Customer insight has shown that most of our customers would welcome a solution to upload documents before their visit, reducing the anxiety of incomplete or erroneous documentation. We are now rolling out a digital document check (DDC) for applications for specific client governments, allowing customers to do exactly that," adds Boesch.

To reduce traffic to its inbound calls and strengthen its customer response capabilities, the Visa major is also rolling out multi-lingual round-the-clock conversational AI and chatbot-empowered helpdesks for select governments intending to scale up in the future.

But are these new processes completely secure at VFS? According to Boesch, given the critical mandate of adherence to data protection laws in jurisdictions around the globe, VFS has been restricted to keeping our business workloads on a private cloud or traditional datacentre architecture.

Along with robust security tools and defense-in-depth architecture, the company claims strong adherence to Personally Identifiable Information (PII) data processing norms like the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), Personal Data Protection Bill – India, and geopolitical changes like Brexit.

To enable its employees to align with the new remote and hybrid approach without failing on delivering exceptional customer experience, the company has trained all its employees extensively to use the suite of digital tools in place, particularly video calling and collaboration software, along with giving more extensive attention on performance and security of remote access solutions.

The impact

According to VFS, the new digital initiatives have helped it significantly reduce touchpoints, provide safe and seamless service and improve the overall customer experience. "Beyond pure digitization, we have also implemented ML solutions that eliminate the need for data entry if the information is already available in supporting documents (e.g., passport or flight booking). Working with an AI start-up, we reduced the time required to complete an e-visa application by more than 50%," Boesch remarks.

The company is also expanding its optional Visa at your doorstop service (VAYD), which it launched during the pandemic, to shorten the interaction time in its physical touchpoints and enable customers to submit their applications, enroll for biometrics and get passports delivered at their preferred location.

"Today's customers expect all online businesses to offer highly efficient user journeys requiring minimal data entry and no intervention or assistance. They expect companies to be highly responsive across preferred channels, mainly social media and messaging and deliver relevant content. Any travel business that focuses on these elements will win, while those neglecting them will suffer reputational damage or silently and gradually lose customers," signs off Boesch.

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