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CRA's Guide to Background Check Automation

How to Take Advantage, Scale, and Avoid the Most Common Pitfalls
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Introduction

Congratulations, you have a growing Consumer Reporting Agency (CRA)! Your digital presence is up to date, you’re bringing on more salespeople, and those new salespeople are bringing in more business. You focus on service, and your clients love you.

Where do you go from here?

We’re not going to dwell on the positives of having a growing business. After all, that’s what it’s all about; more growth, ideally, leads to higher revenue and profit.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way in the background screening industry.

Topics We’ll Be Covering

Why scaling a CRA is so difficult

Scaling a CRA (the right way) can feel like an impossible task sometimes.

If you were to back up and take a 20,000-foot view of the background screening industry, you would notice that many companies are stuck in a holding pattern. They have the work, and they’re bringing in revenue, customers love them, but something prevents them from growing. The service burden for each additional screen brings in less profit. The business ceases to grow despite all its positive qualities.

It seems as if there’s an upper limit on how much business a background screening provider can handle before the service burden results in unprofitability.

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Except — there is no upper limit.

Background screening companies that think differently about how they manage and process orders can break the service barrier. These businesses think differently about how they run background checks, where they get their data, and how they relate to their customers.

We’ve seen it happen. There’s a clear pattern.

The key to scaling your background check company is to identify the factor or factors that hold you back and then remedying it through strategies that emphasize better processes, more efficient use of people, and better technology.

In our experience, these strategies address five common reasons background screening companies struggle - the enemies of successful scale.

Five reasons why scaling a CRA is so difficult.

Court research is labor-intensive

Open the door to a background screening firm that is struggling right now, and you’re likely to find a roomful of court researchers or more conducting criminal background checks and, or managing a team of field researchers.

Ordinarily, so much of what CRAs do relies on manual processes. You have researchers visiting the websites of courts and law enforcement agencies, running searches, pulling down data, adding the data to a report, formatting it, and so on. For the shrinking number of counties that still refuse to put their information online or that offer substandard online access, you need to send researchers physically to the court to access information on captive terminals.

This manual method of conducting background checks is tried and true, but it’s also time- and labor-intensive. When your business depends on manual research, as the volume of your orders increases, so will your labor costs. Scaling labor is expensive, risky, and often increases inefficiency.

So, while it’s great to have more business and more customers, it can often lead to less scalable processes and lower profit business models. The revenue bump you experience as a growing CRA often comes with a corresponding bump in expenses.

Fighting a talent war... and losing

A background screening company relies on the expertise of its researchers to succeed. But there are only so many people out there with the right combination of skill and experience.

The competition for talent is fierce in the background screening industry. Suppose you try to attract the best of the best with higher salaries. In that case, your expenses can quickly spiral out of control; finding the diamond in the rough, investing in training, only to have your new specialist get snatched up by a competitor, isn’t a winning strategy either.

Of course, the solution is to retain your best experts for the most challenging jobs and outsource what you can. Enter into a partnership with a trusted outsourced provider of criminal records research and court data. Think about your business more as your customers do. 

At first, it may seem like outsourcing will cost you more than keeping all your work in-house. But the advantage of outsourcing is you only pay for what you consume. The outsourced model will give you the flexibility to scale quickly and adapt to variations in demand. (In other words, you won’t end up paying people for a less-than-full workload.) This is especially important during and after our current pandemic where background screening companies need to do more with less.

“Rubber-band” growth

Growth isn’t linear. Sometimes that’s a good thing, as when a CRA turns a corner and sees rapid year-over-year growth. Sometimes it’s not a good thing, though, and growth can become elastic, expanding, and contracting in fits and starts. 

Rubber band growth, growth where you see cycles of expansion and contraction, can be a difficult management problem. There are two common culprits for this:

Client concentration.  Maybe you blew past your revenue expectations by taking on a new client, or perhaps you simply made inroads (and more business) with an existing one. In a scenario like this, losing that client can set you back. And scaling and descaling an organization can be like making copy after copy of an old cassette tape. Each reproduction may look similar, but the quality degrades every time a copy is made.

Losing a key employee. Losing a key employee, believe it or not, could be even worse than losing a client. They may have crucial knowledge or expertise that other team members lack. If they’re in a customer-facing role, their departure could also trigger the exit of clients that they work with. And if your resources are already at full utilization, losing the employee could result in overworking your other team members (and making them more likely to leave.)

This type of issue can sometimes feel like every time you take two steps forward, you end up taking one (or more) step back. Organizations are rarely healthy when they don’t work to avoid rubber band growth.

Expecting another boom 

A few years ago, the gig economy exploded onto the U.S. labor market. The demand for background screening skyrocketed. It was a great time to be in the background screening business, but the boom didn’t last forever.

Since the gig economy took off, more firms have entered the background screening industry. However, demand has leveled off. Churn and commoditization, leading to shrinking margins, have become significant problems as companies compete for the same contracts at lower and lower prices.

Don’t wait for another boom to get your business in order. If you’re not investing in your customer service organization and keeping your clients happy, you may lose work to your competitors who invest in their people, processes, and technology.

Inefficiency

When margins are tight, and new customers are hard to come by, you need to wring every bit of value out of each background check you run. Unfortunately, it’s never easy to change your ways. Too many background screening companies leave their inefficient processes in place because “That’s how we’ve always done it” or because “change is expensive.”

This is your sign to look for opportunities to cut excesses and run as lean as possible. For example, are there services you’re offering your customers for free when you could be charging them? Do you typically run searches that cover 25 years of convictions when you only need seven?

If you work with vendors, ask your vendors to do less for you (no more than you need) in exchange for a price break.

 

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The 101 on background check tech

Need to scale? Time for criminal background check automation.

If your background screening company suffers from one or more of the enemies of successful scaling, there is hope and one sure way to optimize your business for growth and profitability.  The answer is automation.

How automation works for CRAs: Automated criminal background screening technology works by “scraping” court websites for conviction and sentencing information, pending cases, etc., compiling the data, and formatting it into whatever fields you require for reporting. Essentially, automated “agents” take the place of human researchers.

The benefits of automation

Automation has obvious benefits for background screening firms. 

The #1 benefit is the cost

Manpower is expensive. CPU Robotic Processing Automation (RPA) isn’t. 

Whereas the standard processes for court research can be extremely labor-intensive, automation can be near-instantaneous, costing mere pennies to pull up a court website, make a match, scrape the information, then store and format it into an actionable report. 

Don’t get us wrong: automated systems do not eliminate the need for paid human researchers. Some court records are not online, and others will not meet your quality standards. 

But automation will enable you to allow your human team to focus on the trickier cases that require manual effort. This will enable you to grow the volume of your searches without increasing your company’s headcount.

Another benefit: accuracy

Human researchers are fallible. They might type in the wrong name, misspell a name, skip over a name by accident, misplace files, or make any of the other mistakes we typically chalk up to “human error.” Machines perform flawlessly every time.

If the machine does get out of sync, a well-built automation program will flag these issues for further investigation and debugging. 

Last but not least: turnaround time

Employers want background checks completed as fast as possible without sacrificing quality. Automation can take a process that usually takes hours — or days — and complete it in minutes. That improved turnaround time is a substantial competitive advantage for CRAs looking to acquire new clients in this competitive landscape. 

When automation doesn’t work

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Automation can help your CRA grow while keeping your staffing costs low, but it is not a solution for everything. For one thing (as we pointed out above), not all background screening information is available online. Older cases, for example, may require human researchers to uncover.

Frankly, automation also isn’t a great solution if the quality doesn’t match or exceed onsite manual research. 

And if you build your automated system to output in a particular format, you may lack the flexibility to format data to meet the specific needs of a customer. However, you can usually avoid this problem by working with an automation vendor that provides data in whatever format you require.

How to add automation capabilities to your company

There are two basic ways to start using automation in your company.

  • Build it.
  • Buy it.

We’ll be covering each one of these options, and their pros and cons, in this section. 

There are two basic ways to start using automation in your company.

  • Build it.
  • Buy it.

We’ll be covering each one of these options, and their pros and cons, in this section. 

Building your own automation: advantages and disadvantages

Advantages

  • Complete cost control. Running your own criminal background checks using automation is nearly-free. 
  • Stability and self-reliance. When you build it yourself, you ensure its long-term availability. You never have to worry about a third-party provider being acquired by another company, going out of business, or simply dropping the ball.

Disadvantages

  • It’s not easy. Building your own automated system requires technical know-how most smaller or medium-sized CRAs lack.
  • Not “free” to develop or maintain. While the background checks will feel “free,” the development to get there surely won’t. It takes time, money, and people to develop these applications. Once you launch, it will continue to regularly take time, money, and people to maintain them.
  • You will make mistakes. Things will go wrong, either in development or ongoing maintenance. Most of the time, these mistakes won’t be a big deal, but sometimes they will be.

Buying automated background checks from a provider: advantages and disadvantages

Advantages

  • Fixed administrative costs are their problem, not yours.It’s their responsibility to hire and pay the salaries of a development team and invest resources in maintaining and improving their automation.
  • Technical expertise. The provider you’re working with will most likely have the in-depth technical knowledge to build and improve automation programs. They’re also more likely to have the resources and engineering challenges to attract better developers.
  • Built-in redundancy. When you’re working with a technology partner — particularly one like SJV with manual research teams — they will have redundancies in place to continue to operate even if things go wrong.

Disadvantages

  • More expensive. When you’re buying automated background checks from a provider, you’re going to pay more on a per-search basis than if you built the automation on your own. This is because the provider is rolling some of the fixed development costs into their variable pricing.
  • You might need to reformat the data you receive. Your provider may not be able to design their application to pull down and format data in a way that makes it easy for your team to act on it immediately. It may also require formatting to get it “customer-ready” for passing along to your background check customers.

What the “best” automation looks like

Regardless of if you’re going to build out your own automation, or you’re going to partner with someone, you should be looking to create the best automation for your needs.

All automation should have:

Speed & efficiency

Investing in automation is just that: an investment. You want to make sure that you actually are seeing measurable improvements in turnaround time and efficiency. 

Less human input

It’s easier to build automation that requires human input at different stages of the process, often at the beginning or end. This process may be sufficient in the first couple of phases of development, but you ultimately want to remove as much human input as possible; this will speed up the process and free your team members to work on other areas that can’t be easily automated. 

Lower cost

Last, but certainly not least, is that your full-cost of automation (searches, yes, but also development, maintenance, and salaries) needs to come in under the price of conducting your court research without it.

Flexible extractions

Having flexible extractions is necessary when building automation. Not every website has one standard layout for every case. They will often have two or three different layouts for different levels of courts or charge levels. Building your process to extract from keywords or phrases instead of strictly using locations on a web page can significantly help improve their reliability.

Error handling

Error handling is also a must-have. While developing automation for new data sources, you will need a system in place to track and log sessions that fail to complete. Having proper error handling for each extraction and page visited by the agent makes it much easier to find the breaking point and correct the issue.

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The best automation has:

Quality control

County websites update all the time. Sometimes a website might go from one platform to another.  In this process, it can break any automation that was built based on the old platform. In this type of scenario, for example, your automation tool may turn back clears when, in fact, the prospective employee's background check isn’t clear at all. 

Beyond that scenario, there are countless other reasons that an automation agent may run into issues. Sometimes even small changes to the website can break your existing build.

There needs to be active and consistent quality control that catches these issues and resolves them. After all, it’s a massive liability if you pass along incomplete and inaccurate information to your client, causing them to inadvertently make a wrong hiring decision. That could even trigger lawsuits or other regulatory responses. 

Audit capabilities

An excellent automation tool will allow you to audit its analysis. SJV’s automation, for example, logs HTML screenshots of every page it “views” during its research process. This way, if a quality issue ever arises and attorneys come calling, you will have timestamped screenshots ready to go that document the time, date, and location each record was found.

An audit trail of screenshots also enhances a vendor’s client services capabilities. When customers have concerns or questions about a result, the vendor can compare the screenshots to a new extraction and ask, “What did our processor look at in this audit trail to produce that result?” This process helps vendors isolate issues and identify educational opportunities.

Instantly-reportable

The gold standard for an automation product is that it spits out results that your team can instantly report to the customer, with no alterations. 

That means that if misdemeanors aren’t reportable, the automation tool will automatically remove them. If the date of birth, or phone number, or other pieces of information need to be in a particular format, the automation tool will automatically format them accordingly. 

If reporting is only for a specified timeframe (like the last seven years), it reports that timeframe and nothing else. 

Wide reach

For every county you conduct research, you need a separate automated research bot. Here at SJV, for example, we have automation built for over 1,800 counties. As you can imagine, it’s a big undertaking to build and maintain software on that scale.

Finding the right automated background check provider

If you’ve been following along, you’ll know we’re big advocates for automating criminal background checks and court research where the quality matches or exceeds in-person research.

Automation is the key to unlocking the growth potential of your consumer reporting agency (CRA). And we’ve pointed out that automated tools can be more efficient, reliable, and cost-effective than large teams of human researchers.

If you’ve decided against building it yourself, you’re going to need to partner with a provider. But how can you be sure the background screening automation provider you choose will deliver on the promise of automation?

Here are six traits that set apart the best providers

The results are indistinguishable from manual search results

The quality benchmark for background checks is the results a team of expert researchers is capable of producing.

You know you’re on the right track with a vendor when you can’t tell the difference between the reports the vendor provides and those you would expect from manual processes. After all, the goal is to replace or supplement manual researchers' work with the efficiency, flexibility, and cost-effectiveness of automation.

High-quality data

Working with the wrong automation vendor can expose your CRA to unacceptable levels of risk.

For example, let’s say you ordered a background check covering seven years of felony and misdemeanor convictions, in compliance with FCRA standards. However, your vendor’s automated search scraped information from a county website that included only five years of felony data. If your vendor fails to alert you to this discrepancy or doesn’t make up for it by running manual searches, your company could face a lawsuit.

An HTML audit trail

You shouldn’t have to take your vendor’s word for it when it comes to their data sources. A transparent vendor will provide you with an HTML snapshot of every page from which they extracted information. This way, if a quality issue ever arises and attorneys come calling, you will have timestamped screenshots ready to go that document the time, date, and location each record was found.

A hybrid approach

What happens when court records go offline or aren’t available digitally? The best vendors are prepared to transition seamlessly to manual researchers to provide you the reports you require, regardless of the county or the circumstances.

Customization options

Criminal background check information shouldn’t come in a one-size-fits-all format. Different customers require different types of information in a variety of formats. Your automation vendor should be able to customize your results according to your needs and your individual client requirements.

For example:

  • Are you only interested in a specific time period?
  • Do you want to exclude traffic cases?
  • Do you care about dismissed misdemeanors?

A high-quality background screening automation vendor will filter the data and format it to meet your exacting specifications.

Years of experience

As with any type of vendor, longevity in the background screening industry tends to signify quality.

In the grand scheme of things, the technology to scrape court websites for information has not existed that long. The most reliable vendors started developing their techniques in the earliest days of the industry, about a decade or so ago. These vendors have had time to thoroughly test their software, iron out any bugs, and build up comprehensive county databases.

Why you should trust SJV for your background check automation needs

The elevator pitch

We were among the first third-party researchers to develop a system that automates the process of searching court websites for arrest and conviction records.

We built our first automation platform in 2012, then took our key findings, lessons and experience and rebuilt it in 2017 to maximize efficiency and quality.

Our central goal: offering the most comprehensive automated library of criminal background check information, covering the widest reach of counties...without sacrificing quality. 

Some quick benefits of partnering with SJV:

  • We only automate counties where the results are as good — or better — than traditional research.
  • We have robust quality control and error-handling. 
  • We can normalize, customize, and filter your reports, allowing for data that is often instantly-reportable. 
  • We offer a hybrid approach. This hybrid approach — the most advanced automation in the industry combined with an expert team of manual court researchers and processors — is at the core of what makes SJV’s background check automation suite one-of-a-kind.

Our system saves you time, money, and improves your relationships with your clients. 


 

What you should do next

By now, you should know what you need to know about automation: how it works, why it’s so valuable for a CRA looking to grow, the elements of the best automation, and why SJV is one of the best vendors in this space. 

Do you have more questions about how our criminal background check services work? Click here to get in touch with us.

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