Businesses have been trying to do things faster and cheaper for years, so automation is nothing new. Automation has become more accessible as technology has advanced. Small businesses can now automate key tasks much more easily (and affordably). In today’s world of rising costs and ongoing uncertainty, every business must do more with less. A Google search for “business automation” yields over 600 million results, indicating that there is no shortage of information. Most small businesses struggle with determining what to automate in their operations. To assist, this article delves into small business automation.
Key Principles of Small Business Automation
There are some fundamental principles that should guide any automation project.
Your automation project should aim to accomplish the following goals:
- Allowing employees and customers to devote their time to high-value activities rather than repetitive, manual tasks.
- Improve internal and external process experience
- Assist in transforming your data into actionable information
As with any project, it is critical to set realistic expectations for the possible outcomes. To begin, it is important to note what automation will not do for your business:
It will not do all of your work for you – Automation can help you and your team be more productive by removing manual, repetitive tasks from your plate. However, automation cannot do all of your work for you.
It will not replace you – Automation is not intended to replace you or your employees. It is about giving you and your team more time to work on more complex activities rather than simple, repetitive tasks.
Its not going to solve all your problems – Automation isn’t going to solve ALL your data and workload challenges – its not a silver bullet. It can make a measurable impact to help you and the team spend their time on activities that make a difference.
So what is automation going to do for my business?
Help automate logic-based workflows – Automation works great in “IF…THEN” scenarios. These are where you want something to happen when a specific event or trigger happens. (e.g. send an email when someone completes a form).
Free up resource time – Help automate repetitive tasks so that your team can focus on tasks that add greater value.
Help connect your data sets – Automation can help avoid having to duplicate data. It can also help you to share data with your other systems whilst maintaining a single source of truth.
How can I identify what activities I can automate?
To assist in identifying jobs that have a high potential for automation, we’ve devised a five-step approach. Initially focusing on immediate successes before creating more long-term value drivers. Over the course of a week, keep a log of your activities. Make a note of each of them and identify which of the “Quick Wins” categories it fits into.
Small Business Automation – Quick Wins
1. Data Duplication
The easiest to identify activities, where you are manually putting the same data from one place into another. Some examples of data duplication activities are:
Exporting data regularly from one system into a spreadsheet for analysis
Copying and pasting data from one system to another
2. Repetitive Tasks
Any task that repeats itself repeatedly or follows a set pattern is considered repetitive. Examples of such operations include:
Running the same reports each week from a system
Routinely sending the same email
3. Workflows based on logic
Although more difficult, there are probably a lot of tasks in this category that can be automated for your company. Logic-based workflows execute their activities in accordance with established logic. Consider whether you perform actions that can be translated into “IF -> THEN” sentences to help identify these. For instance:
IF someone signs up to our newsletter THEN send add their data to your CRM platform.
Some examples of logic-based workflows in businesses are:
- Manually sending an email out based on a certain trigger or event like end of month
- Updating information based on a trigger or event like a birthday
- Sending an automated invoice if payment has been taken successfully.
- Using the results of an automated maturity assessment to create a customised report.
Small Business Automation – Longer Term Value Drivers
Data vs Information?
What’s the difference between and data and information and why does it matter? Lets define the two:
Data – raw unorganised facts that need to be processed. Data can be something and seemingly random and useless until it’s organised.
Information – data that is processed, organised, structured or presented in a context that makes it useful.
Instead of data, your business wants information. You can make quicker, wiser, and more data-driven business decisions thanks to information. Here are a few examples of information that a company may utilise to assist in finding solutions to certain business challenges:
Can we afford to buy this new thing? Accounting software and your CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software capture data on expenses, invoices and upcoming sales. When combined this data becomes information. Helping you understand your cash-flow situation and whether you can afford to buy this new thing
What customer segment should I focus on next? Data points such as sales by customer type, website engagement by audience, social media interaction and sales pipeline data can all become information when combined together . This helps you to understand your most profitable customer segments to focus on next.
Both examples involve data from many platforms organised into information. These are advanced areas of automation, but they deliver some of the biggest longer term value drivers.
4. Technology Landscape Map
Longer term value drivers from automation need you to look at the platforms and systems that you use across your organisation. Map out all the platforms that your business uses and what data is being captured and used in those platforms. Some probing questions to help with this are:
Do you know all the systems that you are storing and collecting data in?
Do you know what the data is collected for in each platform?
Are there opportunities to consolidate data into one place?
Your technology map will identify the source of truth for certain data and how you can use automation to make it visible elsewhere its needed.
5. Transform data into information
Strategically look across your business to assess whether you are capitalising on the information that you are gathering in your business. To help drive this level of activities consider the following questions:
Are you clear on the metrics that really matter for your organisation?
Do you know what data you need to be tracking for those metrics?
Start to build out a clear data strategy that turns your data into actionable information against those metrics. This will help you identify the automation requirements (and opportunities) to achieve this.
What can you use to achieve automation?
This process has resulted in a list of activities that will most likely add value by being automated. Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all way to automate these tasks. Automation can be accomplished from within the respective platforms, for example:
Email client rules for how to handle specific emails
Platform auto-scheduling reports
Pre-built integrations available within one of your existing platforms
You will most likely require workflow automation tools for logic-based workflows. The good news is that there are many on the market, with most offering generous free plans. In our organisation, we use a combination of the following platforms to help drive greater automation:
- Make (Formerly Integromat)
- Pabbly Connect
There are others on the market too and I’d encourage you to explore them. The key thing with these platforms is having a clear idea on what you want to automate before you start trying to use them.
Conclusion: Small business automation has never been easier to achieve, but knowing what to automate first is critical. Enabling automation is actually the easier part because you now know what you’re looking for. Take the time to identify and implement automation opportunities.
Automation is a powerful tool for running a healthy and efficient business. We understand that knowing how your business is doing outside of the numbers can be difficult. To assist, we developed a free Small Business Health Check.. It asks you a series of questions about your company and then provides you with a personalised report with your results and recommendations.