Is Automation Right for Your Small Business?
Automation tools follow the same economies of scale as other forms of technology. When personal computers were first released to the market, they were impossible to carry and took hours to set up—each new software system came from a CD or floppy disc. Today, the technology on your wrist or in your pocket is more affordable—and significantly more advanced—than its predecessors. The same concept applies to automation tools.
The use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning for business automation is becoming more affordable and flexible as more people develop the technology to access it. Automation is no longer reserved for enterprise or technology brands like IBM or Amazon.
In fact, as of December 2019, 40% of large businesses automate at least 1 business process, while 25% of small businesses report using automation—a gap smaller than you might expect.
Automated tools and software have become increasingly accessible and affordable to businesses of all sizes, which has helped them to integrate into industries and companies across the globe.
AI-as-a-Service (a name modeled after SaaS—Software-as-a-Service) is a term given to companies that develop specific AI tools and sell their solutions online. Instead of hiring programmers to automate your systems and build solutions for you, you can sign up for a software subscription that integrates with your business to offer AI insight and automated solutions.
Stop thinking about automation as a complex or expensive process and start comparing it to the apps on your smartphone or computer. Much like your internet browser might automatically recommend your most frequently visited websites so you don’t have to manually type out the full domain, automated solutions within your business can save you time and improve your operating efficiencies.
Automating Your Human Resources Department
The human resources department is a good starting point for understanding how your business can utilize automation. To start, hiring employees is an incredibly labor-intensive and time-consuming process. However, automation tools are working to fix that.
On average, HR teams spend 1.5 hours posting listings on job boards, 23.5 hours reviewing applications, 4 hours pre-screening candidates, and 7.5 hours with miscellaneous hiring processes like background checks and testing applicants.
As a small business owner, you may not have 32+ hours to bring someone on board. After all, this new hire is meant to save you time, not cost it. This is a problem that automation can help solve. AI tools can take on these tasks and streamline the hiring process.
A few examples of automation in human resources include:
- Posting listings on multiple job boards to maximize your reach
- Sorting through applications to find a handful of qualified candidates to call
- Automatically sending tests and other onboarding materials to filter out unqualified candidates
- Digitizing onboarding paperwork to streamline the hiring process
- Training new team members on company best practices so new hires are better prepared when they start
Automating tasks can expand beyond just the hiring and onboarding process. Remember, the human resources team works to improve employee benefits, reduce turnover, identify potential leaders, and address conflict, all of which can be helped with AI tools and other automated systems. Once you identify the bulky processes in your organization, you can take steps to improve or eliminate them.
Improving Your Marketing Efforts With Automated Systems
The human resources department is just one area of your business that can use automation to streamline activities—arguably the most robust category for automation within a business is the marketing department.
The goal of automation in marketing is to increase your return on investment (ROI), which typically involves making smarter and more strategic choices. A strong example of this is leveraging Facebook’s database to build custom audiences for running ads.
You could take $1,000 and run a Facebook ad in seconds—or you could take that same $1,000 and run an ad using Facebook’s interest graph or geographic data to narrow your audience down to a specific type of person within your market.
While the first option might enable you to reach a larger audience, you’re more likely to see better results by taking the time to use Facebook’s AI to customize the relevancy of your audience. This targeted approach helps you stretch the value (return) of every dollar you invest.
Marketing automation is incredibly diverse. Modern automation tools are meant to help small business owners that don’t have a digital advertising, SEO, or social media background. You can learn the ropes and launch an effective promotional campaign.
A few automation options include:
- Sorting customers into email marketing lists based on their demographics or behavior
- Scheduling your social media posts during the best times and dates to maximize your reach
- Sending coupons to customers who have otherwise been inactive to bring them back to your brand
- Creating personalized advertising campaigns with targeted messages and products based on customer behavior
- Increasing or decreasing bids on pay-per-click advertising to stretch your budget
One of the top benefits of automation: the amount of time you save. As a business owner, you don’t have time to analyze the best hours for social media promotion and can’t reach out to every inactive customer.
As you test different marketing automation tools, consider the number of hours saved by systems that can review data and complete tasks in a few minutes that would otherwise take you several days.
Automation in Your Accounting Department
Accounting is another department where automation can help small business owners who might not have dedicated financial backgrounds. Accounting tools can provide greater clarity into a company’s reporting while automatically sorting expenses and invoices for entrepreneurs.
A few examples of automation in accounting include:
- Automatically invoicing customers who are on monthly retainers or triggering an invoice after an order is completed
- Submitting and processing employee payroll to ensure your team members get paid on time
- Tracking business expenses and sorting them by category for better clarity into your business operations
- Forecasting upcoming sales and expenses so teams can better prepare for surges in demand or costs
While you may need multiple software tools to complete your accounting tasks, there are some full-service apps that can handle all of these. For example, the Sunrise app is free for small businesses to use and can improve your invoicing processes while providing financial reports on your expenses and sales.
The accounting department serves as a key example of the delicate balance between automation and human management. While you might be able to automate most of your invoices, you will still need a person to override the system and make specific adjustments to certain bills.
You will also need a manager to review expense reports and make sure nothing is labeled incorrectly. Automation doesn’t replace employees—it allows them to scale their work and focus on more strategic tasks.
Updating Your Sales Process With Automation
Sales is another prominent department for automated solutions. According to a 2018 report by McKinsey and Co., 33% of all sales tasks can be automated. Furthermore, early adopters that implemented sales automation within their teams noticed an efficiency improvement of 10–15% with a sales uplift potential of 10%. These statistics highlight how a few small changes to your operations with the help of automation can increase both your production and revenue.
The question to ask, then, is what should be automated? What processes should be handed off to machines and what assignments require a human touch? A few common aspects of the automated sales process include:
- Improving lead generation by driving customers who are deeper into the funnel to your sales staff
- Implementing automated quote and estimate development so customers can get an idea of the cost before moving forward in the sales process
- Launching online order management so existing customers can review, change, and cancel their orders
- Challenging employees to hit certain sales quotas and goals with automated tracking and reporting
- Identifying sales trends to make your team members more effective at promoting the right products to your customers
If your sales team has clarity into who they need to reach and what those customers need, they can win over more customers and close deals faster. Automation can directly impact the growth of your organization.
Automation and Customer Care
One of the easiest examples of automated customer service that you can find on the web is the implementation of chatbots. The team at Invespcro reported that 40% of consumers don’t care whether a chatbot or real human helps them as long as they get the service they need.
Furthermore, chatbots can save up to 30% on customer service costs while offering benefits like immediate responses for customers and 24/7 service. With this, you can see how a simple app can change your entire customer care process.
There are several opportunities for customer service automation. Many of these opportunities may overlap with your sales and marketing efforts as well.
- Use questions to better understand what customers need so your service team can help them faster. (This automation has been in use since the advent of “press 5 for more options” within a phone system.) Customers can answer these questions in a matter of seconds while significantly speeding up the care process.
- Tap into automation to recommend solutions to your customer care team. Automated tools can list 2 or 3 options to help a customer, from providing a recommended product to suggesting options for providing store credit after a negative experience.
- Prioritize customer care. Automation tools can move people within your loyalty program to the front of the line, improving the service experience of your highest-paying customers.
- Track customer emotions and retention efforts. Some automated tools can pick up on emotions like anger, sadness, and joy. You can see how customer sentiment changes during a call and evaluate the percentage of lost customers in the communication process.
It costs 5x as much to acquire new customers as it does to retain them. With the right customer care automation, you can reduce the number of lost customers to your business and increase your profits over time.
Top Tips for Automating Your Small Business
For some entrepreneurs, automation can bring the business from famine to feast. If an automation tool is good, a few dozen must be better—right?
However, it’s possible for automation to get out of control or for your business to be affected negatively by these solutions. Consider following a set of best practices as you look to automate a process—this will ensure that you execute the automation effectively and benefit from it.
- Determine whether a digital process is better than the human touch. If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This means you might examine any process that seems time-consuming or annoying in the hopes of automating it. However, some tasks should still be done by hand. For example, consider where you should draw the line between automated customer service and offering personal, live support.
- Identify which tasks you need your automation systems to complete. Before committing to an automation tool, identify whether or not it will really help your business. Will you need a second tool for another task in a month? Would you be better off getting a more comprehensive software system that completes multiple tasks? It’s easy to get sold on a shiny new service if you don’t thoroughly consider the needs of your business.
- Set a software and automation budget for your business. The cost of software subscriptions and usage fees can add up. One or 2 tools might not seem like much, but money spent on these solutions means less room in the budget for other areas of your business.
- Debut automated systems slowly. In order to evaluate the impact of your automated systems, launch your new tools separately with at least 2 weeks (or a month) in between to evaluate their effectiveness. How much time does your automation really save? How has your team improved its productivity or customer outreach? By scattering your software launches, you can get a realistic view of how they perform—and whether or not they met your expectations.
- Audit your automated systems frequently. At a minimum, review your automated systems annually—ideally, you will look at them quarterly or monthly. Make sure you’re actually using the tools and that they’re performing at their best—and cancel the ones you pay for but no longer need. Make sure you’re creating a positive experience for your customers.
- Consider how 1 automated system will sync with another. Make sure your tools can communicate and share information with each other to prevent overlapping or conflicting efforts. For example, a financial reporting app needs to sync with your bank and your sales tools in order to invoice customers correctly.
Additionally, you may want to dedicate an employee (or part of an employee’s time) to automated system maintenance and hygiene. Their job will be to manage these systems, fix them when they’re broken, and report their value back to you.
A Little Planning Can Set You Up for Automation Success
The goal of business automation: to save your company time and reduce stress levels for you and your team members. If your business operates on a shoestring budget with only a few people on staff, automation can help you to scale production without making your team work 60 hours a week. However, your business automation needs to be strategic.
Avoid getting overwhelmed by the choices available to you and carefully move forward with plans to execute new systems. If you follow clear processes instead of chasing the next great AI or automation app, your brand can realize more success and save money in the long run.