Running a small business is an endless series of to-do’s, checklists, and tedious administrative tasks. Just ask any small business owner you know – they’re usually drowning in busy work and need all the help they can get!
That’s where automation can really transform the daily experience of a business owner, whether they run a local bike shop, lead a creative agency, or are building an eCommerce empire online.
At its core, automation is any type of program or process that allows repetitive tasks to be handled automatically, freeing up time and energy for the entrepreneur.
With more time on the clock and less stress, business owners can focus on things that really move the dial and bring the vision of the business to life – while automation takes care of the rest.
It may not be a magical solution or an all-powerful fix for your business woes, but automation can absolutely help small business owners take back control of their time and apply themselves where it matters most.
What are some practical tips and tricks for small business automation in 2021? Let’s ask real-world business owners for their best recommendations and see what’s trending.
Start with an Automation Audit
Like all things in business, a smart automation strategy begins with a top-down overview of all the moving parts within an organization. Consider starting with a sort of “automation audit” whereby you analyze everything that can possibly be automated in your company.
Remember, the goal here is not to simply automate for the sake of automation – these must be deliberate choices that help steer you away from repetitive tasks while focusing on high-leverage activities.
Not sure where to begin your automation audit? Start by looking at the aspects of your business with the most tedious and time-consuming work, then consider different automation solutions before you move to the next chunk of tasks.
“The first step to automating your small business is to identify areas where automation could improve your efficiency,” said John Wu, Co-Founder and CEO of Gryphon. “Once you have identified the areas where automation could play a role, pick just one of these areas to focus on. It is best to start small and grow your automation step by step. Pick one area and focus on automating it. This will help you manage the automation of your business and help you improve it in the right way.”
At first, it will be tempting to want to automate everything in your direct sphere of control, but you’ll soon realize that automation is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
You still want to maintain a good amount of hands-on direction over the daily operations of your business, and there will be some cases in which automation just isn’t practical.
For example, automating an email or content schedule for social media could save you time, but that still means you need to focus on creating those emails and posts that make a difference in the marketing department.
In other words, if a task requires a creative or analytical angle, it may be best to leave it to a real person instead of an automated program.
“Rather than wringing our hands about robots taking over the world, smart organizations will embrace strategic automation use cases,” said Clara Shih, Co-Founder and CEO of Hearsay Social. “Strategic decisions will be based on how the technology will free up time to do the types of tasks that humans are uniquely positioned to perform.”
As always, automation will take a trial-and-error approach at first, and you may end up backtracking before you discover a strategy that works best for your business.
Don’t rush it and be open to different avenues as you perform your automation audit. It will require some risks to see what’s possible, but that’s how winning strategies are formed.
Use Any Available Apps
Thankfully, we’re living in the best time in history to automate small business tasks, from the finance and accounting department to daily administrative tasks and even human interactions.
Spend a good chunk of time simply browsing apps and software suites that specialize in automation, using trial periods and test runs to your advantage.
These programs will vary in technical expertise, and some will demand the input of a development team to work properly. Other programs will be extremely user-friendly and intuitive right out of the box, and may offer a good entry point to the world of automation.
When in doubt, start with the easier solution and work your way into more complex territory.
“One great marketing app for businesses to utilize is CoSchedule,” said Daniel Seehoff, CEO of Sophistiplate. “The platform allows us to detail out our marketing calendar so we can assign tasks to different teams. We are able to schedule social posts, curate images for emails, and create templates for campaigns that can be replicated.”
Small business owners may find that some apps are more trouble than they’re worth, and the only way to assess their functionality is to put them to the test in real-world situations. This could mean generating the same set of reports with three different apps and comparing the results for speed, accuracy, and user experience.
On a more general level, there are several apps that should always be a part of the small business owner’s arsenal, since they are so loaded with value and offer significant ROI after a quick implementation process.
“Along with Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple, these companies are in a race to become our personal assistants,” said Atlantic Staff Writer Franklin Foer. “They want to wake us in the morning, have their artificial intelligence software guide us through our days, and never quite leave our sides.”
For business owners who don’t consider themselves especially tech-savvy, these popular web apps are a great training ground for automation and its many capabilities.
Learning from the Google suite of free cloud apps, for instance, can be the gateway to discovering more about analytics, email scheduling, social media reporting, and marketing campaign management with respect to automation.
This gradual approach is ideal for any company that wants the benefits of automation but may be apprehensive to dive right into the deep end.
Eventually, a business will reach a point where heavy-duty enterprise software is the only solution for their complex operations and inventory needs.
With that in mind, owners and operators should experiment with small-scale versions of software like ERP and CRM before they invest in expensive, high-powered applications.
“Use CRM software to funnel customers through the sales process,” said Heidi Streeter, Founder of Holiday St. “CRM software can automate parts of the sales process so you can focus on other parts of the business. CRMs can organize contact information, monitor users’ activity, create personalized emails, and set up invoices. CRM software is vital for small businesses.”
Administrative and Accounting Tasks
Admin and accounting are the bread and butter of automation, and this is where most small businesses have their first foray into this type of strategy.
Why start here instead of somewhere else? The simple reason is the tendency for these tasks to be quite repetitive and boring, not to mention, prone to human error that results in chaos.
“I’ve realized over the years that automation is not just a time-saving solution, but a way to mitigate risk and improve the accuracy of your most vital business processes,” said Ayal Ebert, Co-Founder of Particle. “At some point, even the best accountant or personal assistant is going to make a mistake, because that’s what human beings do. An automation program, on the other hand, is going to get the report or the calculation correct every time, giving you peace of mind that can’t be replaced.”
This is why many small business owners start their automation journey with accounting tasks like sending invoices, tracking claims, or handling payroll for employees.
Once they see the power of automation for simple financial tasks, then they start dabbling in other areas more closely related to their daily working experience.
“Meetings and personal communication are great places to test the waters with automation once you have the basics down,” said Daniel Osman, Head of Sales at Balance Homes. “You can send out notifications to your team for reminders or even remind yourself of an important event or deadline on the horizon. Many owners even use automation to organize their daily tasks and treat their whole schedule as a project management interface. That’s where the real productivity gains can happen if you use these tools to your advantage.” Wrike is a popular app that you can use to help keep yourself on track. You should learn more about Wrike pricing before you decide if it is right for you or your business.
Marketing, Customer Service, and More
Ask any high-octane business person about their automation strategy, and you’ll see that their efforts go far beyond the everyday admin and accounting tools we’ve discussed so far.
The next level of automation takes us into the realm of marketing, sales, customer support, and other aspects of the business that involve real people with numerous, unexpected variables.
“We start entering risky territory when automating tasks related to actual customers and support staff, but the potential payoff is enormous if you can find the right recipe,” said Kashish Gupta, Founder and CEO of Hightouch. “Marketing, in particular, has many opportunities for you to automate and reap the benefits of faster, more personalized campaigns.”
To start automating in these areas of business, campaign leaders may want to start by segmenting audiences and creating more accurate cross-sections of the current and future customer base.
With comprehensive buyer personas and segmented audiences, marketing departments can confidently automate elements of their campaigns like emails, social media posts, and even follow-up messages to create a highly specialized user experience.
“You can’t craft every ad or email by hand for each person in your audience, but you can definitely target certain portions of the audience using the data already at your fingertips,” said Jason Wong, CEO of Building Blocks. “It takes some more work up front, but automation will carry you to your campaign goals much quicker over time.”
Beyond the point of sale, automation can also help improve the customer support process by giving team members a clear order of operations for each scenario. Having a point of sale software can help the business significantly.
Now that the ecommerce field is so competitive customer service is a true differentiator and must be a focus in gaining a competitive edge.
“An automated customer support interface can save your people so much time and cut down on wasted energy in a big way,” said Chris Gadek, Head of Growth at AdQuick. “Rather than manually investigating each customer case and inputting information by hand, you can automate the tedious data-driven aspect of customer service and streamline everything for rapid response. This is how you achieve a customer support system that goes above and beyond.”
How Can Automation Help You?
Even if your business is in its very first stages, or you’re simply a “solopreneur” taking your first steps into a new venture, there are bound to be ways to improve via automation.
The takeaway here is that automation is anything you want it to be!
You are the one in control, and automation exists to amplify your productivity at the right times and places.
“When designing your automation strategy, it is critical to first identify the repetitive aspects of your business operations to see which parts could most easily utilize this upgrade, and then study the steps before implementing them,” said Adelle Archer, CEO and Co-Founder of Eterneva. “This serves two purposes. One, it begins the process of streamlining your business, and two, it allows for gradual steps that will limit problems during the transition. By taking cautious but definitive steps, you will better serve your needs and recognize the possible pitfalls to make a smoother transition.”
The path to automation is different for every business, and no two strategies are exactly alike. That should inspire you to try a bit of automation in your own life and experience the benefits for yourself.