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Getting Started With Small Business Automation

10+ min read • Feb 10, 2021 • Derek Miller

Sometimes, running a small business can feel more exhausting than exciting. It’s been estimated that business owners spend upward of twice as much time working as typical employees.

Between the physical hours spent moving your business forward and the mental investment of strategizing and thinking about how to grow your company, running a small business can be overwhelming.

In 2017, millionaire Grant Cardone made headlines for saying you need to “stop doing the 9-to-5 and start doing 95” in order to be successful, encouraging would-be entrepreneurs to work 14-hour days (7 days a week) in order to beat the competition.  

But what if you didn’t have to work from sunup to sundown to have a successful business? What if you could enjoy a work-life balance that allows you to leave early some days or take time off? It’s possible to work smarter, not harder, with the help of automation.

Automation is the process of completing basic or redundant tasks that would otherwise need to be done manually. These small tasks might only take a few minutes each, but they add up over the course of the workday. Automation allows you to scale your efforts and do more with less bandwidth, budget, staffing, and time.  

At first, tapping into machine learning and automation tools may seem complex and expensive. However, as you explore what’s available for small businesses, you’ll find that the automation market is closer to your reach than you realize. This guide will review what can be automated and how to move forward with automation tools in your small business.  

Is Business Automation Right for Your Small Business?

Online business owner using a computer for automation

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 April 2021, 66% of SMBs report automation is essential to running their business.

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

Man preparing a shipment

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 Lendio 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

Man preparing packaging for delivery

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. 

Business 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. 

Business Automation Tools

Yep, it seems that these tech solutions offer a bundle of benefits. Your job is merely to find the right matches for your needs. Let’s look at some of the possible solutions currently available on the market. The majority of these services offer free versions to entrepreneurs, allowing you to “try it before you buy it.”

  • Twilio: This versatile communication platform empowers you to send messages via email, text, SMS, chat, phone, video, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp. You can start small with Twilio, as there’s a free email plan that allows you to send out 100 emails each day. As your marketing efforts expand and diversify, you could consider a paid tier that provides more options and higher email counts.
  • Yoast SEO: If you want your business to be found by customers, you’ve got to have a search engine optimization strategy. Without it, you could be left in the dust.
  • Slack: Internal messaging has always been important, but the massive disruption brought on by COVID-19 made it an even more crucial element of your success. When your people are connected, the results will always be better.
  • Zoom: The best automation services enable you to carry out complex functions with the simple click of a button. As you’ve probably experienced during the pandemic, Zoom allows you to do just this. You can effortlessly converse with a colleague on a separate continent with this video communication juggernaut.
  • Lendio: Your bookkeeping gets a major upgrade with the robust features offered by Lendio. Financing reporting, expense tracking, invoice management, tax assistance, and digital payments all become easier to handle.
  • Trello: Project management has always been part science and part wrestling a wild elephant. Trello helps bring automation to the process, which makes you more efficient and organized. Multiple teams can track diverse tasks, making sure you’re accomplishing what’s most important for your business.
  • Toggl: Here’s another powerful tool for small businesses. Toggl enables you to track your time in a much more sophisticated manner than the old-fashioned time card. If you want to know where you are spending your time and how you’re using it, this tool is just for you.
  • Grammarly: Every business owner must write communications from time to time. Whether it’s an email, social post, display ad, or job listing, it’s imperative to make it as polished as possible. Spelling and grammar errors don’t just hurt your image, but they make it harder for your audience to understand your message.

Top Tips for Automating Your Small Business

Online business owner making notes

For some entrepreneurs, business 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 business process—this will ensure that you execute the automation effectively and benefit from it. 

  1. 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. 
  2. Identify which tasks you need your business automation software to complete. Before committing to an automation platform, 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.
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.        
  5. 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. 
  6. 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 Business Automation Success

The goal of business automation: to save your company time and reduce repetitive tasks 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.

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Derek Miller

Derek Miller is the CMO of Smack Apparel, the content guru at Great.com, the co-founder of Lofty Llama, and a marketing consultant for small businesses. He specializes in entrepreneurship, small business, and digital marketing, and his work has been featured in sites like Entrepreneur, GoDaddy, Score.org, and StartupCamp.