Automation Will Come to Rule

The future of global trade depends on automation tools, and any company eyeing international expansion must invest in this technology. Artificial intelligence, in particular, is transforming international commerce, as companies use intelligent systems to identify ways to increase productivity and distinguish themselves in the market.

Increased productivity will drive economic growth in the nations that harness AI, and companies in these countries will be poised for massive boosts in profitability. Currently, however, productivity has slowed globally. The Brookings Institute attributes this in part to slow adoption of AI and automation tools. But this creates greater opportunity for the businesses that do leverage the power of these technologies.

Global Wins Require Automation Tools

The reluctance to embrace new technologies is understandable, particularly ones as disruptive as AI and automation. Business leaders might feel daunted by the prospect of purchasing and integrating new tools, which could cause them to take a wait-and-see approach while their competitors test the waters.

Understandable as that attitude might be, it’s a losing strategy. AI is already transforming the global landscape, shifting the balance toward service economies and eliminating the need for low-skill work, according to Brookings. The companies, and countries, that embrace productivity-enhancing technologies are the ones that will win on a global scale.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in China, where the government encourages and invests in the development of AI. China’s economy grows more digital by the day, as evidenced by its rapid move toward becoming a cashless society. It has become a world leader on payments innovation, and it is determined to lead on AI as well. These technologies will drive increased commerce and productivity for the nation, further enhancing its status as an economic power.

Living in the Future

Given the growing importance of AI and automation, businesses considering international expansion should be investing in these technologies. Smart, predictive analytics programs enable business leaders to assess market opportunities and forecast exactly how an expansion might play out.

Contrast this with a couple of decades ago, when leaders had very few insights into who the key industry players were. It was a bit like going on a blind date, except with potentially more detrimental consequences. Unless they had reliable people on the ground, they had few ways of knowing the global business and political landscapes.

Today, search systems can provide all of the information you need about foreign competitors, including how long they’ve been in business, how they’re performing, and any legal or financial troubles they’ve encountered. You can also learn who leads those businesses, giving you a better sense of who your industry peers will be in the new market.

Automation speeds up this research process significantly as well. In the past, you’d have to download and print reports and then scour the text to assess the opportunities and risks. Now, automated programs can pull all of the relevant data online instantly, allowing you to make faster, more informed strategic decisions.

This helps not only when deciding where to expand, but also when determining which companies to work with once that expansion occurs. A quick, thorough digital search will give you critical insights into a potential partner or vendor and whether it’s likely to be reliable.

For instance, you can quickly access data on a company’s financials, including its credit score, bill pay cycles and methods, and profits and revenues for the past 10 years. That information can powerfully inform whether to work with the new partners or clients you’re considering, as well as whether to extend credit to them or instead deepen relationships with trusted existing clients.

While it’s possible to conduct credit analyses manually, it’s also incredibly time-consuming and inefficient. My company recently worked with an international manufacturing corporation that was processing 400 new credit applications a week. Company leadership wanted to expand, which meant it needed to significantly increase capacity to process up to 1,000 applications per week.

Up to that point, the credit department had processed applications manually. A team member would print out a report on the applicant and review a complex set of criteria before deciding whether to approve the request. Each application took 20 minutes to process. This approach was a burden at 400 applications a week — at more than 1,000, it would be untenable.

My team helped the manufacturer transition to an automated program that processes applications almost instantly, including running analyses of the complex criteria needed to make credit decisions.

Automated systems are exponentially faster than taking a manual approach, and they reduce the risk of human error. Any time humans are responsible for data entry or need to copy information, there is a strong chance that they will make mistakes. Software that is programmed with the exact specifications and parameters for data — and that can automatically populate it — is much less likely to return inaccurate results.

Some are concerned that automating processes will lead to massive job losses. While automation will eliminate some jobs, it actually creates a better environment for the many employees who remain. As Duke Energy discovered when it automated its account reconciliation workflows, the technology enabled employees to focus on financial analytics and other more engaging work while automation handled tasks that were taking time away from these things before.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Data has become one of the most valuable assets a company holds. Information on a business’s performance and productivity, as well as customer behaviors and market conditions, is what allows you to decide whether to expand and where. It’s how you identify new opportunities and figure out which strategies are working and which aren’t — or won’t.

Unfortunately, many companies miss critical insights because their data is a mess. When customers submit their information to you, it’s likely in varying formats and might even be challenging to interpret. A simple automation tool can clean it up and put it into a standardized format that makes it more searchable, easier to read, and free of redundancies. Without that, you can waste time and money sifting through irrelevant results.

Data is also susceptible to rot. You might capture a CEO’s contact information today, but there’s a good chance that information will change within a year. Similarly, another customer might be promoted to a new role within the company, making his or her current title and contact details obsolete. Research shows that B2B data deteriorates at a rate of 70% per year. This means your marketing and sales departments will be doing double the work chasing down new contact data for people with whom they’ve already corresponded. And that’s after they’ve already spent time and money reaching out to leads that go nowhere.

There are other critical cracks in data accuracy as well. For instance, a client might provide you with his or her trading address, but you also want to capture the registered address. In the event that you need to bring legal action against the organization, you’d be required to know the latter because it’s the one filed with the secretary of state.

It also pays to look for data indicating that clients have run into business problems. Perhaps you do business with multiple subsidiaries of a large company. You want to know when any one of those begins having legal issues or profit struggles so you can assess how those will impact the parent company and whether it’s prudent to continue the relationship.

At my company, we like to call bad data a “garbage in, garbage out” problem. If you’re capturing chaotic, disorderly, and incomplete information, your productivity will suffer. But automation tools can manage all of these issues for you, ensuring data is standardized and accurate from the time it’s collected.

All of this is to say that lean data is absolutely critical if you’re going to expand internationally, because the scope of your responsibilities will only increase. Employees cannot manually manage the amount of information coming in, but an automated program can handle any amount of data you throw at it.

The Automation Tools You Need

Cost is always a concern when it comes to implementing new technologies. But viable automation options exist regardless of your size and budget. Thirty-three percent of medium-sized businesses expect that automated programs will yield significant savings for them, and 74% have already integrated these tools into their operations. Even more significantly, one in five medium businesses surveyed in the U.K. said they expect automation to help them compete against larger companies.

The case for automation is clear, but getting started can seem overwhelming. While the right tools will depend on your industry and needs, the following are common tools and features that will benefit most organizations. Use this list to start evaluating your automation opportunities:

1. Customer Relationship Management Systems:

CRMs enable you to track customer data more easily and efficiently. You can store all relevant information in a centralized database, allowing your employees to better serve customers. No more chasing down documents or data in disparate files. Importantly, you can also set controls for which employees can see different types of information, alleviating concerns surrounding privacy and confidentiality.

2. Process Automation Functions:

Robotic process automation has become popular for financial and administrative tasks such as data transfers, file updates, and billing reconciliation. RPA is highly useful for repetitive work that doesn’t require extensive cognitive abilities or human oversight.

3. Integrative Application Programming Interfaces:

APIs enable businesses to integrate new software and cloud-based programs with their current systems. Unlike in previous decades, when setup required substantial IT know-how, modern programs are designed to be integrated with existing workflows. They essentially allow for a drag-and-drop approach to automation, so you can get started for a much smaller time and cost investment than in the past. Look for vendors that offer integrative programs so you don’t have to interrupt your existing processes too dramatically to adopt technology.

4. Accounting and Bookkeeping Tools:

Multiple tools exist to streamline and reduce risk in your financial processes. You can now easily automate your invoicing and bill pay workflows, as well as your risk analysis systems. No longer does an accountant have to oversee every part of the payment process; it can all be handled via a smart, cost-effective program.

We help clients reduce their risks through automated ledger analysis. Our program highlights which customers are behind on payments and have poor credit scores so that our clients can prioritize those collections. This helps them identify non-payment issues and mitigate cash flow problems.

Taking your company global yields new opportunities, but it also carries substantial risk. Automation enables you to intricately study and understand those risks and develop strategies for minimizing them. It also allows you to improve productivity across your domestic and international operations, leading to greater outcomes for your company as a whole. The rule here is clear: If you want to succeed globally, automate before you expand.

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Matthew Debbage is the COO of Creditsafe Group and the CEO of Creditsafe USA. He has been responsible for Creditsafe’s international expansion across Europe, Asia, and the U.S.

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