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What Types of Workflow Automation are Worth Investing in for Small Businesses?

workflow automation

It can seem as though there’s no end to the number of workflow software solutions available for the small business owner. Given the dizzying array of options, the problem’s concerning correct workflow is figuring out which ones are best for your company.

Nowhere is this more true than when operating a small business with finite resources. Small business owners face constant pressure from inherently smaller revenue streams, stricter budgets, and limited resources. Reducing expenses and labor costs may be the ultimate goal but the up-front cost of investing in that end result is often prohibitive.

Types of Workflow Automation are Worth Investing in for Small Businesses

If you operate a small business, you’re likely aware that other small businesses — perhaps even your competitors — have already begun the process of automating routine processes. Listed below are a few of the most accessible, affordable, and effective areas of workflow automation you should consider as an investment in future growth.

Payroll Automation

It doesn’t matter if you operate a law firm or an ice cream shop — everyone has to manage employee payroll. At the same time, there are few areas of business that are both more necessary to success and less immediately applicable to the workflow itself. This makes payroll one of the top candidates to automate wherever and whenever possible.

Be careful, though. Do your homework before you begin soliciting offers from payroll vendors. Any worthwhile payroll software solution will automate activity in areas such as:

  • running payroll itself;
  • managing payroll taxes; and
  • staying compliant with current payroll guidelines and legislation.

One word of caution before diving in. The best of intentions will do very little to smooth out ruffled feathers should there be an unplanned interruption in the delivery of paychecks. While the majority of payroll providers can be trusted to manage a cutover from one system to another, the wise business owner will have an emergency procedure already in place should unforeseen circumstances cause problems. Your people must be paid on time. Period.

Payroll Solutions

Nowadays there are multiple small business payroll solutions available. Most small and medium business (SMB) payroll providers make it easy to start automating payroll from scratch or switch from another system. As you might expect, some of the bigger names in payroll service have entered this market with their own small-business packages.

Additionally, however, some companies with a proven track record in other areas of business management have branched out into payroll with surprisingly robust solutions. The main point to grab onto is that payroll automation has become highly competitive.

Depending on the nature and scope of your business, you might do well to consider a relative unknown. The playing field is in a state of great flux, so take advantage of that reality by asking your prospective vendors to outdo one another during the bidding process.

Payroll Automation Benefits

Depending on the package you select, your payroll provider may be able to automate other aspects of your day-to-day operations as well.

For example, you may be spending far too much time handling the scheduling of employees to guarantee adequate coverage at your business. Many payroll systems have additional features that allow you to automate scheduling based on individual employee data. If you’ve ever spent a frustrating afternoon over-using the eraser on your pencil, you’ll appreciate the convenience.

Payroll software can also be integrated with systems that track employee paid time off, vacation days, and sick time. When evaluating various vendors, keep in mind that the efficacy of any reporting functions should filter down to every user. You might be completely satisfied with how employee reports display data, but if your workers routinely come to you with questions on payday, this is a strong signal that your data is not as straightforward as you might think.

Finally, when a payroll provider is branded as being an all-inclusive solution for small businesses, in particular, many of the automated payroll solutions ought to be manageable from a mobile device. Again, your primary business function is something other than managing payroll and those operations require the lion’s share of your attention. A mobile app should allow you to keep an eye on things even when you’re on the move.

Collaboration Automation

The way that any team interacts and works together is critical to the sustained success of a small business. This is true whether you’re comfortable remaining in the SMB space or you’re looking to expand your operation in the near future. In either case, you will want your team members to interact with each other smoothly, at ease with their roles (and each other) at all times.

There are many workflow automation solutions that can enhance the effectiveness of any team’s collaborative efforts. For instance, project management boards can help your team track their work progress together. Most of these collaboration solutions are cloud-based, too, so they work equally well with remote team members as well as an in-person group.

From time to time, you may find that you occasionally need to engage in more confidential activities. Of course, a public forum isn’t a safe place to share sensitive documentation. These might include activities such as signing contracts or discussing investments, negotiations, or mergers and acquisitions.

When the need for increased privacy arises, several software solutions are capable of creating “virtual data rooms” to guard against eavesdropping. Collaboration tools that offer this feature can securely manage functions such as access control, copying and printing permissions, and provide a level of granularity that allows you to decide who can view, edit, delete, etc.

Marketing Automation

Marketing can be another area of your business that’s easy to automate, even on a smaller scale.

With the beginning of the online marketing era well underway, the number of marketing options available to small business owners has grown at an exponential rate. Fortunately, the number of marketing automation options has grown at a corresponding pace.

For example, if you’re like most businesses, you maintain an email list of past, current, and prospective customers. While email lists can be an effective marketing tool, it can be exhausting creating and managing fresh content for your subscribers. You may be spending more hours coming up with new content than you’d like as other critical business functions languish.

Email Automation Solutions

Thankfully, there are many email automation workflow solutions that can streamline much of your frequent emailing activity, such as:

  • onboarding and welcoming funnels;
  • lead nurturing;
  • subscription renewals;
  • sales notifications; and
  • abandoned cart emails.

Whether you’re working with B2B clients or B2C customers, there are plenty of ways to automate your emails. It’s important to note that these functions can be automated without sounding stale or formulaic. In many cases, a successful small business owner may not necessarily be a good marketer but nonetheless can leverage effective automation.

Similar options exist for social media management, as well.

There are an endless variety of providers that specialize in automating aspects of content posting, distribution, and even creation. In many cases, these can even help you identify areas where you can improve the content itself or locate the customers that you’re targeting.

Customer Service Automation

Top-notch customer service can be a hassle for a small business. Worse, it can cut into the time needed for other priorities. Given this scenario, far too many managers and owners, already tight on time, can convey impatience or irritation as they respond to service requirements.

However, in our modern, customer-first world, caring for your customers must be a top priority for you, your managers, and your staff. That said, providing this level of excellence, particularly after the point of sale, can become a constant drain on your limited resources.

One of the best ways to simplify your customer service protocols is to use a customer relationship management (CRM) solution. CRM systems gather and manage customer-related data, information, and interactions. A well-deployed CRM enables you to promptly respond to customer needs with accurate information, specific solutions, and customized recommendations based on that person’s history with your company.

Once upon a time, CRM systems were all big-ticket items, available exclusively to larger businesses. However, many CRM software providers now target their products specifically toward small businesses.

A quality CRM solution can help your business stay organized, communicative, and accurate. Critically, it can also help you automate everyday tasks and stay as efficient as possible with your customer service activities. These can include after-hours support, online chatbots, and other 24/7/365 solutions that offload common issues round-the-clock.

Customer Service Automation Mistakes to Avoid

One mistake to avoid is outsourcing all of your customer service functions to automation. If you’ve ever experienced the frustration associated with not being able to get a real, live human being on the other end of the phone, you know exactly what it looks like when a company over-automates. Keep in mind that customer service should be centered around people.

When automating customer service, make sure that your vendor understands that you want to cater to two types of customers. These two types include the person who doesn’t have the patience to use your fancy new system and the introvert who doesn’t really want to talk to another person. Customers are unique. Consequently, what works well as far as you are concerned might not for someone with a different disposition.

In all circumstances, you want your customers to feel that they are in control. They should not feel like they are being controlled.

There are many systems you can decide to use to automate customer service. Above all, make sure you provide plenty of opportunities for people to tell you what they think of it. If someone offers negative feedback, don’t allow your dollar investment in a system they don’t like to foster defensiveness. Listen attentively and forward complaints to your service provider as appropriate.

Mundane Task Automation

As noted above, there are many automation solutions that target specific areas of operating a small business. However, even once you’ve addressed these, there will always be little tasks and activities that soak up your time. As the owner, you need to take the first step toward the effective use of automation. This crucial step is to jot down all of the everyday tasks you consider pesky or trivial. Additionally, they are the ones that, nonetheless, must be accomplished.

Identify these wildcard time-consuming parts of your day. Then, you can use a catch-all automation solution to remove some of these mundane items from your plate.

Some workflow automation solutions have been developed to specialize in the non-specific. These solutions can help with things such as sending weekly reminders to your team members. They can also help with managing various forms of recurring information as they move through your internal systems.

Concluding Thoughts

There are endless benefits to embracing workflow automation in a small business setting. Automation can enhance collaboration, lower overhead costs, improve productivity, and free up your team to focus on creativity and innovation. There is good news, though. The evolution of modern technology has made these automation solutions available to giant corporations. They have also made them available to small businesses as well.

While workflow automation is helpful, though, it shouldn’t be treated as a magic bullet. Entrepreneurs and small business personnel must think carefully each and every time they implement a workflow automation solution. The successful implementation of automation in one setting does not guarantee it in another.

You will work with shrinking profit margins, tight budgets, and limited resources. It’s important to consider which areas of your company will benefit the most from workflow automation. Once you’ve identified the best place to begin, do your research, find the best solution, and implement it. Doing so won’t just make your day-to-day activities easier. It will also make your organization easier to scale and enable your team to focus on future growth and innovation.

[Related: 5 Mental Preconceptions That Keep You From Excellence]

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