For small businesses, automation may have a lot to offer, but it can also appear frustratingly complex and inaccessible. Perhaps there seems to be a lot to learn, and many convoluted systems to put in place or services to purchase before anything can really be achieved. While the potential of automation is high, the practicalities seem to put it out of reach.
If this all sounds familiar, you’re not alone. 1/3 of businesses have no engagement with automation whatsoever—not even a test or a pilot program—and small businesses are disproportionately represented among that number.
But automation is well within the grasp of small businesses—and it can make a lot of sense for them.
Most business models include some amount of tasks that are boring, repetitive and low-skilled (no matter how much we wish our work was always interesting, novel and challenging).
Automation shines when it comes to these kinds of tasks, especially where they concern collection, storage or processing of data.
These are rarely tasks anyone enjoys, and when they’re automated they don’t have to be done by a person—so you can save human employees for work that genuinely requires, and hopefully inspires, them. For these tasks, automation is often not just faster but also cheaper, and, perhaps most importantly, impervious to human error.
But not all automated processes directly replace human employees in their least favourite tasks, either. Automation can also empower a business of any size to take advantage of data to drive value in ways that couldn’t be achieved by a small team, or, in some cases, that couldn’t be replicated by a person at all.
Automation use cases for small business
- Contact management
A surprising number of small businesses still keep their contacts in a Google Doc or an Excel spreadsheet, but a dedicated CRM system can help automate a staggering variety of sales, service and marketing functions all in one place. And they range from ‘free’ to ‘very expensive’, so there’s usually a price point and functionality to fit your needs. Implementing an automated and accessible contact management system is an operation that can achieve ROI in a matter of months, and supports organisational growth.
- Email automation
Automating welcome emails and campaigns for reminders or brand milestones can save you time, but it can also enable types of marketing to which a small business would otherwise be unable to commit. For example, a birthday series, in which a customer who has provided their date of birth gets a small discount for their birthday, can be automated to run every day and ensure customers get their “happy birthday” message on the right day. Finding the right customers every day and sending them a discount is a process that, undertaken manually, has repetitive daily tasks associated with it that represent a barrier to small businesses. But such campaigns are easily automated, providing a relevant and personal customer experience for very little inconvenience to the business.
- Analytics, reports and dashboards
Automation can generate and deliver to you ready-to-use reports and dashboards drawn from your data, without anyone having to slave over a spreadsheet for hours. Visual representations of sales by spend or frequency, campaigns or events can help you get a big picture view of what’s going on in your business over time, and that can help you make decisions about where to take your business next.
- Appointments and reservations
If yours is a business that takes reservations or appointments, software that allows customers to select their own time from those available can be invaluable. These apps can reduce manual work, eliminate accidental double bookings, automatically notify you of your week ahead and enable easier and more accessible customer experience. It’s important to make sure the customer-facing booking tool is connected to your internal scheduling system, but setting this up improves customer experience, promoting higher lifetime values and less demand on customer service representatives.
- Segmentation and profiling
The idea behind segmentation and profiling is that you split the people who are in contact with your business up into groups based on shared characteristics and contact them with information that is more relevant for them. Automation can help by gathering third party information to add to what you know about your contacts, or by profiling your contacts for you, sorting your new and existing contacts into the right segments as you learn more about them.
How to approach automation
There are two keys to successfully implementing automation. These are:
- selecting areas of your business to automate that are scalable
- making automation central to your development and planning
A scalable system is one that operates just as well at regardless of the demands placed upon it. It means that you can start out as small and manageable as you need to and expand the scope of that system in accordance with a plan over time. This is a one-step-at-a-time approach that prevents you from becoming overwhelmed by the complexities of trying to automate too much all at once, or outgrowing the system you invested in early on.
For this approach to succeed, automation needs to occupy a central role in your plans for the future so you can support that scalability. When thinking about innovations, consider how they will interact with your automation plans. Be prepared to account for automation in your business development over time.
The increasing availability and democratisation of data driven business practices now empowers small, flexible, organisations with few staff to achieve greater outcomes than ever before. Despite the common view that business automation is challenging or simply inapplicable for small businesses, judicious planning can make automation a powerful tool for businesses of any size.