Does “automation” conjure up images of massive, impersonal companies with conveyor belts, robots and unseen software being used in all kinds of tasks? Like Amazon or car manufacturers? Automation is more than that and definitely has a role to play in small business. In a recent interview on Twitter’s #SmallBizChat with Melinda Emerson (the Small Biz Lady), automation expert Chris Davis had one word to describe automation for business owners: Necessary.
According to Davis, no business can produce, deliver service and operate in the ways they need to by continuing to do everything manually. It just isn’t possible anymore. So automation is necessary for scaling businesses and growing profits. And isn’t that pretty much what every business owner wants?
But a lot of small business owners haven’t gotten the automation memo—yet. Like everything else, Davis says that for automation to deliver the amazing results it’s capable of, business owners need to clearly articulate what they want automation to accomplish; there needs to be a well-defined strategy. The better the strategy, the bigger the potential results.
Wouldn’t you expect that incorporating automation into a business’s operations would streamline and smooth out inefficiencies? But Davis says that’s not the way it works. Instead, business processes need to be simplified and streamlined first, then automated. And when you look at all of a business’s processes in aggregate, you get a pretty good idea of how efficiently and effectively a business is running.
Of all the different functions that can be automated, marketing is one where automation’s bringing great success. Take the still-popular-and-effective email, for example. Davis says that email autoresponders (systems that automatically send out a series of emails in sequence in response to various trigger actions by customers), make them natural tools for automating marketing and business growth very rapidly.
With the proliferation of online tools, the doors to automation have swung wide open for small and mid-sized businesses. What functions a business owner ultimately decides to automate depends on the nature of the business and its objectives, say online marketing experts SproutSpire (sproutspire.com). Businesses should automate gradually, perhaps starting with an area where automation will have the most impact. What functions can be improved? Streamlined? Made faster? But regardless of where you begin, the first step is a detailed, descriptive plan.
While you’re exploring what areas of your business might benefit most from automation, SproutSpire lists an incredible 26 ways to automate your business with online tools. If you, like a lot of your small business counterparts, believe that “If it’s not broken, why fix it?” you’re leaving your business wide open to becoming outdated and increasingly inefficient. Says SproutSpire, automation will work if you embrace change, are open to new ways of doing things and at a fundamental level, want to continually improve your performance across all business functions.
Besides marketing activities, including email, blogging and social media, there really aren’t many limits on what can be automated. Another area where automation has been extremely fruitful is customer relationship management, or CRM, and there are a variety of software options to help you do it.
Consider these other popular possibilities for automation that are among those SproutSpire suggests:
- Administrative and office functions, everything from billing and receipts to storing, sharing and backing up files.
- Task and project management
- Inventory management
- Building and managing budgets
- All phases of talent management, including hiring, scheduling and training
Ready to move forward? Inc.com lists eight automation tips for businesses from Randy Clark, an IT process automation company CMO:
- Start with the easiest processes.
- Nurture a culture that embraces automation.
- Start small—focus on just one function.
- Automate the process away (processes tend to consolidate when automation is introduced)
- Have a couple of automation experts on staff; build toward a service bureau
- Document everything to get a realistic picture of ROI
- Learn from the leaders—typically bigger companies that have been doing it for a while.
- Bring on the right partner. You’re looking for scope, innovation, technology.
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