The surest sign of a small business is the omnipresence of “the wearer of many hats.” That’s often true whether the business is a one-person operation or has a sizable staff.
The problem with wearing many hats on the job is that none of your responsibilities get your undivided attention. This situation usually has one of two outcomes: either you (and your colleagues) work all the time, or things often fall through the cracks and work is eternally running behind.
Furthermore, without standardized processes for key business tasks, some details or steps might be skipped, overlooked, unnecessarily repeated or abandoned before completion. Business processes ensure conformity in a company’s daily operations. Since certain processes are repetitive and do not change, they are prime candidates for automation.
Fortunately, automation tools are not just for large enterprises—they have become simple and affordable, so they are well within many small businesses’ budgets. That means you can automate much of the tedious work and focus on strategic initiatives that will grow the business. The combination of your staff’s talents and automation will save time while amplifying growth.
There are two categories of business functions: core and support. Core functions are the activities that generate income for the business and the primary reason the business exists. Support functions are secondary activities that support the core functions.
Companies can automate numerous steps in both core and support functions to increase efficiency and reduce costs. Ultimately, automation makes a business more competitive and sets it up for success.
Types of Automation Small Businesses Should Use
Often, small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) take advantage of software that both automates processes and produces insights and reports in a user-friendly dashboard.
A single solution can automate various tasks across departments and make a big difference. For example, leading CRM systems can automate processes related to marketing, sales, operations and customer support.
While there are many types of automation small businesses can and should use, they typically fall in one of three broad categories: marketing, operations and sales.
Types of Small Business Marketing Automation
Marketing automation has been around for a while and become extremely popular. While you may not have sent out email blasts through a marketing automation platform, you’ve likely received such messages before. Marketing automation is a powerful tool for small businesses because it coordinates marketing messages and delivers them across many channels on a set schedule.
Marketing automation solutions are closely tied to customer relationship management (CRM) systems. The marketing automation platform pulls data from the CRM, and a number of popular CRM solutions also have email marketing capabilities that help companies target prospective or existing customers with relevant marketing offers.
Marketing automation can help with efforts like:
- Lead management: As new leads come in, the marketing automation system can track these prospects as they move through the sales cycle. The system will put leads into various categories: marketing qualified leads, sales qualified leads, and so on. It will record any communication or key developments, and some systems will assign the leads a score based on their potential to become paying customers.
- Email campaigns: Marketing automation software can help coordinate email marketing campaigns and increase their effectiveness with performance metrics. For example, it might track the date your customer purchased a refrigerator and send them maintenance reminders annually or notify them of complementary products currently on sale.
- Display ads: Prospects are more likely to convert when they see multiple messages across different channels, and display ads on websites or social media platforms are another effective way to reach your audience. Marketing automation can ensure the right people see these ads. For example, a business could target someone that clicked through an email about a new product line with a Facebook ad about that same line.
- Social media posts: A marketing automation system helps companies manage their posts across platforms and schedule future posts. It’s a centralized place for everyone to see the business’ social media activity.
- Direct mail campaigns: The system might, for example, trigger the mailing of a coupon to customers who download the brand’s app.
- Chat bots: Chat bots have quickly gained popularity because they allow businesses to converse with prospects and customers without employee assistance. A chat bot can answer questions about a product, help resolve issues with an order or even promote certain goods or services. Many chat bot providers integrate with leading marketing automation platforms.
Businesses that adopt marketing automation see an average 14.5% increase in sales productivity and a 12.2% reduction in marketing overhead, according to Invesp. Eighty percent of companies that adopted marketing automation saw an increase in the number of leads, and 77% experienced a lift in conversions.
Types of Small Business Operations Automation
Small businesses can automate numerous operational processes to free up staff’s time, ensure compliance with laws and even execute tasks while people aren’t working.
Areas in which businesses can automate operations include:
- Call center scripting and escalations: Software can feed customer and product data into call center scripts so agents don’t need to look up the information to provide customer support, spot upsell opportunities or deal with warranty issues. In the event the customer’s issue can’t be resolved by the agent, automation can escalate the call to a more experienced support agent or a manager.
- Payroll and timesheets: Employees can report their activities and hours online, which feeds into timesheets and an automated payroll system. Employee taxes and benefits are then calculated and subtracted from each paycheck, which is automatically distributed to each employee.
- Human resources: Onboarding and benefits enrollment automation enables employees to easily and quickly provide their personal information online to calculate tax and benefits withholdings. With human resources management software, employees can also schedule their vacation days in accordance with the employer’s rules and staffing needs per period.
- Software and security patching: A software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution will automate software upgrades and security patches. That ensures your information is protected and you can take advantage of the latest features, work that could fall through the cracks when staff is busy elsewhere.
- Supply chain: Purchase orders can be automated based on the company’s current need for supplies or inventory. For example, the system can automatically order raw materials from trusted vendors to ensure an adequate supply based on a manufacturer’s production schedule. Or, imagine a grocery store that can automatically receive replenishment orders to match real-time sales so shelves aren’t bare yet warehouses aren’t filled with slow-moving products.
- Business travel planning/scheduling: Automated business travel planning and scheduling allows employees to schedule and expense business travel within the rules and expense budgets set by the employer. This frees up managers to focus on key tasks that require their expertise rather than these distracting but necessary management activities.
- Expense management: Employees can take a picture of receipts for travel, meals or other expenses and submit them through an app that then triggers a workflow for approval, reimbursement and posting to the company’s accounting records.
- Employee utilization: Automated systems can compute the number of employees needed for specific time periods based on historical data and daily plans. The solution can show only available employees, taking into account vacation times, travel schedules and other permitted leave so employers can assign work shifts accordingly. Further, employees can be ranked according to their productivity levels.
Types of Small Business Sales Automation
While many tend to think of ecommerce when it comes to sales automation, it’s important to remember that some aspects of brick-and-mortar retail can also be automated. For example, think of a repair shop texting a customer when their service is done.
Further, the lines between online and physical stores continue to blur as more customers use multiple channels, sometimes in the same transaction. For example, they might order a product online then pick it up curbside or place an online order in-store with the help of an associate for a product that’s out of stock. When information flows between these channels, it should make for a seamless customer experience both at the point of purchase and after.
Areas ripe for sales automation include:
- Sales progress mapping: Automation tools can track and measure sales progress so salespeople can quickly determine the status of specific prospects or customers and overall sales performance.
- Communication: A sales automation tool can automatically send follow-up emails and reminders for future meetings after a prospect expresses interest in a product or service. If a lot of time has passed since the last interaction between the rep and prospect, the system could remind the rep to check in.
- Transactions: Automation completes transaction details from payment at the time of purchase to automated credit checks and invoices sent according to sales terms.
- Contract management: Automation ensures compliance with a business’ contract rules to prevent problems down the road. It can also trigger alerts to help ensure terms are met both by the company and the customer.
- Ecommerce upsells and reminders: The system can increase upsell or cross-sell opportunities by automatically listing recommendations such as “customers who bought this also bought,” “additional parts or assembly tools needed” or “because you liked X, we think you’ll like Z.” Customers can also receive automatic email reminders about an item they viewed or put in their cart but didn’t purchase.
- In-store messaging and couponing: A business may be able to detect consumers’ phones when they walk into the store, triggering coupons or other sales incentives delivered straight to their phone.
- Proposal development: Automation can prepopulate fields to customize proposals and other agreements with customers while still complying with company rules regarding pricing, discounts and other special offers.
6 Benefits of Automation For Your Small Business
There are many benefits that come with automating business processes. Many of those benefits apply to businesses of all types and sizes, while some are unique to a specific industry. Below are the five biggest benefits of automation for small businesses.
- Productivity: Automation speeds up processes so work is completed faster and prevents repetitive work, like rekeying data. It also dramatically increases productivity in all areas of your business, including sales, marketing, payroll, accounting, supply chain and payment processing.
- Visibility: When information is accessible to all departments because it automatically flows between systems, there’s improved visibility into business processes. This makes it easier to identify the source of problems and refine processes.
- Improved data analysis: Automation also enables you to discover more insights and analyze more data than you would if manually tracking your business’s performance. For example, you can see if your maintenance or installation workers are on schedule or running behind. You can tell ahead of time if you’ll sell out of a product before a new shipment arrives. And, you can easily identify changes that will increase your profits, whether that’s using a different vendor or raising your prices.
- Communication: Automation can track sales or the status of a project, update the team on progress and send important reminders and prompts to employees and customers. This increases organization and makes it easier to run and grow your business. For example, the software can automatically generate milestones and progress reports and share them on a regular schedule that the company chooses. Supplies can be automatically replenished, sales calls automatically scheduled, vendors notified of purchasing policy changes, and customer data shared among departments.
- Reduced payroll costs: Automating tasks frees up employees’ schedules, allowing companies to increase work output without expanding the workforce or having to pay overtime. Conversely, companies can cut payroll costs and maintain the same level of output and productivity through automation.
- Operational efficiency: Forrester predicts automation can cut operating costs by 90%. But beyond saving money, automation can give you peace of mind in knowing your business is compliant with laws and regulations, there are far fewer errors and little to nothing has fallen through the cracks. Since automation allows employees to get their work done faster, they can enjoy a better work-life balance.