Small businesses tend to have a bias against automation. Many owners will tell you that automation makes them feel too much like an impersonal conglomerate. Others are afraid that if they automate, their services might lose value.
Nevertheless, it’s critical that small businesses keep up with technology if they want to remain competitive. Automating certain portions of your operation will save time, enhance productivity, increase profits and help create a culture in which innovation is valued. By supporting automation from the top, you’ll encourage your employees to try new and more efficient methods for accomplishing their tasks.
Take Baby Steps
If you haven’t automated any of your processes before, keep it simple in the beginning. Decide on a single task that you can automate without much effort (online employee time sheets, for example). Seek vendor or staff assistance if appropriate. Before you roll out the new system, get your employees on board by explaining the big picture rationale behind the change, and how it will benefit them.
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Look closely at your preliminary results. You don’t want to automate just for the sake of automating. You should be able to see a clear return on investment—the money your business is saving because of the initiative should exceed the money you’re spending on the initiative. If you’ve just started automating the routing of service requests so your staff can now manage 10 per hour instead of five, that’s likely a positive ROI.
Once you’ve gotten the automation ball rolling, keep the momentum going. Continue to add more processes in which the need for human input is nonexistent or very minimal and exchange ideas with your peers, and you'll gradually grow more comfortable and confident. Of course, there are certain areas you should think twice about automating. These include:
You can leverage a variety of software tools to make your bookkeeping and financial management easier. But beware of setting up self-sustaining programs that oversee your accounts and pay and collect your bills—and then leaving them alone for several months at a time. All it takes is one late payment, and your carefully constructed system could collapse like dominoes. Do not put your business’ solvency in jeopardy. Keep a human eye on those finances.
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It’s one thing to set up an email program that automatically sends a message to let customers know their communications have been received and that they can expect a response within 24 hours. It’s quite another to blast all your customers with spammy ads (or worse, ads disguised as news) that may not have any relevance to them. Unless your email or direct marketing programs are extremely sophisticated, take the time to craft and send personal messages to targeted groups of customers.
Some forms of online engagement, like social media, are well-suited to a bit of automation. You can save lots of time by scheduling blog posts or tweets to go out at a particular time of day. However, if you automate too much of your social media activities, you lose the human connection that makes the medium truly social. And while we’re on the topic of online engagement, please don’t automate comment-posting on blogs. Your bots don’t ever get it right, and you risk harming your business's reputation.
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