AI. Algorithms. Virtual reality. Machine learning. Robotics. Autonomous vehicles.
As small business owners, we hear these terms but we don’t really see how they connect to our real lives. Automation tools sound great. Virtual worlds sound interesting, if not creepy. Machine learning and robotics seem like a fantastic trend, if not a little terrifying. But in the real world, I don’t see many – if any – of my clients actually using these advanced technologies. Sure, some larger organizations and bleeding-edge startups are deploying automation tools. But for the typical mom-and-pop or family-owned business, these types of technologies are like the Jetsons.
And yet…we want to automate. We really do. We’re struggling with labor shortages, higher prices, increasing overhead and the need to squeeze every dollar of productivity out of our existing workforce. In fact, we wouldn’t mind eliminating the need for labor if technology can do the job just as well, and at a lower overall cost. So, are there any automation technologies available right now that a business owner can deploy and see a return on investment?
The good news is yes. In fact, I have clients that are implementing automation tools in their businesses. I’ve changed their names below. But they’re all real. These are some ideas on how to automate your business in 2023.
My client Heron Manufacturing uses a well-known manufacturing application for tracking quotes, orders, inventory and shipments. The company, which is over three decades old, has developed sound internal processes. Up until a year ago, most of them were manual. A quote was entered into the system. An order was created based on the quote. Inventory was matched against an order and new purchases were planned based on the backlog. Schedules were maintained on spreadsheets and customer service reps responded to requests whenever received.
How did this change? The leaders at Heron met with its software partners and asked how to leverage a few of the powerful features in the application that’s available in most financial applications: workflows. And here’s what happened.
A quote that’s entered automatically creates an order. When you create an order, purchasing and operational people receive automatic emails updating them on material requirements. Orders are slotted into a manufacturing schedule that’s maintained by the system. If an order is from a “priority” customer it gets escalated in the queue. Order updates are automatically sent to customer service reps and, in some cases, to customers. Orders are converted into invoices automatically when the system is notified of shipment. Reports of open orders and shipments are automatically generated and sent to management.
You can be doing the same thing. I bet your financial application has workflow capability. It’s simply a trigger of actions based on a change of data. To do this you must ask. You’ll pay for training. You’ll need consulting. Your employees will need to learn new things. But once accomplished, you’ll find these tasks to be automatically undertaken and you’ll benefit from time savings, faster service and more accuracy.
I recently presented on a Right Networks webinar where I went into more detail about strategies for leveraging the best and most affordable automation tools. It’s a great webinar if you want to learn how to automate your business in the next year.
Another feature that most software applications include is alerts. These are simple, yet powerful automation tools to create and an easy way to automate your business. An alert is merely a reminder that’s sent via email or text when something happens (or doesn’t happen) in your system. The reminders can be sent both internally and externally.
Another client of mine that sells construction materials uses alerts to know when their inventory falls below safety levels. Once inventory hits a certain point, an order is placed (or, with workflow, an order is automatically placed). They use alerts to send automatic emails when a quote, order or invoice is overdue. Their managers get notified when a customer is falling behind in their normal orders year-to-date. Their customer service managers also get text messages for when a priority customer opens up a service ticket or lodges a complaint.
My client understands the power of these alerts. It took them a little bit of time to learn how to set them up. But now they’re leveraging this automation tool to ensure that identifying problems before they become even bigger problems.
For a few years, we had our dog on multiple medications that we always purchased from CVS Pharmacy. Whenever a prescription became due (and this happened a lot) I received a text from CVS asking me if I wanted to refill it. Sometimes I was out of refills and the pharmacy would text me and ask if I would like them to contact my vet. This went on for some time before I realized that I wasn’t texting with a person. I was texting with a bot.
And you know what? That was OK by me. And it’s OK with many customers. Using artificial intelligence to read through emails and text and then auto-respond based on rules is now becoming a more common practice among many companies. And it makes sense. There are countless emails that are asking similar questions or require the same information. So why are we paying a person to respond to all of this? And what if the person is unavailable and there’s a delay? Or what if they give the wrong information?
Auto-responders like the kind CVS uses are an automation tool that solves these problems. Do you have chat on your website with auto-responders for common requests? You should. How about setting auto-responders so that requests for information, brochures or common questions can get answers back quickly and accurately? This is a no-brainer.
My suggestion – like the ones above – is to talk to your software vendor and get training to setup auto-responders. They are a real-life way to leverage automation that’s cost effective and could significantly increase productivity.
The bottom line about automation is that while a lot of it is still science fiction for so many small businesses, there are specific automation tools that even the smallest of companies that can use today to help increase their productivity…and profits.
**If you own an accounting firm and are wondering how automation might apply to you, check out this blog post about predictions for how automation fits into firms in 2023.
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