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Automate to accelerate in the digital world

Process automation promises to free up time and resources, but your systems need to talk to one another first.

Two of the most valuable assets a business has are time and clients. By automating certain tasks through workflows -- especially ones that are repeatable -- small businesses can increase efficiency and productivity, freeing up more time for high-touch service to clients.

Automating processes (like invoicing, HR requests, workflow approvals, and so on) has become a business imperative for companies of all sizes, and even though IT resources are generally tight for small businesses, sometimes the payoff is worth it.

For example, Mabel's Labels, which sells name tags for children's belongings, needed to expand drastically, especially when product demand spiked in the summer months. The company wanted reliability, the ability to scale when needed, and cost controls. Four years ago, Mabel's Labels built an e-commerce platform on Amazon Web Services (AWS). The company now has a robust and mature AWS stack, says Mike DeBruin, IT director.

"Prior to AWS, we were dealing with outages, inflated page load times, and frustrated customers,'' DeBruin says. "Now, with the cloud, we can keep a consistent, responsive user experience for our customers regardless of how many we have. Conversions are up on the site, and customers are spending more time browsing, and more importantly, checking out."

As a company matures, automating some of the processes that eat up resources opens up other opportunities -- but there's an investment required, he notes.

The good news is that small businesses can now access an increasing number of simplified automation tools, DeBruin says.

What to start automating

Automating business processes requires a tradeoff, says Jonathan Fishman, co-founder of http://bizydev.com/Bizydev, a business development firm with fewer than 10 employees. The majority of Bizydev's client organizations want a tech stack that is cost-effective, he says, but that also allows them to scale as their businesses grow.

Sales tends to be one of the first processes to get automated, and there are customer relationship management (CRM) solutions -- such as HubSpot, Pipedrive, and Monday -- geared toward smaller firms. Fishman adds that Bizydev has been a Salesforce customer for over 10 years. 

Small businesses are also adopting marketing automation technologies. "We're seeing the rise of content marketing and getting the word out about what a company is selling, distributing, or pitching, and being able to track it," as opposed to spending money on traditional advertising, Fishman says.

Integrating systems easily with limited IT resources

When evaluating a tech vendor, businesses should focus on tools that integrate smoothly with their existing technologies and put client interactions in one place to reduce errors and busywork, especially as the business scales.

Curran, a small online luxury boutique retailer servicing the trade and hospitality industries, invested in Acumatica for its enterprise resource planning (ERP) needs, because it was able to integrate Curran's existing systems under one platform, says Peter Bonoff, operations manager.

Curran has a custom-built website, though, so most of the standard integrations and automation available didn't work for it. Coding integrations manually proved too expensive and very narrow in scope, he says.

"Any company like ours has many systems that may or may not be working together. We were dependent on custom API interfaces, and we looked at many connectors between Acumatica and other applications, but they required us to learn and implement each independently," Bonoff says.

The company chose an integration platform-as-a-service (iPaaS) called Celigo to integrate its systems, including Acumatica, without customization. Bonoff says they were able to do this with limited technical resources. "We have more visibility, better inventory control, and fewer [employee] resources fixing errors. Our developer is now working on more revenue-driving projects."

Automation pain points

Automation can bring challenges, however, and for Curran, it was finding the right iPaaS platform that would make automation easy while still allowing IT to maintain governance.

"It's important to find an integration partner that can integrate any application to any other application and can automate any process, so that you have flexibility as your company grows," Bonoff says.

Abhay Gupta, CEO of Lunge Systems, a priority management platform provider, says SMBs generally have less complicated workflows, and sometimes it's a challenge to find a system geared to their needs.

"For example, a solution that optimizes the approval process for a spending request is useless for a client where the same employee performs both roles,'' Gupta says. "It will be better if they instead look for solutions that target employee efficiency directly."

Another big challenge Gupta sees is the codification of knowledge. "The lack of clear documentation on roles and responsibilities, organizational processes, etc., makes it very hard for SMBs to get the full benefit of any technology product they decide to buy."

Also, a lot of business expertise lives in unstructured form like emails, notes -- or even in people's heads, he says. SMBs need to find a way to log that actionable wisdom so it can be used by the automation system or AI algorithm.

How to get started

If you're thinking that it's time to automate processes, start by identifying the tasks that make the most sense. If working with a third-party proves too costly, consider low-code/no code platforms. These can provide the ability to customize and cut down on development time.

Fishman advises listening to staff and understanding what they need, then coming up with a roadmap for how the work will be done. "You can't do it in a vacuum. It has to be representative of what's needed for the business and what's usable,'' he says. "Otherwise, there's a disconnect."

Also, speak to peers from both within your industry and outside, then go through the exploration process. If you're looking for a CRM system, read reviews and case studies to see how they rank, Fishman says.

"The beauty of technology is that many of the software companies out there allow you to have a short-term contract or trial, so you don't always have to make an expensive long-term commitment,'' he adds.

Also, find an employee who will serve as the "quarterback" of a project through implementation.

"Mixing and matching vision with an internal understanding of the business, then leveraging internal resources with external, is the secret sauce," Fishman says.

Gupta concurs, saying it's critical to define targets, performance indicators, and priorities, and to outline employee roles and expected outcomes.

He offers a checklist for SMBs to ensure they select a suitable option:

  • Does the product come with ready-to-use data?
  • How much setup time does it require before it can be used?
  • Can the product be customized easily by the users themselves?
  • How are the benefits of automation delivered? What would change for the employees?
  • What would happen if the company needs to move to a new system? Can migration be done easily?

While adopting a workflow automation approach can be costly, experts say the benefits of streamlined management and improved customer service can result in accelerated business growth and deeper client relationships.

Check out "Modernize the Workforce Experience" to learn about Dell's approach to optimized workflows and processes.

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