Automation for small businesses: 10 tasks you should and should not automate
In 2018, Inside Small Business reported that 10% of small business owners were working between 50-59 hours per week, with a further 16% saying they worked over 60 hours a week. 24% also said they work seven days a week..
Much of that is a labor of love. And yet, you started your business to gain more flexibility and freedom—not to be trapped by a demanding schedule and endless tasks.
How can you save time to focus on what matters? The answer is automation.
Once viewed as futuristic, automation is quickly gaining ground. A reported 70% of IT experts think that a switch to automation is mandatory to evolve businesses. Moreover, one-third of small business owners expected to implement some type of automation this year.
The benefits of automation for small business are obvious. 78% of business leaders expect it to free up three full hours of time each and every workday.
Still, automation can be intimidating. Where do you start? How can you figure out what to automate? And, what will always require a human touch?
Small business tasks to automate
The average business owner’s day is filled with big decisions and personal conversations, but there are plenty of smaller, more menial tasks in the mix too. That means there’s no shortage of responsibilities that business owners can completely automate.
1. Responses to frequent emails
It doesn’t take a detective to figure out that email can be a major time suck. Business owners spend an estimated 4.9% of their time on cumbersome administrative tasks. To put that into perspective, it’s about $31.8 billion lost to the Australian economy.
If you’re frequently on the receiving end of similar messages or frequently asked questions, there are ways to speed up your response process.
Canned responses in Gmail are one of the best ways to do so. It’s not total automation (as it’ll still require selecting the right response) … but it’s a major time-saver.
Canned responses allow you to save emails you frequently compose, drop that body copy into a message, and then edit as needed or simply click send.
2. Recurring invoices
Bookkeeping is a drain. In fact, a reported 40% claim it’s the worst part of owning a business.
It’s also unavoidable. All told, small business owners spend on average 10 hours every week on accounts. While that statistic isn’t broken down into specific functions, you can guess that much of that time is spent sending and following up on invoices.
Getting paid can be a tedious and frustrating process.
Fortunately, a variety of solutions exist to offload invoicing—especially recurring invoices you send month in and month out as well as automatic reminders to clients who may have forgotten to pay.
Another tedious part of accounting is payroll.
If your employees still receive paper paychecks, that’s tough to automate.
On the other hand, if you’re using direct deposit, there are plenty of tools that can help you take payroll off your plate completely.
Once you’ve set it up, automatically scheduling, sending, and tracking payroll can quickly become a set it and forget task you only need to revisit when changes occur.
4. Task management
You’ve heard the whole “working on your business, rather than in it” cliché. It’s cliché for a reason.
The average entrepreneur spends 68.1% of their time working “in” their business.
Automating task management can remove a lot of work from your plate. Especially tasks between apps and tools.
Solutions like Zapier can coordinate actions between different apps and save you from repetitive tasks like adding items to your digital to-do list, setting up folders, or queuing up reminders.
5. Reporting on metrics
Numbers matter to your business. You want to know how many visitors you’ve had to your website or how many sales you’ve made in the past month.
Constantly compiling and sharing that information involves a substantial investment in time and attention. But it doesn’t have to.
For online metrics, Google Analytics makes it easy to set up custom reports and then send them to yourself, to employees, or to clients. Likewise, QuickBooks—as well as numerous other platforms—include the option to set up reports that will automatically get emailed to you on a recurring schedule.
Small business not to automate
You’re ready to sing the praises of automation and remove a ton of menial tasks from your to-do list—but not so fast. Automation can be great, but it’s not meant for everything.
Below are five tasks you should never consider automating in your business.
6. Touchy customer problems
One of your clients or customers has a time-sensitive problem or a touchy complaint. This is a time when you need personal contact.
According to research from Telstra, 71% of customers want to contact businesses through multiple channels, and an incredible 74% of businesses claim they use face-to-face communication regularly. Furthermore, 88% of customers will go elsewhere if they find a company hard to deal with – and the main cause of dissatisfaction is receiving unsatisfactory help with a problem.
Personal conversations require time. But they’re well worth it for the solidified relationship and elevated reputation.
76% of consumers say customer service is an important factor in their choice of loyalty to a brand.
7. Client onboarding
If your business is continuously onboarding new clients and customers, rest assured that pieces of this process—such as reminders or educational emails—can be automated.
However, onboarding is a delicate time and automation shouldn’t encompass the entirety of these early interactions.
Remember that you only get one chance to make a first impression, so you need to give new customers and clients some personal attention and establish a solid relationship before you introduce any automation.
8. Employee recognition
Your employees mean a lot to you, and you want to consistently recognise them on a job well done—especially since employees are 20% more likely to be highly productive if they feel their contributions are valued.
You’re considering automating this recognition so that it doesn’t fall off your radar.
Be careful: automated recognition doesn’t carry weight. It needs to be genuine and come from you personally.
According to data from Gallup, 28% of employees say that the most memorable recognition comes from the employee’s manager, followed closely by a high-level leader or CEO (24%).
Effective recognition is “honest, authentic, and individualised to how each employee wants to be recognised.” Those boxes are almost impossible to check with an automated process.
9. Creative work
While automation boosts productivity, concerns swirl over whether or not it will completely replace humans in some positions.
Here’s the good news: automation hasn’t yet found a way to replicate the human brain, which means more creative tasks—from brainstorming your next product to designing graphics—can’t be totally automated (although, many times, they can be delegated).
Indeed, one report concluded that creative jobs will be much more resistant to automation. So those tasks that require your critical thinking and innovation skills are better left to you—rather than the robots.
10. Building relationships
Automation can help immensely to create and maintain healthy relationships. Reminders about important dates, notifications about emails to follow up on, and even sending gifts as well as “handwritten” thank you notes.
What it can’t do is replicate emotional intelligence.
Just like customer problems and complaints, crucial moments and difficult conversations demand personal attention.
Likewise, similar to employee recognition, celebrating big wins and major accomplishments require face time—or, at least, the closest digital equivalent.
In other words, for all their power, bots shouldn’t be relied on during the highs and lows of the business relationships that matter most.
To automate or not to automate small business?
Time often feels like a business owner’s most limited resource. Automation can be a powerful weapon for your small business—provided you identify the best times to use it.
What’s the simplest way to identify functions that can easily be automated? Keep an eye out for:
- Tasks that you’re doing on a repetitive or frequent basis
- Tasks that don’t require a human touch or personal connection
- Tasks that are mindless and don’t require a lot of mental energy
Regardless of what you automate in your business, be aware that it shouldn’t be completely out of sight and out of mind. Set a reminder to check in occasionally and ensure things are working properly. You’d hate for something to run off the rails while you’re blissfully unaware.
Beyond that, approach automation with the right strategy and you’ll be able to carve out more time for what really matters: helping your business continue to thrive.