Automation is still somewhat widely misunderstood, despite the many positive changes it’s bringing and the progress it represents. Elements in the small-business community might remain especially wary, figuring it’s a tool only for wealthier businesses or one that will force your company to become a little less “human” in the name of efficiency.
Thankfully, the truth about automation is that small businesses can benefit from it in many ways. It doesn’t have to mean job losses or a more impersonal customer experience, either. Instead, automation looks to be a major competitive differentiator for small businesses and a way to realize efficiencies that complement, rather than replace, human effort.
Let’s take a look at the advantages for the small business that breaks into the digital landscape by harnessing strategic automation in the workplace.
When it comes to uncovering inefficiencies and working smarter and leaner, automation can be a huge ally in a number of different business areas:
- Document storage
- Data entry
- Employee training
- Sales and marketing
- Customer engagement
For data and time entry, think about the hassle of checking over mileage logs for your delivery drivers. Human error is a huge time sink in a process like this one. With automatic mileage logging, it’s not a worry. Dealing with payroll every couple of weeks can be an equally large hassle when there are multiple teams or freelancers under your roof. However, web-based dashboards can make it easier for employees to track their time in their daily tasks, and they facilitate automatic payments at intervals you decide on. In other words, bookkeeping and tax withholding don’t have to be tedious or labor-heavy.
There are many other opportunities to use automation to make your back-end functions work far more reliably and efficiently than they do now. Automation tools can also help you automatically tag purchases as business expenses or other transaction types, automatically gather and sort contracts, receipts and other bookkeeping items, and much more. Whether it’s annual tax season or you just want a weekly respite from the hassle of invoicing and billing, automation shines when it comes to small-business efficiency.
Reduced costs and higher quality control
This is a natural follow-up to general efficiency. After all, if we’re discussing reducing human effort and necessary oversight, what we’re really talking about is cutting labor costs. For a small business that’s focused on growth or even struggling to make payroll, this is a big deal. Cutting some human effort and expense out of the equation gets you something else, too: the ability to refocus your employees’ time on product and business development and meeting deadlines for growth.
Reducing your costs is also about eliminating as much waste as possible. Using automated cloud technologies to bring order and sanity to your payroll processes, as we’ve discussed, is a big potential cost savings.
Where else do unnecessary expenses pop up, beyond payroll? Manufacturing is an obvious example. Unless your small business is service-oriented, you likely build some kind of product that requires building, finishing, handling, shipping and more. Even small businesses are enjoying the advantages of automated or semi-automated manufacturing on shop floors or in their factories. Additive manufacturing, including 3D printing, has brought autonomous construction to the small-business world by coupling vastly reduced material waste with ever-more-intelligent fabrication methods and set-and-forget workflows.
Existing technologies like CNC machines pointed the way toward reduced manufacturing costs. They result in excellence in quality control, too, thanks to their ability to be piloted by computer programs and work independently of human operators at a stretch. Automated additive manufacturing makes taking human hands off the workpiece even easier — and can create a greater number of finished products or parts with less waste than ever. The end result is products with a higher standard for fit-and-finish, not to mention lower material costs, less rework and easier-to-meet deadlines.
Data-driven decision making
Machine learning and AI are revolutionizing how businesses are making decisions — not just in the near term, but also for the future.
Marketing is one area where near-future decisions can be positively informed by data-gathering and selective automation. For example, an automated customer relationship management platform can help you prioritize incoming contact or quote requests according to geographical customer distance, keywords used and other signals that indicate readiness to buy. This can help prioritize customers who are more likely to follow through and helps you focus and reallocate your on-boarding efforts, not to mention the probably limited time of your sales staff.
Automating portions of the on-boarding process sometimes go by the name “lead nurturing” — and it can net a 20 percent boost in sales in some cases.
Managing a small, midsized or especially a larger business is a huge amount of work and requires a certain talent for forecasting and seeing into the future. Enter automation again. Managers’ insight is limited by the amount of data they have available on the work being done, the location and amount of labor available, and insights into seasonal or cyclical customer demand. With strategic automation, managers can make more proactive staffing and purchasing decisions, plus adjust output on specific product lines with greater confidence than ever.
The customer experience
When you look at the entirety of the customer experience, it encapsulates most of the other benefits of automation. By utilizing automation tools and reaping the benefits outlined above, small-business owners can simultaneously stand out to customers and set themselves apart from their competitors.
This begins with leveraging automation so you can focus significantly less on repetitive and menial tasks and more on reducing project and product development timelines, making informed decisions and rethinking your customer journey and experience. It also allows more time for iterating on existing products and coming up with new ones.
There’s more to the customer experience than just outperforming your rivals, however. The phrase “experience economy” might be new to you, but the concept has been familiar to consumers for a long while now. It’s the idea, championed in part by millennials, that some of the best purchases in life aren’t products, but instead ephemeral experiences and events. Even when a product is involved, the less tangible parts of the experience often overshadow the product itself.
Automation enters the mix thanks to personalization — not just of products, but also of the entire experience surrounding that product. Automation can make parts of the tooling and machining process capable of turning out bespoke products in greater numbers, but your store or retail presence can get another leg up with automation by automatically showing incoming visitors the right products based on their past traffic and the pages they’ve viewed.
A last word
There are about 30 million small businesses in the United States — and many of them are ideal candidates for bringing selective automation on board. As this technology is further refined, it will become even less optional than it is already, and be even more widely seen as a necessary competitive advantage instead.