27 August 2014

Business tasks that benefit from automation

Don't waste your precious time on repetitive manual tasks. Use tools to automate tasks, streamlining your business and saving you time and money.

No matter how hard you work, you can’t be present in your business 24/7 – particularly if you’re a team of one. This is where automating tasks can help, streamlining tasks and increasing your productivity. It can also help to reduce errors and save you money in the long run.

While it is often suggested for marketing purposes, there are plenty of tasks that can benefit from automation, from syncing documents across devices to using a timer to ensure your office heating is only on during working hours. We’ve focused on tasks that businesses of all sizes could benefit from automating. 

What you should be automating

  • Your social media posts, or rather some of them. Rather than remembering to post at particular times or sharing your posts all in one go (which can be annoying for your followers), you can schedule your messages to be posted at the best possible times to reach your audience. There are plenty of free options, including Hootsuite and Buffer that enable you to publish content on several networks at different times and tailor each piece of content.  
  • Email marketing. Email marketing software has become more sophisticated in recent years, allowing you to create professional-looking emails with no technical knowledge and to tailor marketing campaigns based on your customers' details and past purchases. You can set up automated replies so that anyone who subscribes to your e-newsletter or buys your product receives an email welcoming them, perhaps with an introductory offer. It's also possible to take this one step further and try to capture lost sales by sending follow-up emails to customers who abandon their purchase at the shopping basket. There are many software providers, such as Campaign Monitor, MailChimp, Graphicmail and some offer free plans for those with low volumes of subscribers. 
  • Regular payments. Rather than having to remember each month to call up to pay a provider or make a transfer, automate it by setting up a direct debit or standing order. Many providers such as phone and utility companies offer discounts for customers who choose to pay by direct debit, so it could save you time and money. Likewise, depending on the software you use, you may be able to send invoices and automatic emails confirming a purchase. These provide clarity to your customers, as well as saving time and paper. 
  • Your website. It's possible to automate many processes on your website - from your analytics and contact forms to your e-commerce store. For example, if you have queries that specific staff answer, set up your online form so that different queries are filtered and sent to each relevant member of staff. This saves time for whoever would have manually forwarded the queries and helps to ensure that customer questions are answered promptly. 
  • Your inventory. If you sell or store products, you probably have some form of inventory to help you keep track of the number of each product you have. You can link this with other systems, such as your e-commerce store so that your stock is automatically updated online when you sell an item or update your supply. Inventory software can also help you to manage price lists across various channels, keep track of supplies so they don't run low and determine what your most profitable products are. You may also be able to automate regular purchases, so that an order is automatically placed with your supplier when your stock reaches a certain level. 
  • Training. If you have a large number of staff, or mainly remote workers, automated online training packages can be a great way to ensure everyone has access to and completes training relevant to them. These training packages can generate reports so that you know how many people have completed the training and how well they’ve done, as well as send reminders to staff who still need to complete it.
  • Brand monitoring. There are many free tools for monitoring your brand online, such as Google Alerts, FriendFeed and SocialMention. Many allow you to subscribe to by RSS or email, so it's easy to keep track of where and how your brand is mentioned. 

Automation can’t replace everything

While automation can make you more productive, it won’t eliminate all the work you need to do and you'll still need to monitor it to make sure it's working correctly. Using social media as an example, it takes time to schedule your content and if you only post automated messages, you’ll lose the human element. The whole purpose of social media is to interact with others, so you will still need to allocate time to do this. Plus you shouldn’t automate too far in advance. Many companies have been caught out when their planned posts published automatically around the time of an unexpected, disastrous event.

Create a list and work out what you do that takes up your time and how many of these are repetitive tasks that could be automated. The ones we’ve listed above are some of the easiest, so start with one of these first and only automate one task at a time.

If you choose to use paid-for rather than free software, you should be able to trial it before committing to buying it, to make sure it does everything you need it to. You should also record how much time and/or money it’s saving you each week or month.