Business 101: Getting to grips with automation for your small business
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By Ben Bierman
AUTOMATION within a business is a contentious topic and often perceived negatively, as it is associated with replacing people with machines and rendering certain skills obsolete.
The unease with automation is heightened within the context of South Africa’s high unemployment rate. The perception of human redundancy, coupled with the perceived high cost of automating one’s business processes, is one of the biggest barriers to South African small and medium enterprises (SMEs) taking the leap.
Perceptions aside, the truth is that automation streamlines one’s business operations and frees up valuable time. Much unnecessary time and effort is wasted on repetitive tasks, such as administration, generating reports, cash flow tracking and account management – tasks that do not require high-level thinking or decision-making skills, yet, typically, require the most hours. Automating these types of functions can help business owners refocus their workforce on the higher-order tasks that contribute to growing the business faster.
With this in mind, business owners should consider automating the following operational functions:
Invoicing takes up a lot of time each month. SME owners who do this manually are probably losing precious productive hours that could be better used elsewhere. This is also an area of operations where some of the most costly mistakes can occur, and doing it manually increases the risk of inaccuracies. There are many expert software tools available to SMEs at little to no cost that ensure quick and accurate invoicing that looks professional – Wave is an example. This is the first labour-intensive task that should be automated in order to remain competitive.
Reporting should be another automation priority, as it will save countless employee hours. Another major benefit of automating the process is that generating reports can be done in real-time, allowing business owners to pull reports at any time and base their decisions on up-to-the-minute data, rather than having to wait for monthly or quarterly reports.
Then there is also the human error factor to consider – an estimated 90 percent of businesses admit that spreadsheets contain errors – and automation vastly improves accuracy.
Teams from across the business, including sales, finance and marketing, all need to manage their daily workflow in order to meet their deadlines. Normally, this involves numerous internal meetings, excessive note taking, checking all of one’s active accounts or correspondence, and ensuring that the most important tasks are prioritised and completed.
Again, automation software can take care of this by automatically flagging overdue accounts, reminding sales teams when they need to follow up on new leads, or setting tasks for the people who handle day-to-day marketing. In addition, these can be incorporated into a daily/weekly workflow schedule that all team members can easily access and follow. An example of this is the built-in Planner app for Microsoft Teams or Asana.
Particularly in response to Covid19, many SMEs should have begun incorporating e-commerce into their business models where possible. This is one of the easiest functions to automate, whether it is the customer buying experience, monitoring stock levels or tactics to get customers to return. This kind of automation software can send follow-up emails advertising new deals to previous customers, or send reminders to loyal customers to restock on products they purchase habitually.
Besides saving time, automating as many operational functions as possible has the potential to increase efficiency, make a business more nimble and raise its competitive edge – qualities that every SME can benefit from in 2021.
Ben Bierman is a managing director at Business Partners Limited
*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites