The ultimate guide to automating business processes

Written by Maddy Leslie

Automating business processes is on the side of the angels. The robot angels, that is. We’re not saying a human touch isn’t absolutely vital for your business – quite the opposite, in fact. Communication, empathy, building bridges and spending time on high-value, creative or complex tasks, well, these things are needed for teams to benefit clients.

Automating some processes frees up time to focus on the right objectives.

Let’s break this down into areas that are a part of any business, big or small. In this blog we’ll look at automation in:

  • Communications
  • Marketing
  • HR and admin

Communications automation

It's important you keep up-to-date with what your team is doing, know when a document has been updated and manage your calendar carefully. But, the process of doing each of these things tends to take up more time than it’s worth.

Luckily, there are a few tips and tricks to automate some of the drudgery and get straight down to the communication.

The basics of automating communications

Repeat meeting reminders can be set up for team catch-ups or progress-update calls with clients. You send it out once, people accept once and it pops up in their calendar regularly. No messy back and forth every time.

Shared calendars mean people know when their colleagues are free for a chat or working flat-out to prepare for a client presentation. Google Apps calendar or Office 365 calendars, since they’re hosted in the cloud, are shareable and kept constantly up-to-date as long as there is internet access. (Just, FYI, Turbine syncs with your calendar to update any time off too).

automating business processes - communications

Progress reports

Knowing what your colleagues are working on and what progress is being made across the business is incredibly useful for increasing motivation and helping employees understand how their work fits in to the bigger picture. On the other hand, meetings suck the life out of people faster than you can say ‘calendar invite’.

iDoneThis is a simple little tool that sends you a daily email asking, ‘what have you done today?’ All you have to do is reply. You can keep track of your own progress or use the team setting so that it’s shared with your colleagues. A little automatic reminder can go a long way.

IFTTT. The If This Then That tool can be put to all sorts of uses. One handy way we at Turbine use it is to automatically post to Slack when a blog post goes live. We have a few writers from our sister company, Articulate, who write for the blog, but they don’t always know when their work will go live. This lets them, and the rest of the team, see their work in action without any need for human intervention.

A few rules for good measure

We know that bureaucracy is bad. But, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have procedures, rules and processes in place so that people know how to do what they need to do. In other words, it’s worth making a few actions automatic for everyone.

‘At many companies, decision rights and processes are so ill defined that the organization devotes more time to managing the matrix than to decision making and execution,’ say Mankins, Brahm and Caimi.

Their solution? Standardise the decision process.

Similarly, with project management, creating templates and rules for work allocation can ensure nothing is missed in briefing; everyone knows what they’re doing, and deadlines don’t get missed.

Automating communications doesn't suck the life out of interactions, but rather eliminates the barriers between people to make work more human-friendly.

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Marketing automations

You might not think of marketing as a hub of bureaucracy, but you’d be amazed at the ad-hoc processes that persist, making for an inefficient sales funnel and potentially lost leads.

Marketing automation is a must.

Switching from analogue to digital

Old-school marketing meant pushing out messages and hoping someone listened. Email blasts, advertising campaigns and one-sided conversations told customers what companies wanted them to hear.

Things are different now.

Buying decisions begin online, usually by typing a question into a search engine. The average buyer is a long way through the buying process before they are willing to speak to or engage with a salesperson.

Reviews, websites, social media and the pervasive mentality of ‘Google it’ mean that businesses can no longer control the messages that customers receive. But, you can still be part of the learning process.

Following customer footsteps

Because so much of a customer’s buying decision now takes place online, there is an opportunity to see where those customers go for their information and what problems they’re trying to solve.

You can then build marketing campaigns that are tailored to a typical buyer journey that delivers useful content to them and gradually nurtures them towards conversion into a customer. Even after a sale is made, it’s still worth watching where they go so you can continue delighting them. Then, you will have opportunities to cross and upsell and create brand advocates.

This concept is known as inbound content marketing, which, in itself, isn’t automated, but the tools you can use to deploy it are.

Marketing automation tools

There are quite a few tools out there now, such as HubSpot and Marketo, which not only track these digital footprints, but also link them together and store customer data. This allows you to categorise leads by behaviour and put them into automated workflows.

automating business processes - marketing

Say, for example, someone visits your website and downloads an eBook designed specifically to speak to CEOs of tech start-ups, one of your ideal buyer personas. They fill in a lead-capture form, meaning you have a name and an email address at the very least. They then enter the workflow for that particular type of buyer and tailored emails are automatically sent, or details are sent to sales for a follow up call.

‘The process is fine-tuned continuously in response to which leads convert into what kind of deals, to changes in the competitive marketplace and changes in the company's product and service offerings,’ explains David Tebbutt.

Doing better business

Marketing automation means that you can focus your marketing efforts on the most promising and appropriate leads – again, making your time more valuable. Time is spent following up with leads, rather than trying to remember who they are or when you last spoke to them.

In slightly larger businesses, this introduction of software into the marketing process is an opportunity for marketing and IT to work closely together and increase the efficiency and growth of the business.

‘If the CMO and CIO get their heads together and agree on what's important from both points of view, and harmonious with the company's goals and priorities, then they can go into an MA [marketing automation] purchase confident that both short-term and long-term objectives can be achieved,’ concludes Tebbutt.

HR and Administration automation

And so, we reach those truly demotivating tasks that seem to fill more and more of our working lives: administrivia. All those little ‘I’ll just’ and ‘before I do…’ that add up to a major productivity drain for you and your business.

‘Is it worth automating such little tasks?’ you wonder. Well consider this: eliminating a task that only takes 30 seconds, but which you perform ten times a day will save you six days over five years. Take a look at this graph from xkcd:

automating business processes - HR and administration

Every second counts

Here are a few admin automation time savers for earning those extra hours, days and weeks back:

  • Set up some inbox rules. If the sender is x, move to file one. If the email contains keyword y, move to project file two. And so on. It’s maybe an hour of your life to set it up, for a lifetime of automatic filing.

 

  • Backup. Look into cloud storage like Dropbox, or OneDrive so that when you save a file, it’s automatically backed-up to the cloud.

 

  • Cloud apps. A lot of apps now work so that they sync across different devices. Take Evernotefor example: add a note or clip a web page and it will be on Evernote whether you’re on your laptop, your PC or even your phone.

 

  • Single sign-on. Who wishes they’d spent more time remembering usernames and passwords? When you’re shopping about for new apps to use, look out for whether they offer single sign-on. You can log into Turbine, for example, using a Google account.

The cherry on top of admin automation

Of course, if you enable admin automation through shared files and cloud syncing then in the process you are also enabling mobile working. This allows people to work the way that’s best suited to the task at hand. Once again, this increases the value of your time and theirs.

Nicholas Bloom, cofounder of the Chinese travel website Ctrip, ran an experiment where he allowed half of his call centre staff to work remotely. ‘It is estimated that it saved $1,900 per employee for the nine months,’ says Bloom.

Of course, mobile working is a whole other topic, involving a change in how you manage employees, keep track of a distributed workforce and ensure you keep everyone in touch. But automation is certainly a helpful step towards an agile and ever-more productive company.

‘Even companies that create innovative products rarely innovate when it comes to process,’ says Leslie Perlow.

Bureaucracy or your business: only one will survive

With knowledge workers spending an average of 41 percent of their time on ‘discretionary activities that offer little personal satisfaction,’ bureaucratic processes are stealing time, money and motivation from your business.

Bureaucracy masquerades as a painful but essential part of business because for so long it has been the only accepted way of handling processes like HR, purchases, communication and more. But while the processes might be necessary, the bureaucracy isn’t.

You can't make more time, but you can increase its value

Time is money. It’s an old saying, but a true one. Of course, any savvy business person should reply, ‘how much money?’

Time spent filling in forms or answering pointless emails is worth a lot less than time spent closing a sale or working on a client project. Many businesses, however, fail to make the distinction and are throwing money away in the process.

A few organisations do buck the trend and ‘bring as much discipline to their time budgets as to their capital budgets,’ say Michael Mankins, Chris Brahm and Gregory Caimi.

Such companies have identified the low-value, high-time tasks and set a very specific limit on them, putting approval procedures in place for any overspend as you would a normal budget. Doing so has not only improved the productivity of individuals but has also initiated an organisation-wide shift towards greater efficiency and value.

Make time for what matters

‘In today’s knowledge economy, competitive advantage is increasingly coming from the particular, hard-to-duplicate know-how of a company’s most skilled people…the goal is to redesign the role so that people are spending all their time at the high end of their skill set.’

This particularly succinct insight comes from a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article on redesigning knowledge work, but the argument is applicable well beyond just knowledge workers. Virtually every position in a company should be earning its keep, adding to revenue or growth.

Take HR, for example. The department has no direct contact with clients and no role in product development. It is, however, responsible for the growth of the company and its skill set. Company culture, training, development and talent retention are vital to the success of the company, and that’s how HR earns its keep. That said, with so much bureaucracy, HR professionals rarely get to spend their best time on those tasks.

Going back to the HBR quote, then, it can be argued that almost every person’s role should be redesigned so that they are ‘spending their time at the high end of their skill set.’

Important vs valuable

Identifying which tasks need to be automated, delegated or eliminated is relatively easy when you sit down, look at your to-dos and ask:

  • What brings me personal value?
  • What brings the company value?
  • Am I the only one that can perform this task?
  • Does this task even really need doing?

See a need, fill a need

If you want a little help, the HBR even offers an assessment tool for figuring out what work matters.

And, at Turbine we do one better – try out our tool for process, orders, expenses and time-off requests. Save yourself some time. Automate, delegate, communicate. Try it for free.

 Download your copy of Bureaucracy Must Die

[This blog was originally 4 blog posts written by Clare Dodd, however they have been compiled, updated and edited in 2018 by Maddy Leslie]

workplace automation , Admin automation , solving business problems