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In the United States, there are approximately 28 million small businesses. And, given that approximately 10–12% of firms with employees close on any given year, the reality is that the economy can be a difficult place for small businesses. This is especially true in regards to the various tasks and responsibilities that are a natural part of operating any business, because while larger businesses often have the resources and manpower to be able to handle these tasks effectively, small businesses often do not. Instead, small businesses are forced to spread their administrative duties among fewer employees, which ends up leaving less time for those employees to focus on their core functions. And, given that only about 2.5% of people are able to multitask without performing worse at any of their tasks, these employees could have a significant negative impact on overall business success.

This is a problem that until recently had no clear solution. Hiring enough employees to help lighten the burden of administration was simply not economical, and expecting existing employees to be able to adequately perform administrative tasks in addition to their own core job functions leads to employee dissatisfaction, performance issues, and burnout. However, with the introduction of improved business technology, that all changed.

Automation as the answer

An impressive 79% of top-performing companies have been using marketing automation for more than two years. Now, small businesses have the means to automate processes that would have once monopolized the time and talents of team members.

Still, despite the ever-increasing scope of smart technology, some tasks are better left in the hands of human professionals. The question then is this: Which business operations should a small business automate?

  1. Messaging

Communication from coworkers, partners, and potential clients is essential to your organization’s viability. Many small businesses feel hiring a secretary or a receptionist—or giving out personal employee phone numbers and always being willing to answer incoming calls—is absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, this creates other problems for a business. Hiring a secretary diverts funds from other, more important projects, and incoming calls in general have a tendency to interrupt workflow (28% of an office employee’s time is spent dealing with interruptions, costing businesses about $900 billion every year). But while certain situations may necessitate hiring a dedicated operator, more often than not the task of answering calls and taking messages can easily be performed by an automated secretary system.

Automated secretaries route incoming calls, intercept unwanted or unknown numbers, and prevent unnecessary interruptions. When approved callers (such as partners and clients) contact an organization, the automated secretary recognizes these numbers and allows the call to go through normally.However, when unknown callers attempt to contact the organization, the automated secretary will answer the call and request certain basic information about the caller and the nature of the call. The secretary will then relay this information to the intended recipient, who can then choose whether or not to accept the call. Alternatively, unknown callers can be re-routed to voicemail. This reduces the number of distractions for employees, which is very beneficial, considering that studies show that it takes approximately 20 minutes for most individuals to regain their former levels of concentration following an interruption.   

Additionally, by automating your phone system, you can provide callers with a menu of options from which to choose, thus eliminating the awkward and time-consuming problem of having to answer common client questions directly.

  1. Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

Directing calls and taking messages is only a small fraction of business communication; most business interaction between you and your clients, co-workers, and other organizations depends upon proper communication. CRM tools help facilitate this communication through a dedicated, cloud-based system, which houses data such as contacts, purchase history, preferences, and other useful information. These systems also use analytics to help businesses streamline their sales processes by showing users where resources should be focused in order to maximize sales. CRM is an established technology that’s already made a large impact on business in the few short years it’s been available. In fact, 97% of business-to-business (B2B) companies use CRM software.

There are several different types of customer relationship management solutions. Larger corporations might employ a system that automatically routes incoming calls to a particular account manager or agent, bypassing the need for a person to intermediate. Meanwhile, a smaller company’s CRM solution could be as simple as a contact manager, organizing emails, documents, scheduling, and other functions within a single interface. Additionally, solutions can come as purchased products or as subscription services accessed over the Internet.

  1. Marketing

The only way for companies to bring in any revenue is by finding a way to get potential customers interested enough to commit to making purchases. For larger companies, this generally means widespread marketing efforts across various media channels directed by marketing teams. Unfortunately, smaller companies don’t have the capital to contend with larger companies in the marketing arena. However, automation can be useful here as well.

Several automated marketing solutions—such as Infusionsoft, Nurture and Act-On—are available, many of which are targeted specifically at smaller businesses. These solutions can provide services such as email marketing, automated campaigns, and referral programs, as well as lead-scoring to prioritize which leads the company should follow. Those businesses that choose to automate their marketing efforts generally see favorable results. In fact, 63% of companies that are outgrowing their competitors use marketing automation.

  1. File Sharing

It can be difficult to keep track of every piece of a project that involves multiple individuals or teams. You’ll want every version and draft of work organized and accessible to everyone who needs it. For example, a reviewer might mistakenly access an outdated version or file, and then proceed to address problems that have already been corrected, while inadvertently ignoring new issues. Some projects also require several different files to work properly, any of which can be overlooked when sending drafts over for approval. All this can lead to internal miscommunications, costly delays, and wasted time spent coordinating those involved in the process.

Free or low-cost file sharing solutions such as Google Docs and Dropbox make it possible to automate file coordination. Rather than emailing different versions of a file back and forth, the files are stored in the cloud, and everyone involved can access the same version. So that users can avoid confusion and retain accountability, these programs keep a detailed log of every revision (when it was made, as well as by whom). File sharing is a growing technology that more and more businesses will be adopting in the years to come. This year alone, file-sharing consumer internet traffic is projected to reach 6,803 petabytes per month.

  1. Social Media

As of 2014, social media was the top online activity in the United States, with the average American spending 37 minutes on social media sites per day. Given consumers’ sudden infatuation with social media, companies have been forced to quickly adapt in order to take advantage of this relatively new medium. But while most companies these days know enough about social media to set up a Facebook or Twitter account, few really benefit from what social media has to offer. This is especially true for small businesses, who are often unable to bring social media specialists into their organizations, and who instead operate social sites themselves during limited free time. The result is that these businesses post too infrequently and with content that doesn’t capture any profitable attention. Automation may again be the key; services such as Post Planner, Zapier, and Divr.it simplify the content creation process significantly.  For example, rather than stopping other work to post content to social media sites, employees can create a schedule to make posts automatically at the most ideal times. They can also create links between various sites, so that when, for example, a new blog entry posts, alerts are posted automatically to each of several social media accounts, rather than forcing an employee to post to each site manually.

The best of all worlds

Often, solutions will cover several of these areas in a single packaged suite of products and services. Small businesses should review their own unique circumstances, and try multiple tools to decide which would be most advantageous to their situation. Many automation tools and services offer free limited trials, so that small businesses can try out a service before having to commit to it.

Automation makes it possible for businesses of all sizes to contend on equal footing, without having to sacrifice valuable time and effort that should be directed towards more important issues. Additionally, businesses both large and small who neglect automation often do so at their peril, because approximately 71% of time and resources in businesses without automation is spent planning and defining business processes.

In essence, automation makes it possible for you to guide your business, while the business guides itself.

Small businesses are uniquely suited to take advantage of these new advancements. However, no small business should ever automate any of their processes without first considering what the loss of the ‘human element’ might do to impact their relationships with their clients. In most cases, a small business will only benefit from increased automation, but if your organization feels as though automation could distance the company from those on whom it depends, then it might be better to take another path. Remember: automation exists to better serve your business, not the other way around.     

Is your small business curious about cloud software? Check out this e-book for more on how to choose.