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What Is A Workflow? And Why Your Small Business Needs One

What Is A Workflow? And Why Your Small Business Needs One

Trying to find the path to growth? Where there’s a will, there’s a way – and there’s also probably a lot of workflows to power your small business forward.

You’ve launched your small business. You have products ready to sell. You’ve hired some great people. The next step involves setting up the workflows that keep the company running smoothly.

The truth is that although all businesses have established workflows of some kind or another, they aren’t always recognized as such – and they’re not always designed with intention.

People sometimes confuse workflows with processes, which may be part of the problem. Businesses rely on a host of processes, of course, from the process of recruiting talent to the process of fulfilling orders.

A workflow is best understood as all the steps or tasks that employees take to complete a process from start to finish.

Here’s an easy visual that makes this easy to understand: imagine a small fire breaks out somewhere in the woods, or near a campsite.

You don’t want to wait for the fire department to arrive and have it grow out of hand. Fortunately, there are a number of cups, bowls or buckets on hand.

You and your companions form a line between a nearby river or pond and the fire. The person closest to the water fills their bucket and passes it to the next person, who sends it onwards until it reaches the person closest to the fire, who dumps the water on the flames.

This “bucket brigade” is a simple workflow. Those within businesses can be much less linear, and are not always well understood by the people charged with carrying them out.

Much like mapping out the customer journey is a good first step in improving the experience you deliver as a company, workflows need to be created with strategic outcomes in mind. These could include lowering costs, driving more efficient growth, or exceeding expectations by creating “customer magic.”

Another big difference with business workflows is that they work best when paired with automation. Technology reduces the potential for errors or delays, while allowing people to make use of their creativity and social skills.

Let’s dig in a little deeper to see what kind of common workflows tend to exist within small businesses, and how to develop them to become better organized and consistent in how you operate.

First: Spot the workflows that are already there

Whenever you hire a new employee, regardless of the job you’re doing, the onboarding process involves showing them how things get done around the company. In other words, you have to explain your workflows.

This can be a highly valuable exercise because it forces you to look at your workflows with fresh eyes. Rather than wait for a new recruit to join your small business, think about how you might talk about the following:

  • Launching a new marketing campaign: The workflows here might cover how you establish your goal or target audience, developing creative assets, getting them approved, running the campaign through the right channels and then measuring the campaign’s effectiveness.
  • Closing a sale: Once a customer has reached out, what happens? Maybe a sales rep meets with them, then arranges a follow up to go over questions or objections. Perhaps they have to develop a quote and run it by the customer. Once the customer signs off, there are probably invoices that are sent and paid. This is the kind of workflow that makes revenue flow.
  • Resolving support issues: How do customers ask for help? This workflow could start in a contact center, social media, or even in person. Maybe each issue is logged in an application. Then it might get routed to an expert on the team. Once the issue is resolved, the ticket is closed.

This is by no means a complete list. Consider the workflows behind processes such as getting someone a new smartphone or computer, booking a business trip, or dealing with a product return.

Second: Ensure your workflows allow you to execute

What distinguishes a good workflow from a bad one? It comes down to building in some essential elements.

This starts with understanding what the workflow is intended to achieve. Sound obvious? Ask multiple employees why a certain process runs the way it does and you might be surprised by the answer. Make sure everyone is aligned on what success looks like, and how the workflow will get you there now.

Next, confirm who should be involved in each workflow. Larger organizations may have sizeable departments, but in small businesses people can wear many different hats. Avoid workflows where it’s unclear who should be collaborating on a step or task, because it might mean it doesn’t get done. Automation helps a lot here as well, especially when everyone is using a unified platform where the data relating to a workflow has been centralized.

Technology can also assist with managing workflows so they happen in the proper sequence. A marketing campaign shouldn’t begin running, for instance, until the creative assets (like ads) have been approved by the right stakeholders.

Third: Analyze workflows for continuous improvement

Using automation can allow many steps in a workflow to happen without human intervention, but that’s just part of the value.

You should also be using technology to see where workflows aren’t operating as efficiently as they could, or where they are creating friction within the customer journey.

Workflows are never one-and-done, but they can become that way because people get comfortable with the status quo. That’s where change management comes in.

As a small business leader, part of your job should be using artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics to step back periodically. The workflow you established when your business first launched might have worked well, but is it optimized for the conditions of your business today?

When you have to create new workflows to support emerging processes, meanwhile, technology can help model what-if scenarios that allow you to anticipate where things could break down. You should also test out workflows before making them a standard part of the process, gathering feedback from customers and your team.

Trying to establish the path forward? Where there’s a will, there’s a way – and there’s also probably a lot of workflows to power your small business forward.

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