For many people, robots mean big business. When the word “automation” starts getting thrown around in the media or in conversation, it's usually associated with massive robotic arms slinging heavy workpieces on factory floors or industrial software systems controlling some large-scale operation.
Implicit in that association is a hefty price tag that puts investments in automation out of reach for any organization outside of large ones.
Now though, many things businesses do are a candidate for being automated or outsourced. And small- to midsize businesses (SMBs) can get in on the game. Unfortunately, such organizations are often more resistant to the idea than their larger counterparts.
The reasons for such reluctance can be a lack of information or fear that technology will be too expensive or too complex to be useful. Of course, companies with limited resources need to be picky about where they spend their money, but it’s likely they’re missing a big opportunity by not automating more.
Finance, Marketing And Sales Lead The “Most Automated” List
A recent QuickBooks survey of 550 SMB owners and managers found most had a positive outlook on automation. Some 54 percent of respondents said they view automation technology primarily as an opportunity. Only 5 percent viewed it as a threat.
Of those surveyed, 66 percent were already using automation tech. The most-automated functions included finance and billing (29 percent), marketing (28 percent), sales (27 percent), customer service (25 percent), operations (15 percent) and production (9 percent).
Among their top reasons for using automation were freeing time to get more work done, aiding customer service and boosting innovation.
“Employees are better off interfacing with customers than performing rote tasks like expense tracking, scheduling meetings and transcribing recorded interviews.”
“Twenty-nine percent of respondents already automate billing with their software,” said Karen Barson, VP of Marketing, QuickBooks Desktop Enterprise. “Every month that saves dozens, if not hundreds, of hours of intense coordination—and the accompanying natural human error. It also frees team members from this urgent task so that they can concentrate on tasks important to taking their businesses to the next level.”
As positive a development as that is, there’s always room for improvement.
“Imagine scaling that automation infrastructure up, and how much greater an impact your current team could make,” Barson added.
Many Job Functions Becoming Ripe For Automation
Some automation tools have been around for a long time. The first robot appeared on an assembly line in 1961, for instance. But options for automation really exploded in the last decade or so as the software-as-a-service (SaaS) category came into its own. And, in the past five years or so, machine learning has matured to the point that it has started improving many automated software functions.
In the world of customer service, for instance, smarter chatbots can now handle incoming customer queries with success rates up to 80 percent. (Such rates are calculated by counting the number of customers who end the conversation saying “thank you.”) Since machine learning is designed to get better as it accesses more data, such systems are constantly improving.
Other areas where smarter automation is making a difference for SMBs range from administrative functions (calendaring and scheduling meetings) to sales, in which artificially intelligent virtual sales assistants can recommend actions for human salespeople, like when to contact a prospect and which wording to use to close a sale.
Reasons For Reluctance: Complexity, Cost
Despite the advantages of outsourcing job functions to robots, many SMBs still question if now is the time to start adopting the technologies. A 2017 eMarketer survey, for instance, found that 41 percent of SMB marketers felt that marketing automation was too expensive and too complex to consider adopting. In addition to cost, some 21 percent said they “didn’t know where to start.”
Another issue is the feeling that such automation platforms aren’t up to speed yet. For a small business, for instance, having a human answer the phone might be a differentiator compared to large corporations that subject callers to a complex automated decision tree of phone options.
The counterpoint is that if SMBs use automation intelligently, they will free up human workers to perform such “high-touch” tasks. Employees are better off interfacing with customers than performing rote tasks like expense tracking, scheduling meetings and transcribing recorded interviews or meetings.
Either way, Barson expects automation to transform the culture of work.
“I actually expect the required skillset for business controllers and operators to change,” she said. “More businesses will need people with systems-level mindsets to deconstruct processes into inputs and outputs, transfer them into the software, decide on where they need people inputs, debug the process, and implement it.”
Not that will necessarily mean coding skills, Barson stressed.
“Software is evolving to make automation more accessible to everyone,” she said. “It means learning to make something that seems complex very simple, and adopting the mindset required for automation.”
Best Practices: Start Small
For SMBs already convinced that there are benefits to more automation, experts suggest starting small. Tackle easy workflows first. Once an automation system is in place, measure results and ROI. If the implementation is successful, only then should they move on to the next one.
Over time, SMBs will be able to figure out which elements of their business make the most sense for automation. That will put such companies on the road to being better able to compete with large businesses, satisfy customers and run as lean an operation as possible.
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