Opinion: Why small businesses should embrace automation, not fear it

Joan McGuire

Automating office functions saves you money while making work easier for employees.

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There is a buzzword floating around businesses today that has the capacity to both warm the hearts of business owners and strike fear in the hearts of employees: automation. To owners, automation is seen as an amazing cost and time saver, while many employees see it as the harbinger of a pink slip.

While there is some truth to the perception that machine and software-based work can replace human effort, there is more compelling evidence of a middle ground where automation can achieve savings for the company while also making work life easier and more productive for workers.

In this space, we hope to show that automation is not to be feared but embraced by owner and worker alike.

When thinking about automation, every business owner should look at their operation and ask three basic questions about overall processes:

1.    Can we stop doing this because it no longer serves our needs?
2.    Can we outsource this because we don’t have the skills, bandwidth or time to do it well?
3.    Can we automate this so that we are freed up to do more mission-critical things?

Doing this activity can help many business owners determine staffing needs. But just as importantly, it can determine the kind of valuable work employees could be doing to help the company – and themselves – succeed.

First, automation often handles the mundane, freeing employees and employers to spend more time on creative and profitable pursuits. There is a good amount of software and apps that can automate important functions of accounting, marketing and customer data accumulation.

But those services don’t replace the human touch of creativity or strategic thinking – they replace the more mundane aspects of building a program of truly knowing your customers, knowing your finances and telling your story. This is a list of automation tools that any business can use to help free up employees’ time and creativity.

With everything humming along in the background, you have much more time to focus on the larger aspects of doing business. The time you and your employees spend on administration and service is put to better use and can generate a much higher return on investment for every hour worked.

Second, automation reduces mistakes which hurt profitability and the ability to hire and retain staff. Human beings are imperfect. We make mistakes. If enough imperfect humans make enough mistakes in a given workspace, profitably suffers. If profitability suffers, the ability to retain employees suffers.

Repeatedly copying information by hand inevitably leads to errors. Automation improves accuracy by taking data directly from an input source, such as a customer filling out a digital quote request form and the program/software delivering it to the right department in your business without alteration.

This not only ensures data integrity but also minimizes the confusion caused by the accidental creation of duplicate records.

Third, believe it or not, automation can improve customer service, which increases sales and the ability to grow and hire more employees. Happy customers are loyal customers and loyalty supports continued growth.

Automation makes it easy to connect with your audience through personalized marketing messages and targeted social media updates. Information from lead generation tools, past orders and even social engagement comes together in one place and is accessible by everyone on your service team.

When a customer contacts you with a question or complaint, the availability of basic information makes it possible to get right to the heart of the matter instead of spending time gathering routine data.

Many businesses now use chat bots on their websites to handle frequent questions so that neither customers nor team members have to spend extra time on the phone resolving simple issues. Customers get the answers they need right away, leaving your service team free to deal with more complex inquiries.

At the end of the day, the dystopian fear of automation replacing human work still largely belongs to the world of science fiction. Today and into the near future, entrepreneurs should look at automation as a tremendous tool that handles certain aspects of work so that human beings are freed up to do the creative and strategic work they were born to do.

Joe Connors is vice president and relationship banking officer for Columbia Bank.