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Grow Your Business Technology

What Is Business Process Automation (And How Can It Help Your Business)?

What Is Business Process Automation (And How Can It Help Your Business)?
Business process automation can help small businesses save time and money. / Credit: Time image via Shutterstock

Here's the problem with technology: It doesn't always work. Each product, service or solution may function perfectly well on its own, but if unsystematically combined, operational chaos is likely to ensue. This is because the more technologies a business implements, the more complicated systems become — and the bigger the headaches they will likely cause in the long run. This is where business process automation (BPA) can help.

BPA is a type of software or systemized method that takes difficult, redundant or otherwise complex tasks and simplifies them into a streamlined, hands-free process. In plain English, that means BPA uses less technology to get the same job done, making your operations a lot less complicated and a lot more efficient. The goal of BPA is to save businesses time and money by completing tedious tasks automatically, which then increases productivity by allowing your employees to focus on their core areas of talent.

BPA can be used in virtually any aspect of a business. From document management and workflow automation to email alerts and other repetitive tasks, BPA can help reduce costs and avoid wasted manpower in a wide range of operational areas. Three chief examples are client management, marketing and customer support. [5 Business Tasks You Can Automate with your Smartphone]

Client management

Managing clients and accounts can be overwhelming for small businesses. Using BPA software can make your life much easier.

"As a growing online marketing agency with two offices, and clients across the country, there are a lot of moving pieces to each account," said Katelyn McKinley, director of client services at marketing firm Blue Corona Inc.

Anywhere from three to 10 people may be handling each of Blue Corona's clients, so the agency uses the BPA software Central Desktop as a central hub for staff and clients, McKinley said.

"We use Central Desktop to make sure we never drop the ball and each account member is up-to-date on what's going on with the account, knows what needs to be done at all times and can access any files they need with the click of a button," she said.

To illustrate, here are some ways in which McKinley said Central Desktop has helped automate and streamline the agency's processes:

  • Collaboration. When new clients sign on, a project is created from a template that has all of the company's standard kickoff milestones and tasks. These include pinging the sales rep to upload the signed contract for the entire team to view, the billing department to create the first invoice, and the account manager to schedule a kickoff call and fill out a series of client intake documents that are then shared with the rest of the account team.
  • Automatic updates. When changes are made to an existing client's contract (e.g., a change to their budget, a new service add-on), there is a notepad the account manager updates; that update is automatically emailed to all relevant parties (mainly billing) to alert them of the change.
  • Document management. When clients upload documents they want to share with the company (e.g., photos, documents), their account team is notified by email and can log in to download them, attach them to upcoming tasks and more.
  • Company intranet. When employees log in, the default page is the company Intranet. There, employees can get status updates from other employees, read company sales updates and forecasts, view the company calendar and upcoming events, etc. From the Intranet, they can also request PTO/vacation (which is, then, automatically sent to HR for approval), go to the company policies/handbook online and more.

The system the company used previously, on the other hand, involved a laundry list of different services to perform individual tasks. In the company's infancy, McKinley and her staff used services like Box.com to share files, Basecamp for project management and email only for collaboration. Instead, they found that different people and different departments relied heavily on one system and rarely utilized others, Mckinley said.

"I could go on and on about the ways [automation has helped] our business, but having one software to handle file sharing, project management, and internal and external collaboration has exponentially increased our efficiency and the quality of our work," McKinley said.

Marketing and customer support

As an alternative to using a single business automation software, businesses can also create an app ecosystem to streamline their operations. The key is to integrate different Web apps in a cohesive way that gets them working together instead of functioning as separate systems, said Gabriel Mays, founder of the website-building platform Just Add Content.

"We use business automation to streamline our marketing and customer service efforts," Mays said. "For marketing, new blog articles are automatically posted to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+. This removes the pain of having to manually post to each of these networks, so we can focus on other things."

Business automation also has helped Mays execute email marketing campaigns. "Site visitors who join our newsletter are automatically added to our email marketing list and sent a free course on making their website better over the course of a week, [with] one lesson each day," he said.

The same technology can be used to improve customer support. For instance, when a help request is sent, a ticket is created in the company's help-desk software to ensure the request is tracked correctly, Mays explained. Furthermore, any files that are submitted with the help request are automatically uploaded to a Dropbox account for easy access and storage, he added.

Business automation can also integrate with customer relationship management (CRM) software. "Customers who contact us through sales channels are automatically added to our CRM so we can follow up," Mays said. "Additionally, any voicemail left on our phone system after-hours are transcribed and sent to us through the help ticket system for easy follow-up the next morning."

Still not convinced that business automation is right for you? Here are more examples of how businesses use BPA to maximize their resources:

Fewer admin tasks

"We run a travel concierge business for Disney Destinations. We use automation software for everything — client management, auto emails, payment reminders, thank-you letters, preplanning questionnaires, reminders on travel insurance and even auto monthly payments for certain things. We use Infusionsoft and have tailored it the travel industry. It has freed up hours of time for us to be able to really personalize our clients' vacations and speak with people on the phone so we are not doing so much admin. It has also trimmed down the bottom line with all it can automate that staff does not have to do or track down." — Amy Sinclair, owner, Ears of Experience

Optimized website management

"I use AffiloTools for the day-to-day management and monitoring of our websites and spotting problems and fixing them before they get out of control. KissMetrics helps me find out how our core customers are using our websites. Customer.io helps our customers at key moments when using our websites. Optimizely is important for optimizing our landing pages to improve conversion rates. Finally, Geckoboard offers a high-level overview of our company performance and is used within our office." — Simon Slade, CEO and co-founder, Affilorama

Better project management

"The business process automation software that we use is Redmine. Redmine allows my employees to keep track of projects and tasks and keep up-to-date with any new developments. The software automatically sends an email when someone receives a new task or completes an old one. Redmine tracks the history of every project and task, so you can go back at any point to reference something or see how it evolved. There is also an option to ask questions through Redmine, which has helped us to communicate more efficiently. Prior to our implementation of Redmine, some of our tasks got lost or forgotten. We haven't had to worry about that since we started using it. It's made us more accountable and really improved our time management." — Vladimir Gendelman, CEO, Company Folders

Effective people tracking

"At MIT Sloan, our goal is to build a community of innovators for sustainability out of our students and alumni, faculty and researchers, and partners in business, government, and NGOs.  That extended community makes for a wide range of contacts and we have started using SalesForce to keep track of everybody.  Cirrus Insight lets me create contacts in our database, log emails, and see basic info about people when I hear from them, without ever leaving gmail.  It's a huge help." — Jason Jay, Director of Sustainability Initiative, MIT Sloan

Less-complicated legal work

We use custom software to automate the legal work of getting customers out of cell phone contracts. From the customer's perspective, the three legal steps involved are (1) detecting a breach, (2) stating a valid objection, and (3) switching to a new provider pursuant to the current provider's customer agreement. Our automation software allows customers to complete these three steps in about 5 total minutes on CellBreaker.com over a 7-day period. Super easy; super fast; and guaranteed to be effective. — Jon Colgan, founder and CEO, CellBreaker.com

Improved forecasting

Utilizing Excel as a planning tool works great, but [there] is not a reasonable method that I'm aware of to keep spreadsheets updated and accurate in a timely fashion. In the end, it's the execution and payment for a trade program that suffers. AFS TradePro TPM's forecasting capabilities allows the Popcorn, Indiana's operations team to plan production better. Our purchasing team can review long-term forecasts to secure raw materials, and logistics can schedule transportation needs to support extra volume during a promotion. After 60 days of being live on the TPM system, Popcorn, Indiana reduced its trade promotion deductions by over 50 percent. TPM also helped Popcorn, Indiana reduce its forecasting error Key Performance Indicators (KPI) by half; eliminate the need to review and sort multiple Excel workbooks formerly submitted in varying formats by each sales rep; and arm the sales team with fact-based information to initiate fruitful discussions with customers." — John Kittle, vice president of business planning and insight, Popcorn, Indiana

More efficient communication

"AffinityLive is how we automate our agency's process. We're seeing increased productivity and overall company efficiency. AffinityLive unifies our process and streamlines communication across all departments and offices. From the invoicing standpoint, it used to take 10 days to get out our maintenance invoices; now it only takes two. Automation helps us amplify the health care, science and technology brands that make the world a better place. — Rebecca Angelos, vice president of operations, HDMZ

Originally published on Business News Daily.

Sara Angeles

Sara is a Los Angeles-based tech writer for Business.com, Business News Daily and Tom's IT Pro. A graduate of the University of California, Irvine, she has worked as a freelance writer and copywriter for tech publications, lifestyle brands and nonprofit organizations in the Southern California area and throughout the U.S. Sara joined the Purch team in 2013.