Automation is suffocatingly ubiquitous, or it seems that way when you scan business news. In fact, it is still a new technology that is slowly integrating into everyday work. Of course, we are all familiar with the high-profile applications of automation in marketing and sales, but what about the other near-limitless applications?
What about automation in industries like tourism and education? And what about the specific functions like communication, human resources (ironic), and operations? The world is less automated than it appears, though the adoption trendline is certainly steep.
The problem is that many small businesses are not aware that they need to be proactive in adopting automation practices. While there will be out of the box solutions to buy eventually, surviving the automation wave will require proactively seeking out ways to be competitive with the technology.
So how can a small business owner identify the areas of their business where automation can make an impact? How do you know if your company even needs it? How do you know if your competitors are going to use it? Let’s talk about the minutia of automation in plain terms and discuss three ways it can give your business a competitive advantage.
The Small Business Benefits of Automation
Any repeatable task can be automated. Whether that is filling out a form, sending a scheduled email, or booking an appointment, it can probably be done faster by a computer.
One of the first things a small business owner should do when looking for areas to be competitive with automation is to identify repetition. Computers can be taught to emulate and repeat just as well or better than people. One of the biggest differences is the speed with which they can accomplish tasks.
Michael Cohan, founder, and CEO of Unisource National Lender Services puts it this way, “Loan processing has completely changed as a result of machine learning and automation. Lenders use automation technologies to improve efficiency in myriad ways, from auto-filling paperwork to aggregating information. The result is that loans process faster — much faster.”
In the lending industry, speed is a competitive advantage. Speed is a competitive edge in every industry, so small business owners need to look around and identify what could be working faster.
How do you calculate cost savings? When we talk about saving money through automation, the first thing people think of is fewer salaries. But that is not always the only or biggest savings.
Money can be saved (and earned) by accomplishing work faster, making fewer mistakes, and winning more business. In a very grand sense, it is also cheaper than being pushed out of business by more technologically advanced competitors. If you look at your industry and see the automation wave coming, that could be the cost of inaction.
Small business owners need to make a hard assessment of the cost of not using automation. Costly clerical errors can add up to thousands of dollars in losses even for small companies. Slow turn around time on projects means the business has to pay salaries for longer while making lower revenue. These little areas of improvement are where automation shines.
The expression “work smarter, not harder” is objectively overused and frequently misused. In the case of automation, it is reasonably appropriate. Many clerical jobs require people to repeatedly fill out the same forms over and over again. Performing that task is time-consuming and small human errors can result in substantial problems – everything from costly delays to lost clients.
Cohan explains, “The ability to rapidly process paperwork makes every business more competitive, but certainly companies that deal in large volumes of paperwork. A lending company with a well-designed automation function is extremely competitive. They can issue loans faster with a higher degree of certainty that they are done properly.”
Every industry has an application for automation. If your competitors are exploiting it, you need to get on board quickly. If they are not, you may have the opportunity to race ahead of the pack as an early adopter.
Automation Photo via Shutterstock
With personal contact being a key differentiator automation can also be a crutch that can kill a small business. The need to develop a relationship with the customer can be lost with too much or unfocused automation. Automation can be a great tool, just do not become addicted to it.
Automation has helped businesses. It is amazing how some repetitive tasks can now be done through automation.
There are some businesses in my town that are considering having their industrial machines automated because they’re going to have to cut their losses since they can’t afford to hire new people anymore. It’s true that any repeated task can be operated, so this might help them for the long haul. If I were in their shoes, I think I’ll consider hiring people to automate my machines so that this can be done easily.