Someone recently asked me “What processes should businesses automate first?” I thought about it for a minute and understood this is a REALLY really good question! Given that I founded a registration software company which automates the process, it made sense to jump into this question and really take an in-depth look at business process automation.
I will start with the conclusion of the research we did (spoiler alert!): In the very beginning, try not to automate! Surprising I know, but this little suggestion will save you a lot of time and effort if you are a new business. It will also help you understand when it is the right time to automate processes and if you are at the point where you have to automate.
A lot of businesses use Regpack to automate their registration processes. More that 4,000 such organizations use Regpack every year! This is no surprise considering Regpack essentially is an onboarding automation service. Like any software, we have clients that use the software really successfully and some that it simply does not work for. In a way, the question I was asked (“what process to automate first”?) is directly connected to which clients use Regpack successfully and which don’t since Regpack automates processes.
This meant that if we run numbers and understand when it does work well and when it does not we will be able to understand when it is the right time to automate processes for a business. In order to understand what type of clients don’t mesh well with our software, we put together a list of all the clients that tried to use the service and eventually opted out (By offering no contracts, we make it easy to try out our system to see if it works without making a huge commitment!).
Then we hit the phones and talked to each and every one of them to see why Regpack was not what they where looking for. After the conversation we filled out a little form with questions regarding what we found (in a Regpack of course 🙂 and ran statistics on the findings. Then we compared the hand written notes to the results we gathered, to make sure there was no bias. Finally, we reached our conclusions!
In this post I want to share with you what we found and hope it will help you understand when it is the right time for you to automate your business processes.
Business Process Automation Study Results
As explained, we took a lot of data and tried to bring it down to earth. Here I outline when NOT to automate any process in your business. Below I go into the pros and cons of automating certain business processes, and give guidelines on how to determine what is right for you.
Do not automate until you know your client base.
The most important result that came up was that new companies that are not really sure who their client base is, should not automate their business processes.
Since they do not know yet what parts of their business are worth automating and what are the parts they need to hold on to and change constantly, automating right at the start could be a monumental waste of time! Automation is essentially putting a lot of effort into setting a process in stone. You can automate when you know that the process works. And when you know you won’t need to change it considerably in the near future. Small changes are OK, but big ones will demand you rethink the automation and therefore the previous automation effort will go to waste. Until you know your target clients and your client base, you do not know what your business processes look like.
The clients and the way they work set the tone regarding effective processes. The concept of “effective processes” is very important. You want to automate and set in stone what you know is effective and works. Therefore hold off until you know those answers before automating. The idea of automation is to get it off your plate and “forget” about it. You cannot do that before you know the process is optimized. And you cannot know it’s optimized until you do it manually for a while and figure out what works best.
Do not automate if you have been in business for less than 6 months.
The second most important result is that new companies should NOT automate their processes.
Unless your business is really unique and you have tens or hundreds of clients in your first few months, at the beginning you will be struggling to get clients. People don’t know you or if you are good at what you claim you can do. You have not established an internet presence. You are still not sure what you are offering and how it is different than what is already offered in your marketplace. Basically, there are too many variables when you are starting a new business, service or offering to set anything in stone. Bottom line: there is a lot you don’t know, so automating an unfamiliar process doesn’t make sense right out of the gate.
Their are two main approaches to building a business. First, the “I know everything” approach and the more humble approach of testing the water. In the first approach you decide what service you are going to offer, build it completely, automate everything and go out to the market. If the market does not like it you push it down their throat through advertising and try to educate the market that they “have to have this!”. Unless you have a few million dollars to burn on this, you are going to fail. Some will succeed and will be a great hit, but it’s 1% to 2% of businesses that do that. The other 98% of businesses taking this route will burn a lot of money and have very little to show for it.
The second approach is to take it one step at a time. This is an agile view of the service offered and is in line with “The lean startup movement”. The ideas of the movement are targeted at startups but they apply to any new business. The idea is to go to the market quickly with your offering and adjust it as you go in order to get feedback. Basically an endless feedback and response cycle. It is close to impossible to automate any process when you are at the beginning of this cycle and are changing things around constantly.
In addition to hindering your ability to adapt when you automate, you are also spending money on the wrong things. When your business is new and young you need to spend money on client acquisition and serving them. It is a known fact that at the early stages of a business it costs you a lot more to bring in and maintain a client than what they are paying you. Unless you have some very special secret, you aren’t any different.
Spending money on automating processes you might cancel out or completely change a week or a month down the road is not smart. More important, you should be keeping your mind open to changes you need to make. Business process automation is done in order to “get it off your plate and ‘forget’ about it”. At this stage you do not want to forget about it! On the contrary, you want to be constantly examining your processes it for needed changes.
Do not automate a process until it proves itself.
This is my personal favorite! Continuing the idea of “automating in order to forget about it”, you do not want to automate any process until you have brought it to a point you know is efficient.
Notice I did not say “perfect” but “efficient”. This is the middle ground between two extremes that came up in the study.
On the one hand, there are companies that sit down, decide what is the “right” process and then just automate that “right” process without even testing it on their client base. This happens in businesses that have been in business many years and those in business just a few months. At this end of the spectrum, you can find companies that just sat down and sprung up a process they think is correct. Companies will say “we have been doing it like this forever and we are going to continue doing it like this”. The downfalls of this approach are obvious since they lack the ability to act on the feedback cycle.
At the other end are the companies that fall in love with the feedback cycle and want to perfect the process. Put bluntly: there will never be a perfect process that will work for every single one of your clients. Why? Since people and clients are different from one another, there will always be a situation you did not think about, a problem you did account for or an unrelated factor you did not ready yourself for. I guess that is true for everything in life, but in business even more so. If you try to account for every single situation, you will be planning forever. If you eventually reach the point the process will be so annoying and long your clients will simply not use it. Either way you lost.
The golden rule you should follow is the too much talked about 80-20 rule (but it really is true…). Find the process that is right for 80% of your clients. That is an efficient process. The other 20% will always need you to step in and and help or do something manual. It is not worth changing the process, or holding off on it for that matter, for the 20%. Keep an open mind and test to see if a specific situation comes up again and again. If it does, it might not be the 20% but part of the 80% which is an indication you should alter the process.
The exception to the rule OR What to automate right away.
Like every rule there are exceptions. The one exception that really stood out in the study was what process to automate right away. It might be surprising that you should automate your billing and autobilling as fast as you can. Especially if you are a recurring service based business, autobilling is essential right out of the gate.
Why you need to automate billing and payment processing.
Billing and payments are the oxygen of any business. They are connected to your bottom line, your ability to pay bills and your ability to build a sustainable business. Most companies today have a recurring billing method where the clients pay monthly. Most clients expect to be billed on a cycle that is connected to the date they joined or based on products they are purchasing. This makes billing complex since clients are in different tiers, different billing dates, and so forth.
All this can become a lot of work, and quickly! You would need to check daily who you need to charge, how much, and then actually charge them. Then there is the whole “card expired” or “declined” issues you need to deal with. This means that if you tried to process a payment for a client and it failed, you need to communicate this to them. And that isn’t even touching on invoicing, emailing, and general communication. Even in the early stages of your business, this can become a full time position. This type of time investment isn’t something a business, especially new ones, can afford. Clients have zero tolerance to billing and payment mistakes and humans make mistakes, that is just how it is. Ergo, you need to automate billing and payment processing as a general rule in order to be successful.
What happens if you don’t automate billing and payment processing?
If you do not automate billing and payment processing, you will:
- Miss clients that have a balance due.
- Oversee an unpaid bill (or bills!).
- Continue to expend time and energy serving this unpaid client.
This is NOT good for your reputation, your bottom line or your cash flow.
Business process automation sounds great in theory. Automate things that can be automated, so you can focus on the more important work.
When you don’t know the optimal way a process should be, automating it can create more work than it saves. To ensure you automate the right processes, at the right time, start off doing things the good old fashioned way. Decide how and what your process looks like. Once you have a process that is set in stone as it can be, you can begin to automate.
I do not recommend automating business processes early. However, I do recommend that all businesses automate billing and payment processing immediately. Happy clients and cash flow are oxygen for businesses: without it, it’s hard to survive. Automating your billing and payment processes will ensure that the oxygen is flowing. Once this is automated, you can focus on building a great product and finding the clients that want it! This sets in motion referrals, increased exposure, and all the great things that will allow your business to grow organically!
If you want to learn more about automating your billing and payment processing, check out these articles below. Regpack is a great solution for autobilling! You can see how we do this for any kind of business, via free demo, which you can request here.