Most successful entrepreneurial CEOs and technical founders have personal productivity systems in place to get the most out of every hour they invest in their companies. But how much time is still wasted with administrative tasks? Article #9 in a series exploring the big questions that entrepreneurs ask as they’re starting up and growing their businesses.
Is business process automation/outsourcing right for you?
We’ve already talked about personal productivity in a previous article in this series. But what about overall business productivity? It can be a challenge for entrepreneurial CEOs and tech founders to balance business growth activities with ongoing business operations needs. Prioritizing your tasks through personal productivity tools can help, but there are some business tasks that are absolutely necessary, but shouldn’t take up a majority of a business owner’s time.
Yet, small business owners can spend an inordinate amount of time on operational and administrative tasks that could be either automated or outsourced. In this article, we’ll explore exactly what business process automation is, figure out how is it different from outsourcing, and identify which processes are “safe” to automate or outsource.
- Business Process Outsourcing (BPO). This “is the outsourcing of a specific element of work, or even an entire process, to a third-party service provider. You’re handing off the job and looking for the output of the work…. The automation can happen on your side or the third-party provider side.”
- Business-process-as-a-service (BPaaS). This “is the automation and operation of business processes, or the delivery of their results, from a contractor or outsourced partner. The company that provides BPaaS completes a business process vital to your operations and then gives you the results. The core difference between BPO and BPaaS is the service or operation targeted. BPO can occur for any business process and is usually managing those with intense manual labor requirements. BPaaS works with cloud-computing models and generally is used for monitoring and managing automated services.”
- Robotic Process Automation (RPA). “An RPA system relies on a ‘bot’ to perform specific tasks based on a list of triggers or actions required to initiate a job. These can be complicated processes performed by your staff or something as simple as a person submitting an email on your website for a piece of content. Bots ‘watch’ what a user does on their computer and track inputs and output so that it can mimic the actions afterward. It “is one of the fastest-growing segments of business process automation and outsourcing. RPA offers a low barrier to entry and is significantly easy for companies to set up and start, making ROI easier for many when compared to more expansive operations.”
- Intelligent Process Automation (IPA). This “is a set of technologies that combine a variety of outsourcing and automation tools to deliver fast, reliable results for your business. In most cases, IPA brings together RPA with advanced [artificial intelligence (AI)] capabilities such as machine learning to enact business operations and continually perform them better. By being able to learn, IPA can take on complex tasks such as generating documents and keeping them up-to-date based on compliance requirements. It’s also being used for data capture via mobile forms and apps. IPA is often called the 4th wave of automation because it can expand to have robots manage other robots as well as include human-managed robots.”
- Traditional Outsourcing (TO). “Business Process Automation and digital transforming rely heavily on technology to ensure that everything goes smoothly. These revolutionary capabilities can transform any small operation into a dominant player capable of taking on companies many times their size. It achieves this lofty goal by removing non-core activities from your team, allowing them to focus on what your business does best.” Traditional outsourcing, on the other hand, relies on the human touch. It’s slower and generally (though not always) more expensive than the other tech-driven BPA options, but should not be overlooked for functions that require more human intervention.
The low-hanging fruit of BPA
With those categories in mind, here is a list of business productivity tasks that can be solved, at least in part, with tools and automation techniques (with the type of automation in parentheses):
- List building (TO). Don’t automate this, and don’t waste your money on large lists. Hire an experienced freelance list builder, arm them with your search parameters, and let them do the work. Outbound View has an excellent list of list building services and techniques. Consider supplementing email addresses with social media IDs as well. It will cost a lot more for this, but it allows your to hedge your channel bets and grow your presence across multiple channels.
- Cold emails and warm calls (TO). Once you have a solid list in place, then it’s time for your outbound activities to start. Like list building, this really isn’t a place for automation. Your best bet for unsolicited cold emails is one-off emails or well-written LinkedIn InMail or connection requests with follow-up. Don’t outsource your LinkedIn outreach, but you can definitely outsource cold emails. “Warm calls” placed to connections who have opted in to be contacted can be outsourced with a good script and a little trust. Don’t rely on these outbound callers to know anything about your offering, but empower them with full access to see your calendar and book appointments for you.
- Marketing automation and lead nurturing (BPaaS). In my experience, automating lead generation can be hit or miss. Done carelessly, it can come across as disingenuous. But lead nurturing is a great place to inject automation, especially in the form of drip email marketing campaigns. Article #8 in this series outlines a great process you can put in place to get the most out of your drip marketing.
- Marketing channel integration (RPA). Tools like IFTTT and Zapier offer powerful platforms for reducing your team’s workload by integrating communication across various services. It’s especially useful with marketing channels. While I don’t generally recommend fully automating your social media, certain automation routines, such as automatically tweeting when you have a new blog post up, are perfectly sensible.
- Payroll (BPaaS). In my personal experience, payroll can consume an unnaturally large amount of time, especially as you start to scale up and add employees. I recently set up a new payroll system using Surepayroll.com, and it was a relatively pain-free process, other than trying to figure out all the ins and outs around state taxes, unemployment insurance and worker’s comp. It has a fully automated payroll feature for an almost completely hands-off option. The Fool has a great list of payroll options for you to explore.
- Accounts receivable and billing (BPaaS). Cash flow is the biggest growth (not to mention survival) challenge small businesses face. This challenge was compounded when COVID-19 hit. The faster you can collect on outstanding invoices, the better your cash flow will be, and the more efficiently you can run your business. My most recent invoicing platform of choice for my small consulting business was Due.com, but there are literally hundreds of options available to you.
- Reservations and booking (BPaaS). Inbound meeting requests and reservations can often lead to a flurry of unnecessary email exchanges, and occasionally in missed meetings. This is a perfect service to outsource, and my go-to resource is not some of the more “traditional” calendaring apps like Calendly or Doodle, but a free (or relatively inexpensive if you activate the very useful add-ons) professional appointment scheduling system called Simplybook.me. It’s super powerful, reliable, and can grow with your business.
- Service and returns (BPaaS/BPO/RPA). Customer service can benefit tremendously from an outsourced trouble ticket management system. Capterra has a great list of issue ticketing systems you can choose from for a BPaaS implementation. You can also outsource your customer support entirely, though there are pros and cons you need to consider. Finally, UPS has a great white paper on handling returns, a.k.a. reverse logistics, which is a growing area for outsourcing.
Is business process automation/outsourcing right for you? It almost certainly is! I hope this list of options will help you get the most out of your own time, as well as the time your team spends on administrative and operational tasks.
What have you automated? Let us know in the comments below.