I was pleased to feature in an article by my friends over at Sage on the topic of automation and how finance teams can benefit from it. Sage helps businesses of all shapes and sizes, and the blog has great advice from a range of business leaders so you should check it out. I thought I’d share some practical advice on free or low cost automation hacks to save you time. If your time is your money, then this is an important topic for you to consider. I have been in business for over ten years now and I’d like to share some wisdom with you.
What is automation, and how can it help your business?
Automation by itself can help to smooth processes by making the process go faster from end-to-end. However, it is not fairy dust that will solve all the issues. It’s important that the business has got good processes in the first place. It is easy to purchase software that promises automation, for example, but it will simply magnify cracks and faults in bad processes. There are plenty of free and very low cost ways that you can automate your business processes and I am sharing some of my own hacks here.
Automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.Bill Gates
If you automate a bad process, then you will just get bad results. How can you get started to think about automation? Let’s go through some steps
- Create a timesheet for one week, and rigorously review how you spend your time each day. Measure your time spent on what you actually do. Be honest! To track yourself, use paper, Google Keep, Excel…. it doesn’t matter. If it helps, set an alarm every 30 minutes to check on yourself and note down what you are actually doing.
- Consider which activities in the process could be improved or removed.
- Review your timesheet and consider which steps and activities you could pass on to other people or automate.
- Consider which activities help you to reach your longer term goals, and which ones do not help.
When you have done this timesheet, you will have created a list of activities. You can then sort out which activities are not directed towards your longer-term goals, and which ones you can delegate out. It’s important not to think about what you like doing or you don’t like to do because it’s easy to pretend to ourselves that we are working but we are not doing anything valuable with our time. Doing something is not the same as doing something valuable. Here are some activities which I farm out to my virtual assistant:
- Putting decks into templates
- Formatting documents
- Improving sales brochures
- Researching and creating images on Canva (also free! I love messing around in Canva, creating great images and videos but I know I should do more valuable things that will built my business).
- Gathering references properly so that I can ask to reuse a diagram (for example) with proper credit. Life is split into givers and takers and I am a giver. Just because something is ‘free’ on the Internet does not mean it is for people just to take and not give appropriate credit. I can set someone on the task of checking the licence and requesting help.
To get you started, here are some of my favourite automation tools for you to check out.
Automate accounts with software you already use – Check out great accounting software which has lots of easy automation hacks already built in. Take, for example, Freeagent or Sage, which both help small and medium businesses as well as larger enterprises. Sage, for example, automates manual entry and it even gets your bills from your suppliers.
Automate your receipts (Paid but worth it! It pays for itself by saving you from lost receipts) Receipt Bank automates my receipts and expenses. You can email your receipts to Receipt Bank, and it automatically breaks up your receipt, recognizes the bill and assigns the right codes for you. You can even set it to assign receipts to specific projects and it can export the data to other systems. It’s also HMRC compliant so that’s one less thing to worry about.
Automate your Meeting Minute Process with Otter.Ai. (Free and Paid!) If you sign up using my link, you get a referral and free minutes to try out. I have a paid Premium subscription because I use it a lot for all my meetings if all the attendees agree to the recording. It costs $9.99 per month and it is worth it because I get the meeting transcribed and I can download it in a Word document (or text) to distribute after the meeting. Otter.ai is also very accurate. I also use it when I do journalism work and I transcribe my training sessions so I have handouts to give out afterwards.
Website Chatbot using Zoho Sales IQ chatbot – I have a chatbot over at my business site and it means it picks up simple messages and I can respond as well. So it has a ‘brake’ that I referred to in the original Sage blog.
Automate your sales and CRM processes – Zoho Sales IQ through to Zoho CRM through to Zoho Projects (Mix of Paid and Free) I pay £40 per month to automate my sales process as much as possible. Zoho One also has a lot more functionality, such as an automation Zaper-like functionality, but I am still exploring it. It is incredibly flexible and I believe that Zoho is underestimated. I use it to run my training sessions and it keeps everything neatly away from my consulting practice because I do not like to mix the two practices very much.
Automate your Bookings – I use Zoho Bookings – (Free!) I am going to move away from my current paid solution and I will move to this package since it is part of my Zoho One subscription, therefore saving a little each year.
Automate communication – Google Slides presentations transcription (Free!) – this is an excellent way to be accessible because the caption service is excellent. I used to use competing solutions but I found that Google picked up my accent and phrases better, and it also had a self-correcting mechanism for accuracy. I also use Google Voice and it transcribes my voicemails for me.
What are your next steps?
When I automate a process, I do want to set it and forget it and I can only do that if the processes are robust in the first place. I hope that sharing these business tips will help you to get started on the path to automation and successful processes.
When your business grows, you can think about hiring a Virtual Assistant or using a similar service. I use a local business service which I hired through a personal recommendation from one of their other customers. I am not sharing their details here because I do not want them to get trolled online.
If you know of any more hacks, please share them in the comments!