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Too many entrepreneurs and small business owners spend more time working in their business than working on their business and doing the things that drive growth, innovation, and profit. For these busy business people, automation is the answer, putting routine processes on auto pilot and shifting their focus to the big-picture tasks that make or break a new venture.
There’s no shortage of high-tech solutions to business automation on the market today; everything from marketing to payroll to customer support can be automated and streamlined to some degree. But just because you can automate a process doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Every new app and online tool comes with its own set of pros and cons, and some may not pay off in saved time and aggravation.
There are, however, some processes that every small business owner or SME should think about automating, and some promising tools and apps that are well worth your time to consider. We’ve compiled a list of some popular, practical, and proven tools to automate most types of business processes, giving you both market-leading options and solid alternatives to try.
Images courtesy of Spiceworks
While there are free and low-cost SaaS solutions to manage many, if not most, of your business functions, you’ll still need some sort of IT management solution for your internal network and internally hosted software, hardware, and devices. You can put together a patchwork of tools from multiple vendors and spend countless hours monitoring it all, or you can deploy a solution like Spiceworks and automate the most time-consuming and complicated IT management tasks:
?maintaining an up-to-date inventory of everything on your network
?operating an easy-to-use IT help desk
?monitoring your network and troubleshooting issues
?generating custom network reports and mapping all your network elements
?managing and tracking your IT purchases
You also get access to the Spiceworks community of some 1.3 million users who are happy to share their shortcuts and expertise. Choose the free option which comes with ads from companies like Google and Microsoft, or you can purchase the ad-free version for about $30 a month.
Image courtesy of Salesforce
No matter what business you’re in, you’re competing for every lead with big and small companies in your niche. And each lead must be nurtured and ushered along the funnel, whether you are dealing with 50 leads a month or 5,000. Manual lead tracking is virtually impossible and you’ll waste a lot of time trying to keep up; it’s one of the most obvious places automation makes sense.
Salesforce is easily the major player in CRM/sales automation platforms and as the leading product, it commands a higher price tag than other SaaS CRM solutions, although there are very affordable options for SMBs, too.
However, one of its many major advantages is that it integrates with nearly every other marketing automation product you use now or plan to implement in the future, such as Marketo, HubSpot, and Pardot, just to name a few.
Image courtesy of Zoho
Under the umbrella of lead management automation, Zoho is a very robust free option that handle the core functions of a CRM, including:
?lead capture from anywhere on your website
?automatically assign leads to the most qualified sales staff
?prioritize and automate your workflow
?track and forecast sales activity
?execute targeted marketing campaigns, including email drip campaigns
Images courtesy of Pardot
For busy small business owners, email marketing is one of the most effective tactics to improve performance at every stage of the marketing funnel. While it is possible to set up rules-based email campaigns within your lead nurturing program or CRM, in many cases, it makes more sense to add an email marketing automation solution to take advantage of all the potential marketing triggers.
A good email marketing automation tool lets you set up trigger-based workflows so you can leverage logical opportunities and touch points to nurture your leads. For example:
?Welcome emails for new blog subscribers. Use this as an opportunity to thank them for subscribing, give them a preview of the type of content they’ll receive, and show them how to set up their email preferences.
?New customer welcome series. Once a lead converts, be sure to thank them for their purchase. Give them information about customer service and where to find training materials if applicable.
?Lead nurturing for top of the funnel conversions. If a lead has downloaded an e-book or other asset, send an email with some mid-funnel content to see if you can move them into qualified lead status.
?Sales rep notifications. When a lead has completed a particular conversion event (perhaps viewing a pricing page, for example), you can automatically notify your internal sales team so they can follow up.
?Abandoned shopping cart. Done well, this can be a real revenue boost for an e-commerce site, but there is a potential for activating the “creep factor” if it’s overdone. Check this article by Shopify for tips on how to use the cart abandonment email.
?Upsell/CLTV email series. Create different email series based on a particular purchase, whether it’s to sell related products or upgrade the initial purchase. You can also automate emails for products or services that are sold on a cyclical basis, such as vitamins or disposable contact lenses. It’s also useful for reminding a user when a free trial is about to expire and nudging them toward paid plans.
Pardot is a logical choice for businesses using the Salesforce CRM platform, but there are other effective, lower cost options for SMEs as well. If you are looking for free-standing email marketing automation solutions, take a look at these tools:
?Drip. This is a lightweight marketing automation tool that simplifies drip campaigns. There are no long-term contracts and it’s extremely easy to set up and use; the free trial is worth a look.
?Customer.io. This is a free app for up to 400 emails a month and it has all the functionality a small business needs: automation, segmentation, analytics, and scalability.
?Sendloop. Ideal for e-commerce sites and small business, Sendloop has mobile-ready email templates and robust reporting. It’s also inexpensive, with monthly plans starting at $9.
Image courtesy of Hootsuite
Most every business needs at least one social media account to stay competitive and engage with their clients; many find that maintaining a presence on two, three, or even more platforms is necessary to achieve their social media marketing goals.
Managing those accounts, however, is a real time suck for the average small business owner. That’s where tools like Hootsuite come in, letting you schedule your social media posts, respond with a single click to messages and mentions, identify influencers and leads in your niche, and run analytics so you know what’s working and what needs your attention.
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One of the biggest advantages to automating your social media is that you can schedule your posts to publish at the days and times your audience is most active and responsive on each particular platform.
Hootsuite has free and paid plan options to meet the needs of both small businesses and SMEs.
While Hootsuite is one of the most full-featured tools, there are other social media management options designed to work with small business/SMEs:
?Buffer has robust scheduling capabilities and is extremely easy to set up and use.
?Coschedule is a content marketing and social media automation tool.
?SproutSocial is known for its Smart inbox and social media management features.
Image courtesy of Shopify
If you’re setting up an online retail presence, you know how many moving parts you need to juggle: Setting up your store, managing your inventory, processing payments, handling shipping, logistics, and customer support, staying on top of marketing and retargeting campaigns—the list is long. While there are many e-commerce platforms to choose from, Shopify consistently ranks at the top in terms of ease of use, speed, flexibility, and support from the platform’s very active user community.
Some of Shopify’s e-commerce features include:
?secure, direct payment processing, no third-party accounts required
?one-click, flexible shipping rates and options
?abandoned shopping cart emails
?automatically adjust tax rates by state
Depending on your business, customer service and support can take up a lot of staff hours, and without an organized system for managing customer inquiries, the quality of your support can suffer. Fortunately, you can automate a great deal of routine customer service and support tasks, and streamline and simplify the rest.
ZenDesk is a favorite customer service automation tool due to features such as Help Center, where you can build a knowledge base and customer portal to help your customers help themselves, as well as streamlined support dashboards with ticket views, triggers, and automated workflows.
ZenDesk is flexible and scalable, with plans starting at just $5 per month per user; the Pro version, at $49 per agent per month, offers robust analytics, multilingual content, and community forums, as well as other useful features.
Image courtesy of Zoho People
Most human resources management activities are ripe for automation—applicant tracking, time tracking, time off approvals, payroll reporting, benefits enrollment, licensing and certification due dates, notification of policy changes, just to name a few.
Implementing an HR automation tool, especially one with third-party API integration for your payroll vendors and applicant tracking systems, is a huge time saver for small business owners; most, including Zoho People, include a mobile app so you can manage your HR tasks on the go.
Zoho has a free option for up to five users and 10 employee profiles; the next option, at $39 per month, covers up to 100 employees.
Zoho is a full-featured HR management tool, but there are other good small business options:
?BambooHR, a web-based HR system with third-party API integration for payroll, ATS, and eSignature.
?Namely, a web-based talent management and HR automation system for growing businesses.
Image courtesy of Quickbooks
There’s no question that tasks associated with money management can be extremely tedious and time-consuming for most small business owners, whether that business is online retail, consulting and professional services, restaurant ownership, or brick and mortar retail stores.
In addition to tracking revenue and expenses, paying bills, depositing funds, and managing money, small business owners need a way to compile and share that information with legal and accounting professionals to prepare financial documents and tax returns on a regular basis.
It’s fairly simple to streamline and automate a large portion of the accounting tasks that plague business owners, especially if your system connects with your banking institution and credit card accounts, such as:
?recurring invoices and bill payments
?downloading, categorizing, and reconciling bank and credit card transactions
?categorizing and tracking expenses
?processing payroll checks or deposits
?preparing financial reports
?accepting and posting mobile and online payments
?tracking and managing inventory
?importing and reconciling information from PayPal, Shopify, etc.
Quickbooks is a top choice because it integrates with over 150 third-party APIs, it has a full-featured mobile app version, and, perhaps most importantly, it has all the features your accountant needs. There are affordable plans for everyone from the smallest business to enterprise corporations.
If you don’t want or need all the Quickbooks features, here are two apps you might want to check out:
?Wave Accounting, which is completely free, although you will see ad content.
?Freshbooks, which has an extremely well designed and popular mobile version for both iOS and Android.
If you own a business, your time is best spent doing the things only you can do—innovating, strategizing, building the big picture. Why not automate a few of your business processes and free up more of your valuable time? You’ll make more money in the long run.