The professional services sector is currently lagging behind the curve in leveraging automation. Only 57% of the professional service C-suite executives surveyed by Square said that they currently use automated tools, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML). That means there are many untapped opportunities in automation.
What is automation?
Automation is the strategy of reducing the need for manual intervention in a process. In some cases, automation may permit a process to be run without any direct intervention at all, though there is usually still a need for human oversight, especially in a professional services environment.
Automation reduces the need for human intervention, essentially carrying out straightforward, repetitive tasks. A human then double-checks the result and, if necessary, takes care of more complicated work.
The move towards automation is increasingly leading to the creation of holistic automated systems, in which different areas of automation work in sync with each other. They require a control mechanism such as a smart hub. Using these holistic systems really compounds the benefits of automation.
What are the types of business automation?
There are three main types of business automation. These are business process automation, task automation, and workflow automation. Each type of automation can be implemented as basic automation or AI-powered automation. These are also known as robotic process automation and intelligent process automation.
The difference between basic automation and AI-powered automation is that basic automation can only follow step-by-step instructions. AI-powered automation, by contrast, assesses situations at a basic level and makes decisions within certain parameters. What’s more, it can often learn as it goes, hence the term ‘machine learning’.
Basic automation most certainly has its uses. AI-powered automation, however, is what’s creating the most excitement in the world of business. It’s accessible to businesses of all sizes and in all sectors. In fact, it’s arguably of the most benefit to SMEs, because it can deliver the sort of functionality that used to require enterprise-level budgets.
What are 5 examples of automation?
Encouragingly, almost two-thirds (61%) of surveyed businesses said they intended to increase their use of automated tools in the next 12 months. Almost half of those indicated that they would use them for financial processes. This is a very common use of automated tools but there are many other options. Here is a quick overview of the main ones.
Managing payments is a key activity in most businesses, particularly important for professional service businesses. In fact, some professional service businesses actually exist to help people and businesses manage their payments.
Businesses generally receive their funds either through a POS system or via invoicing. Using Square Point of Sale or Square Invoice makes it easy to automate the administration involved with taking payments.
What’s more, both Square POS and Square Invoice integrate with popular accounting packages including Xero, Freshbooks and Quickbooks. This means that businesses can have end-to-end automation of basic financial administration, freeing up human staff for value-added tasks.
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This may be the single most common example of business process automation. Marketing is part art and part science, requiring both creativity and organisation. Increasingly businesses are handing over the organisation part to tools such as Square Marketing. Doing so frees up human time to focus on the creative aspects of marketing.
A lot of HR is essentially regular administration in a very specific context. For example, both onboarding and offboarding employees tend to be fairly standardised processes. Likewise, taking care of employees on an ongoing basis often involves numerous routine tasks. So many basic HR functions are prime targets for automation.
For some people, the idea of customer-service automation has very negative connotations. In fact, some say that good customer service cannot be automated. This perception is probably the result of bad practices in the early days of customer-service automation.
At that time, cost-efficiency was the main driving force behind business process automation. Combined with the relatively primitive state of technology, this led to some horrendously poor customer experiences. Fortunately, business automation is now better understood, plus technology has moved on.
In fact, there’s now a strong case for saying that if you want to deliver best-in-class customer service, you need to use business automation. Tools such as [Square Customer Directory] (https://squareup.com/gb/en/point-of-sale/features/customer-directory), a free customer relationship management (CRM) app, means customer service teams can manage customer relationships from one place.
What’s more, they can automate routine administrative tasks. Handing these over to software frees up your staff to focus on the human element of customer service, giving the perfect balance of efficiency and interpersonal contact.
You may never have thought of smart workplaces as part of business automation, but a smooth-functioning workplace is essential to a smooth-functioning business. Removing friction from the workplace itself makes it easier for employees to focus on their actual work.
What is an example of automation in business?
One compelling example of automation in business is the way businesses now use their websites as the customer-facing side of a unified communications strategy. Websites run by professional service businesses now often feature click-to-call buttons and chatbots as standard. Many are optimised for voice search and hence can have their phone numbers dialled by verbal command.
Whatever contact point the customer chooses, they are routed to an AI as their first point of contact. With phone numbers, this is a call-routing app. It aims to send the customer to the right destination immediately. If it can’t, it routes the call to a human who is able to.
Chatbots can be used in various ways. One common approach is to have them triage queries. They aim to serve the customer themselves if they can. If they can’t, they either route the customer to the correct human operator or arrange for the customer to be called back. In either case, they link to the business’s CRM to ensure a seamless handover.
The benefits of automation in business
Business automation can deliver meaningful improvements to both the customer experience and to business processes. It therefore helps to keep businesses on the right side of regulators, often particularly relevant for professional service businesses.
How do I automate a business?
One of the great benefits of business automation is that it is done as an ongoing process. The gains from the early changes help to finance later changes. So here is a quick guide to the basic process.
Assess where you are now
The starting point for any change is to assess where you are now. Ideally, have your business processes, tasks, and workflows already mapped out. If not, make this a priority.
Double-check that people are doing what you think they’re doing. If they’re not, find out why not. Has the process, task, or workflow not been communicated to them correctly?
Alternatively, does it just not work effectively in the real world? If so, work out what changes need to be made to make the process work smoothly before you automate it. If not, you may create problems for yourself.
Define your goals and priorities
There are countless ways professional service businesses can use automation, with some of these delivering much more value than others. So defining your goals and priorities clearly is essential for making the most of your resources.
Identify the easiest changes
In addition to defining your goals and priorities, identify the easiest changes. Changes that line up with your goals and priorities are priority targets; easy changes that don’t are still worth considering. The fact that they don’t contribute much to your aims may be offset by the ease of implementing them.
Choose or create the best solutions for your business
There are plenty of out-of-the-box automation solutions available. You can also use resources like the Square developer platform to create your own. Make sure you understand what functionality your solution needs to have. Do not compromise on this. Features that are just wants rather than needs can be sacrificed if there is a good reason for doing so.
Introducing an automated solution is much like hiring a new employee. It may be great at what it does, but it probably needs time to learn your way of working. As with a new employee, it’s important to get feedback on its performance right from the start. However, give it enough time to prove itself before you really start to assess it rigorously.