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anita-campbell

Anita Campbell

CEO of Small Business Trends

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6 Things You Can Automate by Next Week

September 19, 2017

Learn how to automate key business processes to save time and improve productivity.

"Time is money" is a phrase often attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Whoever coined the phrase, this wisdom seems to grow more relevant with each passing decade. The only difference today is that we have the benefit of technology to help us save time and money.

Luckily, there are lots of opportunities for automating, and it's not hard. In fact, the following six tasks are easy-peasy to automate quickly--by next week in fact.

In looking for activities to automate, I looked at three criteria:

  • Speed. You can accomplish the automation in no more than a few hours, start to finish.
  • Do-it-yourself capability. No hiring of specialized consultants needed.
  • Minimal cost. Some projects or tools are free or at most involve a relatively small monthly fee to set up a cloud service.

No matter how you look at it--automating any of these six activities will be well worth it.

Set up recurring invoicing.

If you bill clients the same amount each month, some accounting software, such as Xero, can be set up to email regular recurring invoices. If you have customers on recurring credit card billing, software such as Freshbooks can be set up to do that. PayPal can also be used to charge the customer's card each month.

Or you can get a separate invoicing app to handle the task. Invoicely and Blinksale are two apps that make quick work of setting up recurring invoices. Most such programs also have a reminder function, gently prompting the client if an invoice is overdue.

If you've ever forgotten to invoice a client (it's happened to most of us), you'll see the dollars and cents of automating your recurring invoices.

Update and monitor social media channels.

Automating some of your social media is one of those low-hanging fruit opportunities I recommend for every small business and entrepreneur.

I'm not saying you need to turn your social channels into some dry, lifeless publishing of impersonal posts. Most marketing experts emphasize the importance of engagement and interjecting personality on social channels. However, if you do 100 percent of your social updating by hand, you're spending more time than necessary.

Luckily, there's a happy medium. Once or twice a week, use automation to schedule some posts to go live throughout the week. This enables you to "batch" your work, instead of inefficiently spreading out your time.

Save your manual involvement for "listening" to other social channels by reading or consuming their streams and by checking and responding to your followers' responses once a day. Also, use a tool that enables you to see engagement from several social channels in one dashboard, instead of logging into Facebook, Twitter, and other channels individually.

Social media tools like Buffer and Hootsuite that combine publishing automation and a central dashboard are perfect for helping you save time, yet authentically present your business.

Manage email.

Get an avalanche of emails every day of varying importance and urgency? Use the label, tag, and/or folder functions in your email program to whip your inbox into shape.

Take the time to understand how your email program works so that you get the best benefit out of it. Both Outlook and Gmail provide ways for you to automatically sort emails. For example, those from clients can go into a folder labeled "important" or starred. You can also organize incoming emails according to projects for greater work efficiency. Read the Help available for your email program to understand how to use it.

But don't stop there. Use add-on apps for additional productivity. For example, the Boomerang app for Gmail/G Suite (there's also a version for Outlook) enables you to set up reminders to respond or follow up. Boomerang can also schedule emails to send out later. This is helpful if, say, you like to catch up over the weekend, but don't want to overwhelm your team with five emails from you first thing on Monday morning.

Send similar email responses.

Chances are, many of the emails you send are pretty similar. For example, you might send similar responses to inquiries from customers, the general public, or sales prospects.

Yet I am shocked at how rarely some small business people take advantage of tools to avoid repetitively composing emails. Instead, they will sit there and compose essentially the same email over and over each time.

In instances where you send similar responses, you can save many hours a year by using canned responses in Gmail or email templates in Outlook. When it comes time to respond, just start with the proper template or canned response. Tailor it to fit each situation so that it sounds more personal.

If you want to get even more automated in marketing or customer service situations, there are a variety of specialized tools you can use. Help Desk software provides automatic responses and FAQs to customers. Email autoresponders and marketing automation software can send follow-up marketing messages to fit certain behaviors or circumstances, such as someone who visits a landing page on your website.

Schedule appointments.

If you set up appointments to meet with clients or others important to your business, you can spend a lot of time working out scheduling convenient to all concerned.

Use a scheduling application, such as ScheduleOnce, which will integrate with popular calendars such as Outlook and Google calendars. Then, invite third parties to go online to see what is available on your schedule, where they can choose dates and times convenient for them.

Or enable an appointment booking app on your website or Facebook page. This allows clients and the public to set up appointments without calling you--a self-serve function that consumers increasingly enjoy today. Apps like Microsoft Bookings and Booker.com empower clients to set up an appointment with you, whenever they happen to think of it.

Back up files.

The files you use in your business, such as documents, images, videos, and more, are the lifeblood of any professional.

But if you have to remember to back up files, I guarantee one thing. Eventually, you will forget, put it off, or simply stop doing it. Then you risk a crisis when you can't access those files or worse, when you have to go back to customers and admit you lost something. Yikes.

Luckily there are options all over the place for automating your file backup. The easiest solution is something in the cloud.

Shared files and storage are great for this because they combine backups with file sharing. Try Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox, or some other central cloud storage. That way you never have to worry if a hard drive fails or if you're traveling with a tablet or phone, because all of your documents are accessible somewhere in the cloud, not residing locally on a device. And it's more secure, too, because everything in the cloud can be protected and access controlled. The best part is, it makes sharing among team members much easier.

It's not hard to automate the above activities--really, it's not. Just set it as a goal, and get started. The time you devote now will save you an order of magnitude greater number of hours later on. And you know what else? Automation is more reliable than memory, so you will avoid the inefficiency and hidden costs that come from mistakes and things falling through the cracks.

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