When you hear the word “automation,” what do you picture? A self-driving car? A factory free of human workers?
In reality, those applications represent an exceptionally small share of small business automation. The production and operation functions are actually the two least automated functions, according to a QuickBooks study released last April.
So what are small business leaders automating? Among the 66 percent of those using automation tools, most (29 percent) used them to automate finance and billing. Marketing (28 percent), sales (27 percent), and customer service (25 percent) were close behind.
Aren’t automation tools expensive? They can be, but business leaders on a budget don’t need to limit themselves to ad hoc tools like IFTTT. Automation software might not be as impressive as a self-driving car, but it’s a far better investment.
Automation at Work
If you’re looking to cut labor costs and increase productivity without a huge initial investment, try the following automation tools:
1. Mixmax: Personalize emails and send follow-ups with ease.
Small business plan: $24 per user per month
Unlike many executives, few small business leaders have an assistant to manage their email. Between billing follow-ups, marketing email blasts, and customer communication, it’s easy to spend hours stuck in your inbox.
To get small business leaders back to what they do best, email automation platform Mixmax offers a suite of time-saving tools. When users reply to an email, for example, they can add an automated follow-up. Although automated emails don’t work well for customer conversations, they’re perfect for billing reminders and employee onboarding.
Mixmax’s small business plan also includes Mixmax Mail Merge, a must for marketing drip email campaigns. Simple personalizations like addressing the recipient by name are a great way to meet revenue goals. But what entrepreneur has time to manually customize 500 emails? Mixmax Mail Merge lets users write just one message and then merge information specific to each recipient.
2. Buffer: Be social, even when you don’t have time for it.
Small business plan: $99 per month
Somehow, slightly more than half of small business leaders find time to post on social media every day. But it’s never just one post: Customer questions can’t go unanswered, nor can bad reviews go unaddressed.
Although social media automation tool Buffer can’t react to questions or reviews, it can take much of the burden off small business leaders. In what’s known as the “5:3:2” rule of social media, the “3” and “2” refer to business-created content and personal content, respectively. Unlike the “5” category — curation — most of business-created and personal content can be created ahead of time. Buffer users can connect their Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn accounts to create queues of content and distribute posts as desired.
Leaders who want to get the most from Buffer can also connect it to Zapier, an online tool that lets users trigger one application with another. They might, for instance, connect their WordPress platform with their social media accounts to publish an automated announcement whenever a new blog post goes live.
3. ZipRecruiter: Identify and invite top talent to apply to your job openings.
From $249 per month
In the second half of last year, small business leaders reported to CNBC record levels of interest in hiring new full-time workers. About a sixth, however, said they had roles open that they’d been unable to fill for at least 90 days. Although part of the problem is that few small businesses can compete with enterprise-level compensation, another factor is that they can’t afford to hire a recruiter.
ZipRecruiter may not be able to make calls and conduct interviews, but the AI-infused hiring tool can compare job descriptions with candidates on more than a hundred online job boards. ZipRecruiter then invites the best matches to apply, resulting in 80 percent of its business users receiving a qualified applicant within one day of posting. Through ZipRecruiter’s Candidate Dashboard, business users can review submitted resumes, cover letters, and pre-screen answers to find the perfect fit.
4. Thankful.ai: Resolve common customer service issues automatically.
From $6,000 per year
It may be the most expensive tool on this list, but there’s a reason small business users are thankful for Thankful. The AI-powered customer service platform claims to address up to 50 percent of customer inquiries without human intervention. If Thankful can handle a ticket on its own, it collects customer records, reviews business rules, and responds in the brand’s own voice.
How, exactly, does Thankful do it? When a customer sends an email, SMS, or chat message, Thankful translates the message into machine code. Using neural networks, it then collects information on relevant people, places, and times. Thankful classifies requests by assessing them across more than 300 factors, routing complex ones to human beings, and responding to the rest. Only when it detects satisfaction in a customer’s response does it close a ticket.
Automation might seem out of reach for small businesses, but some of its least costly applications offer the biggest benefits. Cutting down on customer service needs, tackling the toughest parts of recruiting, streamlining social media, and personalizing emails at scale can all be accomplished with a few clicks. It may not be the type of automation entrepreneurs had in mind, but it’s almost certainly the kind they need.