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Automation within a business is still a contentious topic and is often perceived negatively as it is associated with replacing people with machines and rendering certain skills obsolete. This unease with automation is heightened within the context of South Africa’s high unemployment rate. This perception of human redundancy, coupled with the perceived high cost of automating one’s business processes, are some of the biggest barriers to South African small and medium enterprises (SMEs) taking the leap.

Perceptions aside, the truth is that automation streamlines one’s business operations and frees up valuable time. A lot of unnecessary time and effort is wasted on repetitive tasks such as admin, generating reports, cash flow tracking and account management – tasks that do not require high-level thinking or decision-making skills, yet, typically require the most hours. Automating these types of functions can help business owners to refocus their workforce on the higher-order tasks that contribute to growing the business faster.

With this in mind, business owners should consider automating the following operational functions:

Invoicing

Invoicing takes up a lot of time each month and SME owners who do this manually are likely losing precious productive hours that could be better used elsewhere. This is also an area of operations where some of the most costly mistakes can occur and doing it manually increases the risk of inaccuracies. There are a number of expert software tools available to SMEs at little or no cost that ensure quick and accurate invoicing that looks professional – Wave is one such example. This is the first labour-intensive task that should be automated in order to remain competitive.

Reporting

Reporting should be another automation priority as it will save countless employee hours. Another major benefit of automating this process is that generating reports can be done in real-time – allowing business owners to pull reports at any time and base their decisions on up-to-the-minute data, rather than having to wait for monthly or quarterly reports. Then there is also the human error factor to consider – an estimated 90% of businesses admit that spreadsheets contain errors – and automation vastly improves accuracy.

Workflow

Teams from across the business including sales, finance and marketing all need to manage their daily workflow in order to meet their deadlines. Normally this involves numerous internal meetings, excessive note taking, checking all of one’s active accounts or correspondences, and ensuring that the most important tasks are prioritised and completed accordingly. Again, automation software can take care of this by automatically flagging overdue accounts, reminding sales teams when they need to follow-up on new leads, or setting tasks for the people who handle day-to-day marketing. In addition, these can be incorporated into a daily / weekly workflow schedule that all team members can easily access and follow. An example of this is the built-in Planner app for Microsoft Teams or Asana.

E-commerce

Particularly in response to COVID-19, many SMEs should already have begun incorporating e-commerce into their business models where possible. This is also one of the easiest functions to automate, whether it is the customer buying experience, monitoring stock levels, or tactics to get customers to return. This kind of automation software can send follow-up emails advertising new deals to previous customers, or send reminders to loyal customers to restock on products they purchase habitually.

Besides saving time, automating as many operational functions as possible has the potential to increase efficiency, make a business more nimble and raise its competitive edge – qualities that every SME can benefit from in 2021.

About the Author: Ben Bierman

Ben Bierman has been our Managing Director since 2015. He joined our company in 1990 and has risen through the ranks occupying various positions ranging from being a management accountant, Head of Information Technology and Chief Financial Officer. Ben is an avid reader, enjoys classical music and being in the outdoors including for hunting trips. He is our go-to-spokesperson for our SME Confidence Index, SME sector policy and trend matters, and business leadership articles.

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