Automation for small businesses: 10 tasks you should and should not automate

Over a decade ago, Gallop discovered the average small business owner works 52 hours a week. 39% put in over 60 hours. And 86% work on the weekends.

Fast forward to today, and those numbers have only intensified.

Much of that is a labour of love. And yet, you started your business to gain more flexibility and freedom—not to be trapped by a demanding schedule and endless tasks.

How can you save time to focus on what matters? The answer is automationOnce viewed as futuristic, automation is quickly gaining ground. 70% of IT experts think a switch to automation is mandatory to evolve businesses. Moreover, one-third of small business owners expected to implement some form of automation this year.

The benefits of automation for small business are clear. 78% of business leaders expect it to free up three full hours each workday.

Still, automation can be intimidating. Where do you start? How can you figure out what to automate? And, what will always require a human touch?

Small business tasks to automate

The average business owner’s day is filled with big decisions and personal conversations, but there are plenty of smaller, more menial tasks in the mix too. That means there’s no shortage of responsibilities that business owners can completely automate.

1. Tracking your inflows and outflows of cash 

Tracking cash flow might be one of the essential elements of running a successful business. Automating this task not only saves time but also ensures that there will be no human error. 

QuickBooks Online lets you connect your business bank account and business credit cards to your dashboard. Any outgoing or incoming transactions will be sent directly to your accounting software and turned into cash flow statements. This feature allows you to have up-to-date information on the financial health of your small business.

2. Recurring invoices

Bookkeeping is a drain. 40% of entrepreneurs claim it’s the worst part of owning a business.

It’s also unavoidable. All told, 40% of small business owners spend more than 80 hours each year on accounting. While that statistic isn’t broken down into specific functions, you can guess that much of that time is spent sending and following up on invoices.

Getting paid can be a tedious and frustrating process.

Fortunately, a variety of solutions exist to offload invoicing—especially recurring invoices sent monthly and automatic reminders to clients who may have forgotten to pay.

3. Payroll

Another tedious part of accounting is payroll.

If your employees still receive paper paycheques, that’s tough to automate.

On the other hand, if you’re using direct deposit, there are plenty of tools that can help you take payroll off your plate entirely.

Once you’ve set it up, scheduling, sending, and tracking payroll can quickly become a set it and forget a task, you only need to revisit when changes occur.

4. Task management

You’ve heard the whole “working on your business, rather than in it” cliché. It’s cliché for a reason.

The average entrepreneur spends 68.1% of their time working “in” their business.

Automating task management can remove a lot of work from your plate. Especially tasks between apps and tools.

Solutions like Zapier can coordinate actions between different apps and save you from repetitive tasks like adding items to your digital to-do list, setting up folders, or queuing up reminders.

There’s plenty of task-management inspiration in this post.

5. Reporting on metrics

Numbers matter to your business. You want to know how many visitors you’ve had to your website or your monthly sales numbers. 

Constantly compiling and sharing that information involves a substantial investment in time and attention. But it doesn’t have to.

For online metrics, Google Analytics makes it easy to set up custom reports and then send them to yourself, to employees, or clients. Likewise, QuickBooks—as well as numerous other platforms—include the option to set up reports that will automatically get emailed to you on a recurring schedule.

Small business not to automate

You’re ready to sing the praises of automation and remove a ton of menial tasks from your to-do list—but not so fast. Automation can be great, but not for everything.

Below are five tasks you should never consider automating in your business.

6. Touchy customer problems

One of your customers has a time-sensitive issue or critical complaint. This is a time when you need personal contact.

For more complicated interactions, 40% of customers prefer skipping email altogether and talking to a real person over the phone. Even further, about one in three people say the most crucial aspect of customer service is speaking with a knowledgeable and friendly agent.

Personal conversations require time. But they’re well worth it for the solidified relationship and elevated reputation.

96% of consumers say customer service is a crucial factor in their choice of loyalty to a brand.

7. Client onboarding

If your business is continuously onboarding new clients and customers, rest assured that pieces of this process—such as reminders or educational emails—can be automated.

However, onboarding is a delicate time, and automation shouldn’t encompass the entirety of these early interactions.

Remember, you only get one chance to make a first impression. So make sure to give new customers and clients some personal attention before you introduce any automation.

8. Employee recognition

Your employees mean a lot to you, so you want to consistently recognize them—especially when 69% of employees claim they would work harder if they felt their hard work was better appreciated.

You’re considering automating this recognition so that it doesn’t fall off your radar.

Be careful: automated recognition doesn’t weight. It needs to be genuine and come from you.

According to data from Gallup, 28% of employees say that the most memorable recognition comes from the employee’s manager, followed closely by a high-level leader or CEO (24%).

Effective recognition is “honest, authentic, and individualized to how each employee wants to be recognized.” Those boxes are almost impossible to check with an automated process.

9. Creative work

While automation boosts productivity, concerns swirl over whether or not it will completely replace humans in some positions.

Here’s the good news: automation hasn’t yet found a way to replicate the human brain, which means more creative tasks—from brainstorming your next product to designing graphics—can’t be totally automated.

Indeed, one report concluded creative jobs are most resistant to automation. So those tasks that require your critical thinking and innovation skills are better left to you—rather than the robots.

10. Building relationships

Automation can help immensely to create and maintain healthy relationships. Reminders about important dates, notifications about emails to follow up on, and even sending gifts as well as “handwritten” thank you notes.

What it can’t do is replicate emotional intelligence.

Just like customer problems and complaints, crucial moments, and difficult conversations demand personal attention.

Likewise, similar to employee recognition, celebrating big wins and significant accomplishments require face time—or, at least, the closest digital equivalent.

In other words, for all their power, bots shouldn’t be relied on during the highs and lows of the business relationships that matter most.

To automate or not to automate small business?

Time often feels like a business owner’s most limited resource. Automation can be a powerful weapon for your small business—provided you identify the best times to use it.

What’s the simplest way to identify functions that can easily be automated? Keep an eye out for:

  • Tasks that you’re doing on a repetitive or frequent basis
  • Tasks that don’t require a human touch or personal connection
  • Tasks that are mindless and don’t need a lot of mental energy

Regardless of what you automate in your business, be aware that no task should be completely out of sight and out of mind. Set a reminder to check in occasionally and ensure things are working well. You’d hate for something to run off the rails while you’re blissfully unaware.

Beyond that, approach automation with the right strategy, and you’ll be able to carve out more time for what matters: helping your business continue to thrive.

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