There are some things that it’s better to have before you need them: pens, first aid kits, and plungers. Employees do not fall into that category – every hour you have two people doing a one-person job is an hour that costs twice as much. More people can mean less flexibility and can even make opportunities for growth slower because of that. Getting the business to expand without the need for more hands at the wheel is a great way to climb without plateauing… but just how do you actually do that?

Here are some ways you can take the hands out of data handling…

Process Improvement

The first way is simple, easy, and free if you do it yourself – re-evaluate your processes and make sure you aren’t doing anything twice. If you’ve run into anything from trivial but irritating errors to cataclysmic oversights in the past, or if you just took precautions to avoid one, you might find that your processes have a redundant step or two, for example…

  • Are you recording the same information in multiple places?
  • Are you asking the same question to or about your customers several times?
  • Perhaps you’re making backups on a system that automatically backs things up for you?

Either way, it’s good to double check and make sure your process is up to date with the systems you have now, and trim off activity that no longer makes sense to do. Typically businesses can save 10-40% of effort just by doing this.

If you’re not sure where to start on this, there is plenty of material online, or you could consider engaging a professional to help you. The odds are you will rapidly cover their fee with the savings and growth you’ll be able to generate.

System Integration

“But what if we really need to enter that information in both these spreadsheets?” you may ask. System integration is a simple way of setting things up so that your computers and records talk to each other. Doing it automatically reduces the window for human error, saves you time, and makes backing up your information that much easier. It’s a nuisance if you correct an error somewhere only for it to not carry over. However, it could also leave you in breach of GDPR’s requirement for you to maintain complete and accurate records. Worse yet it could lead to a costly customer facing error. With integrated systems, you can smoothly pass data between applications such as email, CRM, ordering, invoicing and accounting systems.

Again, much can be achieved yourself if you have some technical know-how. But if you don’t know your “API” from your “SSO” then this is also an area where expert help will pay for itself fairly quickly.

Outsourcing

Another thing you can do in order to get people onto the big stuff is to outsource. It’s easy to mix up outsourcing with offshoring, but partnering with local firms can do you a world of good when you’re bogged down – you don’t need to send your data to Canada or India to get it sorted (and indeed you should think twice before you do). If you have your hands just a little too occupied with work that isn’t your main focus, take a look around to see if you can find someone else to do it for you – freelancers or a specialist firm – because if you can get more done, that’s time and money saved.

Digital work (that is, anything you can do on a computer) can be outsourced quickly and easily, especially since we live in an age where we can send gigabytes in seconds. Hiring a Virtual Assistant (VA) is a great first step in outsourcing non-core work from your business and can be done incrementally for just a few hours a week.

Make sure any outsourcing is backed up with proper contracts, including areas such as data protection, and that any individual or firm you outsource to has a valid, up to date certificate from the Information Commissioner’s Office since you still have liabilities for how any data is handled by whoever you appoint as your data processor (the exact nature of those will depend upon whether it is personal data or not).

Outsourcing can be an option for many types of activities

Robotic Process Automation

Robotic process automation is an area that has been on the rise for a couple of years now. If you have a number of older IT systems in your business, it could be a quick fix for integration and automation, but it has its’ downsides too.

Bots are a fairly versatile means of automating your business and can be set to almost anything. They aren’t magic, of course – they are more or less limited to simple tasks when we’re talking about the kind of thing that’s most easily affordable, not unlike a dog with less mess. But a lot of the tasks a business will have to tackle on a day-to-day basis really are quite simple. If you can’t directly interface 2 systems, or find you have to repeat a simple manual process then they could provide an answer

Beware though – they have downsides. Firstly, a bot will allow you to operate a process very fast, and 24 hours per day. But it can be fragile if something unexpected happens, like another system is changed or a piece of unexpected data is entered. In these circumstances, you could find that they’re making an expensive mistake, very fast, whilst you’re at home sleeping. Imagine coming in on Monday morning to find that a bot had invoiced every customer, past or present a huge sum of money, and sent them all out by email over the weekend. And with 30-50% of RPA implementations failing, this is not an impossible scenario.

Secondly, humans hate dealing with bots. This is a particular issue with customer facing chatbots. A not insignificant number of customers may even go out of their way to break the bot’s automation. But even those who don’t generally do not like interacting with a bot that claims to be a human. If you must use them there (and they can be beneficial in directing enquiries to the right person to answer them) then make the questions simple and provide discrete, clear choices as answers. And always let the user “break out” of the automation and talk to a human.

Done right, a chatbot can answer a lot of simple information, mostly by directing customers to the right page on your website, and can deal with basic queries very fast, and whilst your office may be closed. But they should be seen as an augmentation to your customer service staff, not a replacement.

Always remember: the process is the most important part, not the tools, and so focusing on getting that process to be as clean as it can be is a critical step in growing your business no matter where you’re hoping to improve.

In the end, capacity creation isn’t really about automation, it’s about being able to prioritise the most important parts of your business and ruthlessly removing the rest – by stopping, outsourcing or automating them.