Simple Automation With Zapier

Here’s how you can start some simple automation in your business…

If you’re interested in simple business automation, a tool like Zapier can be an excellent place to start. Zapier allows you to connect together many different types of applications to perform actions in one based on a trigger event in another.

The action sequences can become quite complicated and can include branching logic (If something is true, then continue or otherwise do something different) and can allow you to perform a number of tasks with your cloud-based applications.

Before diving in any deeper, it’s worth noting that Zapier is far from the only product in this space. Anyone who’s on Microsoft 365 (also known as Office 365), already has access to Microsoft Power Automate, which is freely packaged as part of Microsoft 365 and has many of the same features. In this case although much of the general advice below holds true, I recommend that you investigate whether you can meet your requirements with Power Automate first, since that is quite a bit more powerful than the free version of Zapier.

However, I’m going to talk about automation with Zapier here, as it is the most widely known and the most widely used… so if you’re having trouble getting Zapier to work, or understanding how you might use it in your business, then this article is for you!

Examples of other automation tools that can be used in this way include Automate.io, Tide.io, Autto, and IFTTT (short for “If This Then That”) which is really the father of these kinds of applications, having been around for over a decade on smartphones. That said, Zapier is particularly well designed and intuitive to use and has become the most popular with business due to its’ focus on business applications.

What all these automation applications will allow you to do is to connect to any other application you use, which supports them, and automatically undertake tasks. Another reason automation with Zapier is popular is that has the largest number of integrations – at last count, approximately 2000. However, just because other automation products don’t have the integrations prebuilt, don’t be fooled into thinking that with a little bit of you can’t make them work just as well – but you may need to get a bit more technical to achieve it.

 

Why Use Zapier?

Let’s start at the beginning… why might you need Zapier? What could it do for you?

There are many activities that happen in your business. where an event occurs as a result, you wish to take some sort of an action.

Examples could include…

  • someone booked a meeting, and you want to send out a pre-meeting questionnaire

  • Someone makes an inquiry on your website, and you want to log it in your CRM system

  • someone signs up to an event, and you want to log that in your CRM system

  • You receive an invoice, and you want to move it to a specific location such as a Hubdoc or Receiptbank.

And of course, there are many others!

 

Zapier Terminology and Plans

Each workflow in Zapier is called a “Zap”. Depending on what price plan you’re on, you will get a certain number. You can build as many Zaps as you like, but you can only switch on activate the number that your current pricing package allows for (at the time of writing the free package allows you to activate 15) and there’s also the concept of “Tasks”.

Every time a Zap fires, each step is one task. In the free version, you can’t build multi step zaps. So, one run of one zap is one task However, in the higher paid tiers, you can build quite complex multi-step branching logic where one run of a Zap may equate to multiple tasks. The base package and time of writing allows you 750 tasks.

In addition, another consideration for automation with Zapier , and which right price plan you need is which applications you need to use. Most applications are available, but you’ll need a Pro plan subscription to access some of the most useful applications such as Xero, Quickbooks and the Microsoft Office 365 applications so although it’s free to get started you may find that you need to upgrade to a paid plan in order to automate the tasks you wish to.

 

Setup

In order to set up a Zap you need to define one “trigger” which will start the Zap and then one or more “actions” which you will take when the Zap is triggered. Typically, both triggers and actions involved connecting Zapier to another app via it’s API, although there are some special cases (for example a timed trigger that can be set to fire at a certain time each day and requires no connection to work).

Zapier has around 2,000 pre-built integrations, although as I’ll explain later, you can connect to any application with an API, and if this all sounds complicated, don’t worry – it’s actually quite simple to set up.

First select your trigger application and the application for the first action step. The next thing you’ll be asked to do will be to sign into the trigger application if you’ve not already connected it to Zapier (the same will happen for all applications the first time you connect them, whether they are used as triggers, actions, or both). If you’ve already connected it then you’ll be asked to pick which account from a list of one or more that you’ve connected for this application.

Once you’ve selected your application, you’ll be prompted to pick which of its available triggers you want to build this Zap on. Note that different applications expose different events for use as triggers and although app developers are generally adding to these all the time you will run into cases where the event you want simply isn’t published by the application and can’t be used. For these you may have to think a bit laterally and be creative to pick up what you need!

Every single time the chosen event occurs in your trigger application, the application will publish that and Zapier will detect it and start the action steps.

For the action steps, you will have a series of actions that the application allows Zapier to execute. Again, you’ll need to choose which is appropriate. If you need to perform several actions then the paid plan will allow you to build a multi-step Zap (indeed the steps can all be different applications if you wish), but before building one of these I strongly recommend you plan it out to make sure you execute steps in the right order.

For example, if you want to add a customer and add an order to some application, you’ll usually need to add the customer first so that you can link the order to it. If you build the order first, you may find it has no “owning” customer.

For your select action, you will have a series of options. These will vary depending on the application and the action selected and you will need to make sure you set these correctly depending on what you want to do.

For example, if you get a contact to your CRM system, obviously, it’s going to want to know the details of their email address, first name, surname, address, website – whatever information your system deems mandatory for a contact record.

Action fields can be populated with static values (by just typing them into the box) but the real power comes from being able to read fields from earlier steps (including the trigger step) and using them directly to populate the action step, or even combining several of them and passing the result into your target application.

For example, if you have a Zap that fires whenever a customer books a meeting on your Calendly and puts their details into your CRM, you could take the email address from the trigger step and insert that into the email address on your CRM. You may take the first name and surname fields from the booking and combine them into a name field on your CRM (or if your CRM requires, keep them separate) and maybe you want to add something to the Source field like “Calendly appointment”, which you’d just enter as text.

Some (or all) of the fields will be mandatory so make sure you know how you’re going to populate them before you set up the Zap.

Zapier asks you to test each step as you define it, and although it is possible to skip this, I strongly advise that you do test. An error early in a multi-step Zap could lead to all sorts of chaos later!

Sometimes you’ll be able to use the record that Zapier retrieves and displays (usually this is the most recent) as a good test case.

However, if you want to choose another example, or the default choice doesn’t work for the logic you want to build then don’t worry – you can easily do this with an often overlooked feature. At the top of the test box, above the test data itself you’ll see a box that will say something like “{trigger} A” (for example an email might show as “Email A”). This box is, in fact, a dropdown and if you click on it, you’ll be able to see if Zapier grabbed some other examples (helpfully labelled alphabetically so you can see which is which – and usually it grabs 3 records at a time). You may just be able to choose one of those to get the example you need, but if not, at the bottom of that list is a “Load More” choice which will retrieve another slug of responses from the application.

For example, if you’re building a Zap, trigger on receipt of an email that has an invoice attached, and your most recently received email isn’t one that has an invoice attached, you’ll want to use a different one to test this step. In the drop down, you can change which one it uses for the testing or the rest of this app. If none of the ones that pulls back have information you need (perhaps the 4th email in your inbox is actually one that’s got an invoice attached), you would open the drop down, click load more and pick that one.

Note that whichever example is used here will be the default and Zapier will use for testing in subsequent steps as well.

Unless you have a situation which you simply know you don’t have any relevant data already existing in your source application then make sure you Review and Test, rather than Skip Testing. If you have not tested the Zap, there is every chance it will not quite work as designed so it is well worth testing it at each step. If it generates any errors, they will be highlighted, you can go back and fix them before moving on and potentially compounding the problem.

For example, if you’ve missed filling a mandatory field, or you filled the mandatory field with a dynamic value from a previous step, except when that dynamic value turns out to be able to be empty. Testing is particularly important of course, for multi-step Zaps, which become increasingly complex (more about that later).

Once you’ve built and tested your action, you can add additional steps if you’re on a paid version by pressing the plus button. You will notice you can even insert a step before the first action as well (useful for example if you realise you wish to add a condition to the logic). Planning is important here though because currently you cannot reorder steps so you would have to delete one and recreate it elsewhere in the workflow if you’ve got the order wrong.

When you’re done building the Zap, if you scroll up to the top, you’ll see a slider on the top right that allows you to simply turn the Zap on. While you’re at the top, it’s also worth bearing in mind that although Zapier will try to give you some sort of helpful name, you probably want to make the type that a more meaningful name for your business – just overtype whatever Zapier has come up with for you and it will automatically update.

 

Sharing With Your Friends

When you turn this app on, a box will pop up allowing you to also share that which is really useful if you wish to share what you’ve done with someone else in your business or beyond, think benefit. When you share, all of your personal credentials are stripped out, only the logic is sent across. So don’t worry, you won’t give anyone access to your accounts.

 

 

Summary

As you can see, building a Zap is a totally intuitive process with several built-in checks to try to make sure the constructs and functional logic does actually work. But of course, by its nature, it is possible to build something that’s extremely complicated in what we call a “codeless” environment. (i.e., you don’t need to know how to write software or code).

To use automation with Zapier effectively and to set up processes and integrations that are robust, it’s worth bearing in mind some of the disciplines from software development will serve you well.

The first thing is to make sure you do test everything and that you pay full attention to errors. As I mentioned Zapier will encourage you to test each step as you build it and will alert to any obvious errors but try to think about cases where the data fed in might be unexpected.

The second is to build up in an incremental and logical manner. If you wish to build a Zap with multiple steps, begin by defining the trigger and the first action and testing that works as expected. Then add the next action and test again and keep going until we built it. If you intend to build a complex multi-step Zap all in one go with no testing and it doesn’t work as expected, it can be exceedingly difficult to trace down the source of the problem. Particularly if some of the interim steps are changing data and then information within them is being used later in a subsequent step. Breaking it down into individual items and constructing one step at a time will make it much easier to troubleshoot.

And like programming, it’s entirely possible to construct a Zap which is syntactically correct (passes Zapier’s, built in testing), but semantically incorrect, (i.e., it does not do what you want it to do). Which is why testing with real data is extremely important. Finally, if you wish to make major changes to a Zap, I strongly recommend you make a copy and modify that. This means that in worst case scenario where you completely break your original logic, you can revert to what you had rather than potentially breaking something and not being able to get it working again. And of course, if in doubt, consult an expert (for best results, preferably before you’ve broken it rather than after!)

Zaps will run 24 hours a day, seven days a week wants to find until you turn them off. I hope you can see they’re a great way of being able to respond to things that happen in your business in a meaningful and timely manner, without having to manually intervene. And although they do take a bit of work to design properly (particularly more complex ones), they are an enormous time saver when done right.

 

 

Extending Automation with Zapier

In terms of advanced features, more experienced users will find it’s possible to link up Zapier to services are not specifically advertised as being supported by Zapier, provided they have an API available. You can do this by the “Web Hooks by Zapier” action. This will allow you to intercept the web hook or trigger the web hook for any given application. Doing so does require a detailed understanding of the API that you’re trying to interact with, and it’s not recommended for beginners. However, it’s worth being aware that the capability is there. Any service that has an API available is something you can interface with Zapier with some expertise.

Finally, Zapier also has a built-in email capability which will allow you to trigger emails directly from the application which is also a useful feature if your email application isn’t playing nicely or you need some additional flexibility. However, as with similar email services such as Mailchimp, you’ll need to make sure your DNS is configured correctly to use this without recipients getting a warning that it is not sent from your usual address.

If you’d like to discuss automation options for your business, why not get in touch for a FREE initial consultation.

And if we can’t help you, we won’t waste your time.

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