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In 1961, General Motors installed Unimate in their main factory in Detroit. Unimate was a robotic arm with one job – to move pieces of metal that were too hot for workers to safely handle. Soon more and more robots and automated systems started appearing in factories. But they not only made things safer for workers – they also displaced many who couldn’t adapt.

When Leonardo DaVinci designed the first humanoid robot in the 15th century, he was also looking to make life easier. But when the first automatons appeared in popular fiction some 400 years later, they captured the fears of the industrial age, and despite the work of Isaac Asimov and others, the term automation is more readily associated with Terminator and Skynet than R2D2 and C3PO.

In reality, automation is neither Robocop nor Tom Servo. At least not yet. But it can be an invaluable resource for your small business, allowing it to grow and compete with much larger companies by streamlining a lot of the mundane and repeatable tasks, freeing you and your few employees to focus on the vision and true purpose of your company.

The Automation Advantage

Automation makes it possible for businesses of all sizes to compete on a level playing field, with no wasting valuable time and effort doing mundane tasks while others get ahead. Or to put it more succinctly, automation makes it possible for you to guide your business, while some of  the business guides itself.

Small businesses are uniquely positioned to take advantage of automation. Not only that, but small businesses that automate have a clear strategic advantage over those that don’t. Anything that can save you time and/or money is going to be an advantage you need to, well, take advantage of.

It may be tempting to stay hands-on, guiding every aspect of your business so that you can guarantee everything is perfect – or at least as perfect as you are. But according to HubSpot, 64-percent of entrepreneurs began to see benefits six months after implementing automation techniques.

Properly implemented automation sets you apart  — allowing your small businesses to focus on a more personal approach to clients than a larger business can afford.

There are tools that automate emails, deliver Lead Magnets, manage some social media interactions, manage  your customer database and their travel through the sales funnel, invoice, resolve some customer concerns, train new employees, even simplify your sales pitch and increase necessary communication. By utilizing them, you can get more accomplished each day – more of those tasks that require a human touch.

If you’re ever looking to expand, you can start the process now, by creating systems utilizing these tools, so that when you do bring new staff on board, everything is in place to give them a running start. And it’ll also ensure that things are done exactly the way you want them to be done every time, regardless of who your client is working with face to face.

Successfully implemented automation will allow you to meet more customers, use your creativity to resolve issues, create revolutionary new products, and build on teamwork within your business. You can also go home at night to your family and make it your focus while your business runs in the background.

Or, you know, you could copy and paste a few hundred more emails instead. It’s up to you.

Managing Customer Relationships

Let’s start with one of the most valuable automation tools for small businesses — CRM, or Customer Relations Management system.

While some CRM systems can be pricey at first, the value to your small business is almost incalculably great. There are lots of options out there, but Infusionsoft is the one we recommend most often, because it can literally do almost anything.

Well-constructed and implemented CRM can take your customer from first blush, all the way through to completed sale, and even on the road to becoming an evangelist for your company.

In almost every article, I mention the need to know your ideal customer and what their needs are. CRM will help streamline that process – showing you where leads come from (which also gives you a metric for evaluating marketing efforts), constructing the ideal sales funnel, eliminating ‘clogs’ by targeting where the sales slowdown occurs, and keeping track of every single customer interaction you or your team has EVER had.

Your goal should be to automate your business so you can focus on what you love.

A good CRM also integrates with your other tools, automated or not, like WordPress, MailChimp, Aweber and Shopify.

Fair warning though,  a good, well-built CRM system takes some time to learn the platform and how to utilize it best. We loved our experience with Infusionsoft so much, we became an Infusionsoft Certified Partner and we offer hands-on small business training on how to set up and make the most of all of the Infusionsoft tools.

Maximize Your Marketing Efforts

An amazing 66% of companies that are outgrowing their competitors use marketing automation. And according to Gleanster, nearly 80-percent of the top-performing companies have invested at least 2 years into marketing automation.

Automation allows you to consistently maintain the same message across all your marketing efforts. No more mixed messages, dropped balls or customers getting preferential treatment because they do or don’t know someone.

Targeted, personalized marketing feels different than standardized email newsletters. There’s a place for them too, which I’ll discuss in a moment, but the more individualized your marketing feels, the more your customers are going to feel like you value their specific business. That’s where integrating a good CRM helps.

You can even automate the referral process and the sometimes daunting task of asking happy customers for positive feedback.

Email And More

One of the top 5 customer complaints, according to Reputation Management, is a lack of good communication, or no communication at all. Think about it in your own life. How many times have you been too busy to answer the phone or a text message right away, only to realize, hours later, that you completely forgot about it. Too many of those, and you won’t have a business anymore.

Automation, on the other hand, can send an instant, if sometimes annoying, response to the customer. It can even suggest solutions to the customer’s problem instantaneously.  And it can remind you to follow up, which you should try to always do within 24 hours.

One caveat – do take the time to actually read your customer email if the automated system couldn’t resolve the problem on its own. There are few things that make me angrier than taking the time to construct an email explaining what my issue is and what I already tried to do to resolve it, only to get a canned “personalized” answer that doesn’t deal with the problem at all. Automation isn’t quite up to par for that yet.

Engaged customers lead to improved satisfaction and retention, as well as increased sales!

Whether you’re in between or in the midst of customer interaction, keeping in regular contact with them is essential. They traded their email to you in exchange for valuable information, usually a laser-focused Lead Magnet. So keep the communication going. Give them even more valuable free information – emphasis on the valuable. If you constantly send emails that are just “look what we did,” or identical “limited” sales, they’ll quickly click the unsubscribe button.

Even if they haven’t bought in a while, unless they’ve asked to be taken off your mailing list, keep them supplied with great information that they can use. That way, when they do need you again, it’ll be easier for them to reach back out.

Certain tools like MailChimp also allow you to automate an email response when someone abandons their cart or visits your website, but doesn’t buy.

There are hundreds of other little ways that automation systems can be integrated with your small business to free up time for you to focus on what really matters. As your small business grows, there are more opportunities as well, for finance, mileage tracking, hiring, compliance, and shipping.

For now, start with the tools that will give you the most value and efficiency the fastest – CRM and marketing. Then you’ll have time to expand and worry about those other automated tools.