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Automate Your Way Out of Business Chores

August 26, 2015 Tech4BusinessNow Article

Time spent on business “housekeeping” is time wasted. Here’s how to get more done without lifting a finger.

By Andrea Holved

Running a business means paying attention to the details, but it doesn’t have to mean manually entering those details into various spreadsheets, calendars, software applications or government paperwork—or paying an employee to do it for you.

Automating the business chores that you or another member of your company spend several hours a week completing manually can save you thousands of dollars in unnecessary labor expenses. Plus, automation can free up your time, leaving you to focus more of your energy on strategy and long-term planning.

In many cases, automation can even go a step further by offering better business information or higher revenues: detailed mileage expense reporting; automatically generated lists of qualified sales leads mined from social media; faster customer payments and improved cash flow thanks to automated accounts receivable reminders; even reports of changes to your competitors’ websites to help keep your marketing plans a step ahead.

Many technology solutions that claim to save you time somewhat paradoxically require a major up-front investment of your time to set up—hardly what a busy business owner is looking for. Thankfully, there are some time- and money-saving automation solutions that you can easily implement in minutes.

Mileage tracking

Whether you track your work-related mileage in order to bill customers for your time and vehicle expenses, track depreciation of your vehicle for accounting purposes, or claim your mileage tax deduction, one thing is certain: Monitoring your miles manually is a headache, and often feels like it takes more time than it’s worth.

Christina Scalera, the director of Atlanta, Ga.-based lifestyle company Carte Blanche Wellness, says that since she began using an automated mileage tracking app earlier this year to keep track of miles traveled for the private yoga sessions she offers, plus other work-related trips, she’s recouped between two and three hours of her time every week. Best of all, it took her no time to set the automation up: The app tracks her phone’s location using its GPS coordinates, and all Scalera has to do is input the beginning and end of her trips. Scalera uses MileIQ, but there are a number of similar apps available; do your research to see which fits your needs best.

“After I take a trip, I can see my route from origination to destination, the time I spent taking the trip and how far I went,” Scalera says. The app “even goes so far as to estimate how much money I could be getting back after writing the mileage off as a small business on my tax filings and sends this to me in a weekly report.”

Lead generation

Joseph Nagle, the director of marketing for Evercharge, an Emeryville, Calif.-based company that makes electric vehicle charging stations for apartment buildings, sells his product to a specific type of customer—and he’s found a way to generate lists of strong leads for his sales team without having to do any manual work at all.

Using a web-app-automation service called IFTTT, Nagle searches Twitter and Facebook in real-time for custom keywords in profiles, tweets and posts that indicate a particular user is a potential customer, and then automatically imports that user’s important profile information to a spreadsheet.

“I can get their names, the description of their account, the tweet they posted that is relevant to my business, and in some cases I can get their email address or contact info,” he says. “I’ve done nothing, and I just have to go through at the end of the day and give it to our sales team.”

Nagle says that the automation easily saves him hours a day, even though some of the leads generated are incomplete and still require research to gather contact information.

“It definitely helps me filter out a lot of the noise that goes on in social media, without me having to do it on a manual basis,” he says.

Accounts receivable collections

Every business owner, at some point, has had to contend with late payments from customers. Late payments interrupt your cash flow and, if too many occur at once, can put your business’s financial health in jeopardy, so tracking them carefully and issuing reminders is essential to running a strong company.

That level of vigilance can require many hours working with your accounting software and writing emails or making calls to past-due customers. Or, with an automated solution—included in most invoice software—it can all happen without your having to lift a finger.

“It takes a lot of the stress out of tracking payments,” says Kathryn Hawkins, a principal at Scarborough, Maine-based content marketing agency Eucalypt Media, who adds that the software she uses—FreshBooks—was “very easy to set up.”

“If the client hasn’t paid within a set number of days, the service will send a follow-up message automatically to remind them that their payment is late,” Hawkins says. She also utilizes a feature that auto-generates and auto-sends invoices for all of the company’s retainer clients, which saves her even more time each month at no additional cost.

Monitoring your competitors  

Imagine what you could figure out about your competitors, your customers and your own marketing plan if you received customized reports of your competitors’ digital marketing efforts—and their successes and failures.

With a few key technology services and a couple of hours of your time spent implementing them, you can start receiving those reports, as frequently as you desire.

“It is very easy to set up, and it saves us over five hours per week,” says Sophorn Chhay, a marketing specialist at Anaheim, Calif.-based mobile marketing company Trumpia.

Chhay says that the team at Trumpia used to do all of that research manually, but now automates the process with a web-app-automation service (they use IFTTT, as Nagle does, but in this case for a different function) that connects multiple specialized technology solutions: a website-monitoring app that watches their competitors’ websites, a shareable-list app, and an email client. Whenever the website-monitoring app notices that 10% or more of a targeted web page has changed, the web-app-automation service documents the changes, date and time in the shareable list app and then emails a notification to the marketing team.

Other aspects of your competitors’ digital marketing—the frequency of social media posts or mentions, for example—can also be monitored by specialized apps, and can just as easily be linked to your favorite list, spreadsheet or email service with a web-app-automation service.

The Trumpia team also uses an automated search-engine-ranking tracking service, Chhay says, which monitors their competitors’ websites’ search engine rankings for 500 industry keywords and then issues regular reports of any changes in rankings.

“From there we match ranking changes against their website changes to give us insights into what works and doesn’t work,” Chhay says.

The same website- and rank-tracking automation could be applied to your own website(s) just as easily, providing helpful insights into the effectiveness of your own marketing strategy.

This article was underwritten by HP: Introducing HP BusinessNow, the right technology to help your business grow. To register your business for a $25,000 tech makeover please visit: http://www8.hp.com/us/en/solutions/businessnow/contest.html