For ecommerce businesses that need to quickly respond to customers, record transactions, and manage inventory, using technology is key. One easy way small business owners can streamline their business processes is through workflow automation. In this article, we explain what workflow automation is and how you can use it to make your business more efficient.
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What is workflow automation?
Workflow automation is the process of using software or technology to automate tasks and jobs that were previously assigned to humans. These tasks can include tracking orders, issuing receipts, managing customer complaints, and more. Automated tasks are intended to make business processes faster, easier, and less error-prone.
Three types of workflow automation
- Rule-based automation
- Event-based automation
- Data-driven automation
Workflow automation relies on software that usually falls into one of these three categories.
- Rule-based automation. This type of automation uses rule-based logic, usually an “if-then” structure, to automate everyday tasks. For example, an ecommerce store may use rule-based automation to determine whether a customer qualifies for free shipping. If the customer’s purchase is equal to or more than a certain amount, say $50, then the program applies free shipping to the customer’s cart. If the purchase is below $50, then the program adds shipping costs.
- Event-based automation. Event-based automation kicks in after a specific event. For example, software may be programmed to automatically inform warehouse computer systems when an item is purchased on an ecommerce website. It can also be used to send a customer an alert when their product has been delivered.
- Data-driven automation. With data-driven automation, businesses use technology and data to automate decisions. For example, an ecommerce store may track the number of clicks on products in an online store. If a certain product is not receiving as many clicks as others, the algorithm may automatically reduce the price in an attempt to spur customer interest.
For example, our ecommerce automation tool Shopify Flow uses all three types of workflow automation. It’s based on a simple no-code “trigger, condition, and action” format. Basically, a “trigger” is an event that Flow looks out for and which sets an automation in motion. A “condition” must then be met, and the “action” is the task that is completed when the condition is met.
Here’s what that might look like for a workflow that automatically adds a customer to your loyalty program:
- Trigger: An order is placed.
- Condition: The order total must be $500 or more.
- Action: The customer is tagged as a VIP in the system.
Benefits of workflow automation for small businesses
Workflow automation can offer many benefits to small businesses. These include:
- Improved efficiency and productivity. Using software to automate workflow tasks might help your business do more in less time. For example, software can automate the process of creating invoices by filling in the blanks for purchase details in a simple template. That way you don’t have to do that yourself every time you need an invoice.
- Increased accuracy and reduced errors. Automation is less prone to mathematical and clerical errors than humans are. It can help you enter and analyze data, and calculate things such as total expenses or revenue without making mistakes.
- Better collaboration and communication. Automation can help different teams communicate with each other and work together. It can, for example, inform all departments about an order, rather than leaving it up to individual departments to tell one another about it.
- Cost savings. By saving your employees time, automation can reduce a/ business’s costs, especially for labor. For instance, using software that automatically logs all customer purchases into your bookkeeping records may avoid the need to hire an employee to manually record purchases. Shopify marketing automations, for example, make it easier for you to drive more sales, build stronger customer relationships, and have more time to focus on other business tasks. Using marketing automations that are always on, you can engage customers at every stage of their journey and set your business growth in motion.
- Higher employee satisfaction. Workers who perform repetitive, boring, and time-consuming tasks are more likely to be dissatisfied with their jobs. Workflow automation can free them up to address more complex duties requiring personal interaction with one another and customers, potentially increasing their job satisfaction.
- Data analysis. Automation is especially helpful for organizing and analyzing a business’s data. For example, some software can provide information on the items in your inventory with the highest click-to-purchase ratios. This can help you figure out which product descriptions are most likely to entice a reader to make a purchase.
Shopify Flow makes it easy to set up a workflow that hides, pauses, and republishes products, based on preset rules around quantity. Here’s what that would look like in the app:
When a product goes below, say, 10 items left in stock, the workflow can attach a “low quantity” message to the item on your site, and then send a Slack notification to your fulfillment team to reorder the item. When the last item is purchased, it will automatically remove it from your storefront. And when you finally get more of it in stock, it republishes the item back onto your site.
How to implement workflow automation
- Identify processes that can be automated
- Assess the current workflow and identify bottlenecks
- Choose the right tools and technology
- Test and implement the automated workflow
- Monitor and measure the results
Many workflow analysis tools let business owners automate common, repetitive tasks. By following these steps, you might find ways to automate workflows in your business.
1. Identify processes that can be automated
Redundant tasks, such as manual data entry or basic bookkeeping, are well-suited for automation. Tasks that are time-consuming but simple are also ones that can be automated. Let’s say you run an ecommerce store and must manually create and email a mailing label whenever a customer requests a return. Using automation, you could develop a program that creates a shipping label and emails the customer whenever they want to return something.
2. Assess the current workflow and identify bottlenecks
Identify where in your current processes work seems to progress slowly. For example, your virtual music store has no trouble selling instruments and shipping orders but struggles to restock inventory. In this case, you may want to consider automating workflows so that whenever a certain number of items are sold, the software automatically sends a purchase order to replenish inventory.
It is also helpful to solicit employee feedback when trying to streamline workflows, or else the automation software may unintentionally create inefficiencies.
Imagine an ecommerce store that adopts an expense approval system requiring employees to input expenses into a software, which then automatically sends an approval request to the CEO. However, if your employees were already responsible for making small, routine business purchases of shipping supplies, suddenly requiring them to file tickets and receive approval could be wasting both their time and the CEO’s. Employee feedback can help avoid these kinds of design errors.
3. Choose the right tools and technology
Once you identify the time-consuming manual processes, it’s time to choose workflow automation software. The appropriate workflow automation tools depend on your industry and what process you want to automate. These tools do not have to be expensive or require coding knowledge. For ecommerce store owners, for example, Shopify Flow offers the ability to customize automation processes using a drag-and-drop interface instead of code. To learn more, check out our roundup of the 10 different ways you can use Shopify Flow to automate back office tasks.
Note: Shopify Flow is only available to customers on Advanced and Shopify Plus plans.
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4. Test and implement the automated workflow
Once you create automated workflows, try a few practice transactions to find any serious errors before you integrate the automation into your business. Consider the workflow automation to create a return label that automatically gets emailed to a customer. Before rolling it out, it would make sense for you to send in a couple of test return requests to make sure there are no errors when sending the return label. If you see problems, tweak the workflow software or turn to a coding professional for help.
5. Monitor and measure the results
Once your newly automated workflow is correctly implemented, you probably shouldn’t just set it and forget it. Even the most reliable workflow automations can run into unforeseen errors or problems that have never occurred before. You may find, for example, that the return labels you email to customers sometimes end up in their spam folders. If you catch this problem when you monitor how the automation is working in the real world, you can fix it by reminding customers to check their spam.
Workflow automation FAQ
How do you determine if workflow automation is right for your business?
Workflow automation is best for repetitive, time-consuming manual tasks that could easily be done by a computer. If you find yourself losing time because you need to do routine, simple tasks, workflow automation may help solve that problem.
How does workflow automation integrate into existing systems?
If you find yourself using workflow automations that are incompatible with each other, you can use a workflow integration software, which lets different types of automations exchange data and work together seamlessly.
What are some common use cases for workflow automation?
Some common workflow automation examples include using software to manage inventory, help with basic bookkeeping, and initiate customer returns.