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Your Guide to Workflow Automation: What, Why, and How

Manual data entry, email marketing, and other repetitive work often takes up over a third of an average day. Whether you’re working as a solopreneur or oversee the work of a team, automating certain tasks will free up anywhere from 10% to 30% of your time or that of your employees. You can then spend it on more productive activities than updating a spreadsheet.

With the variety of companies offering workflow automation services, you don’t even have to write any code to make this happen! If you’re intrigued by the possibility of saving hours of your time every week by simply automating things, follow this guide to learn everything you need to know about it.

What is a workflow?

More often than not, our work process is a bit more chaotic than we would like it to be, with many workflows overlapping at any given time. The key to being more productive is automating many of the repeatable processes.

Think of a workflow as a sequence of tasks or actions needed to get one specific thing done. 

It’s simpler to understand what a workflow is and isolate a single workflow from all your daily activities if you think about it as an algorithm.

Let’s say, we’re looking to isolate a workflow needed to manually add a new lead to your database. When a sales rep gets a notification about a new email asking for a quote on the services you provide, you generally would need to do the following:

  • Answer their email to let them know you’re working on the issue
  • Add their name and email to the spreadsheet
  • Forward the email to a specialist to get a price estimate
  • Send the client the price estimate
  • Schedule an exploratory call

All of these tasks can be automated. With the right approach, the sales rep can free up an hour of menial labor every day. Subsequently, they can use that  time to better prepare for the call or work on other prospects.

What is workflow automation?

As opposed to going through the workflow manually, workflow automation is the process of using software or code to automate a workflow or a series of them. Prior to implementing this technological solution, it is important for you to analyze the workflow and formalize it into a series of repeatable tasks and conditions.

Not all tasks can be automated, of course, but most repetitive tasks make the cut. For instance, the decision to classify a lead as qualified or not must be made by a human in most cases. However, every step that precedes and follows that decision (e.g., assigning sales and nurturing email sequences) can be automated.

How does workflow automation work?

There are multiple workflow automation platforms and technologies that allow you to automate business workflows. You can do that with fancy expensive software or with something as simple as a free Google Sheets file. When it comes to the general principles of workflow automation the process is identical.

You set up an algorithm that will, when triggered either by your command, some action, or a time trigger, go through a series of actions, check for conditions, and deliver a result. What those actions, triggers, and results will be is completely up to you.

How does workflow automation help you?

One of the most important things workflow automation does for your business, whether you run a small company or a large corporation, is saving time and money for the organisation. With up to a third of work hours being taken up by menial tasks, automating them would result in workers having more time for more important tasks – activities that tend to be postponed in favor of the daily routine.

Automated workflows are also more precise than people. While humans excel at judgment calls, any person who’s been tasked with processing dozens of orders through an Excel sheet knows that mistakes will happen. Automation eliminates the possibility of a mistake.

As a result of these two factors, your organisation will be able to do more with fewer resources — send more marketing emails, process more clients, sign more deals, and analyze more data. All of that will give your organisation an edge over the competition.

Automated workflow use cases

Not all tasks can be automated, but those that cannot mainly have to do with judgement calls and decisions that involve expertise. Most processes that can be broken down into a series of repetitive tasks can be automated. Here are a couple of examples of where automation can be useful.

Marketing workflow process automation

Email marketing is one of the first processes that gets automated at any organisation. It’s an easy choice because it involves sending hundreds, sometimes thousands of emails per week. An automated marketing workflow allows you to:

  • Send automatic replies
  • Send email sequences
  • Measure open rates
  • Send that information back to the CRM
  • Change the email sequences that leads get depending on their status

For a simple email marketing automation, you can use a specific tool like MailerLite or Mailchimp. If you want a more complex automation solution, choose HubSpot’s sales tools or Omnisend. For testing any of your emails before they’re sent to clients, use Mailtrap.

Sales automation

The sales process for a larger company often involves working with and qualifying hundreds of leads. While every lead is important for the company, the human resource is often limited so it makes sense to focus on the set of clients most likely to make a purchase.

Most of the sales process can be automated, so here’s what you can take off your workers’ shoulders:

  • Gathering contact data from forms
  • Uploading questionnaire data
  • Sending marketing emails to the leads
  • Scheduling calls
  • Lead scoring
  • Recording phone calls

If the software your organization uses allows for lead scoring, this can help the sales reps find the most promising leads. Then, they can focus their efforts on signing a deal with them, leaving the others for the automated system to process.

Software that supports lead scoring includes HubSpot, Leadspace, and Freshsales. With all of them, you can create detailed reports on sales activities like this one.

Content marketing automation

Though content marketing involves many tasks that can only be done by humans, such as content creation and proofreading, it too can be automated to help the team focus on producing great content. Some of the tasks that can be automated with the appropriate workflow automation tools include the following:

  • Automatic posting on your website
  • Content distribution to social media
  • Sharing the content in a newsletter
  • Gathering statistics on open rates and viewership
  • Generating reports

Popular content marketing automations include CoSchedule, Zapier, and Tailwind.

HR and management automation

Most of the work that is done by the HR department is talking to candidates and rating them. While some parts of the process have to be done by a human, everything that leads up to the interview can be automated. An automation system can do the following:

  • Parse data from application forms
  • Rate the candidate according to your criteria
  • Send out the first few emails in the sequence
  • Schedule a call with the applicant
  • Automatically share the time with interview participants

These types of solutions are a bit rarer than your average marketing automation. You can use Asana or Built for Teams to set this up.

Management processes can also be automated, at least partially. For instance, many teams that use Slack are now benefiting from the integration with Trello that can update the status of tasks directly from the Slack chat. More advanced automation would involve sending employees and managers email or messenger alerts when tasks are due and analyzing data on employees and their success rates.

Asana, JIRA, or Notion can cover that for your company.

Data entry and integration automation

Data entry is one of the most tedious tasks in any company and while it’s not meaningless, it can feel that way to the employee doing this job. Fortunately, there’s an upside to this drawback. Since it’s so repetitive, 90% of it can be automated. 

Most data entry that involves integration of databases from different sources for reporting or analysis can be automated, even though some involve an additional step of data verification. An app or a script can do the following for you:

  • Gather data on a time frame
  • Upload it into one spreadsheet
  • Run all sorts of analytics on it

For data entry, you can use integration apps like Zapier or Coupler.io. With Coupler.io, you can upload any set of data to Google Sheets and create visualizations in your dashboard for any sort of data.

Here you can see a sample chart pulled into Google Data Studio from Shopify, using Coupler.io’s Shopify to Google Sheets integration.

Billing automation

According to a study by the Institute of Financial Management, anywhere from 1% to 3% of payments are lost due to manual errors during billing. An automated billing system can do the following:

  • Update what each customer owes to the company
  • Create invoices
  • Send them to the customer
  • Track and manage non-payment
  • Follow-up on unpaid invoices

Sending dunning emails is a task with diminishing returns, but one that has to be done — a perfect candidate for automation. You can try FuseBill or Chargebee for these types of tasks.

Analytics automation

Proper analytics requires pulling data from multiple sources before any analysis is done, so it’s a good target for automation. Here’s what an automatic reporting system can do for you:

  • Pull data from all the platforms you’re using into one hub
  • Standardize the data
  • Run a series of standard analytics on it
  • Visualize the data
  • Create and send monthly or weekly reports

For these types of tasks, you want to look for an integration software like Coupler.io.

How to set up any business process workflow automation

Now that you know where you can use workflow automation, it’s time to learn how to implement it. There are multiple workflow automation tools with varying difficulty and functionalities. Some require you to write code, others work as drag-and-drop workflow builders. However, the general principles behind building an automated workflow are the same. 

Here’s how you create an automated workflow step by step — regardless of what tool you are using and what workflow you’re automating:

  • Choose a process to automate
  • Gather feedback from participants of the process
  • Visualize the workflow
  • Choose workflow automation software
  • Set up the automation workflow
  • Integrate workflow automation tools
  • Test the new workflow
  • Analyze results and improve

The first couple of steps would have you single out the process you want to automate and gather all the data you can on it, including possible obstacles that have to be overcome. With a flowchart that describes the process as well as more detailed info, you will have to find software suitable for the task.

From then on, you’ll have to set up the automation and integration between the platforms you’re using, test it extensively, and set up a transitional period where you pay a lot of attention to the automation process to fix the minor mistakes.

Now, let’s dive deeper into each step.

Choose a process to automate

The first step of the workflow automation process is choosing what process you are going to automate. Depending on the size of your organization and your goals, you can choose as few or as many processes that you want to work on at the same time.

If you’re just starting with automation, it would be wise to focus on a single task that takes up the most time. If you run a larger organization, run a survey of the workers to see what tasks are the most tedious and do not involve any judgment calls from the employees. Most often, these would be data entry tasks or email marketing.

Gather feedback from participants of the process

Once you’ve selected the process, gather feedback from all of the employees who make this process happen. You want to hear their suggestions as to what needs to be done to make their work easier. Most importantly, you want to list all the steps in this particular workflow.

This should include not just the actions taken by the workers, but all the approvals that have to be done by the manager.

Visualize the workflow

With all the data on your hands, it’s time to visualize it. It’s much better than simply having a text file with all the steps of the process as it allows for a more streamlined development process.

There are multiple ways to map workflow, but the easiest one involves drawing a simple flowchart with three main figures in it: the square, the oval, and the diamond. 

  • The oval shapes are for triggers that start and end the workflow
  • The squares are for actions that make up the workflow
  • The diamonds are for yes/no decisions

For example, here’s a sample workflow map for a support process that we found on Tallyfy.

Create a map like this with all the steps of the workflow and use it to build the workflow process in your automation tool.

Choose workflow automation software

There are dozens of workflow automation systems on the market, and they all differ in their scope and level of complexity. There are platforms that are tailored to automate a specific workflow and platforms that can perform a more broad scope of tasks.

If you know you’re going to automate a large portion of your workflows, it’s best to start with a tool that has the potential to cover all your tasks. For that, you can use HubSpot if you’re looking for a multi-purpose tool, SaleForce’s Pardot if you’re looking for a B2B CRM, or Omnisend if it’s a B2C marketing tool you need.

If you want to automate data analysis, Coupler.io is the way to go.

Coupler.io allows you to set up sophisticated workflows that will automatically pull data from apps such as Hubspot, QuickBooks, Airtable, and many others. You will then be able to work on the data from the comfort of your spreadsheet (Google Sheets/MS Excel) or a database (BigQuery).

For simpler email marketing tools, check out MailerLite or Mailchimp — these allow you to do automated email marketing and a bit of sales management. For more HR or management automation, check out Asana or Notion. In most of these tools, you can start with a cheaper beginner plan and upgrade to a pricier business plan when it becomes necessary.

You can also start with a simple tool to  try out automation and then upgrade to a more robust solution later. 

Set up the automation workflow

With the workflow mapped and the tool chosen, there’s nothing left to do but to set up the automated workflow. Use your tool to set up every step of the way including the decisions that have to be made and templates that have to be used.

This is one of the most important steps in the process of creating an automated workflow. Take as much time as you need to set up the automation and run tests to make sure it works as intended. Using automation tools for the first time can be tricky but with the help of documentation and other onboarding materials you’ll certainly be successful.

Integrate workflow automation tools

This step is an optional one. If you use multiple tools or databases to make your workflow automation work properly, you have to integrate them. You can consider yourself lucky if the platforms have direct integration. Often they don’t, which is when you need to deploy tools like Coupler.io.

It may be tricky to set up the integration using JSON files or other data formats, but once you get the hang of it, it’s rather easy. You can also make the import of data from different platforms fully automatic, tying it to a certain time frame.

Test the new workflow

Now, you’ve got a fully functioning workflow. The only thing that’s left is to make sure it works properly. Test everything you can think of in the workflow to make sure it will process the data in any scenario.

Analyze results and improve

The first couple of months are crucial for the development of a well-functioning workflow automation. You need to constantly gather feedback from the employees who are responsible for this workflow and catch the mistakes that occur in the process of using the automation tools.

Make it a priority to find any mistakes and improve on them. Within a month or two, you should have everything sorted out and working smoothly.

Workflow automation examples

Automated sales dashboard in Google Sheets

One of the handiest automations is a sales dashboard. If you’re using HubSpot or Pipedrive as your CRM, you can export the data from these systems to a spreadsheet to analyze it.

All you need to do is get a free Coupler.io account and connect the source app (e.g. HubSpot). Then, choose the desired destination, set up a schedule for your imports, and save.  You can run all sorts of analytics once you have the data in the spreadsheet.

Some of the handiest options include sorting the sales data by location, looking at the conversion rate, and the total sales numbers. Here’s how a dashboard like that would look like:

The upside of using Google Sheets for a sales dashboard is that it’s completely customizable so you can create a dashboard with all the information you want to see. Read more about how to create an automated sales dashboard in Google Sheets.

Airtable to Glide App Integration

Another good example of a useful integration is syncing an offline database of products with an online marketplace. Doing this task manually would involve hours of data entry and may potentially result in quite a few mistakes. With Coupler.io, you can connect a sales database like Airtable or any other with Glide App, a service that allows you to create a handy app for selling any products online.

Since Glide App can take in data from Google Sheets, all you need to do to set up this automation is to import data from your database into the Sheets. With Coupler.io, you’ll have to provide a link to an Airtable view, point to where you want the data to be exported, and set up a schedule.

Then, connect the Google Sheets document that contains the exported info to the Glide App, and set up your app from there. It will be updated with your new listings automatically, and you won’t have to duplicate the data on both platforms.

Sales email sequence automation

One of the most useful types of automation is a sales email sequence automation. You can do this type of automation with Google Apps Script or Javascript, but that would require coding skills. If you don’t want to write a single line of code, there are multiple sales software solutions that allow you to set up automated workflows by either using the drag-and-drop method or selecting a range of variables.

Some of the most popular ones are HubSpot, Prospect.io, and Freshsales. With the latter, you can set up a custom sales automation workflow that can integrate a database of leads and automated email sending.

The way you set it up in Freshsales is by choosing actions that should be taken and the conditions upon which these actions are triggered.

With this system, you can assign different statuses to your leads, for instance, the stages of the sales funnel, and set up conditions upon which they will be changed. From there, you can command the software to send different email sequences to the lead and notify the sales rep once the lead answers. As the last email in the sales sequence, you can send a Calendly link to the lead to schedule a call.

Benefits of workflow automation

Workflow automation does have its drawbacks. It may involve an initial investment into the software, has a learning curve to it, and has the potential to disrupt your workflow if you don’t set it up correctly. However, all that is nothing compared to the numerous benefits it offers when set up the right way.

  • Automated workflows save time
  • Automation reduces overhead
  • It reduces human error
  • Increases productivity of the team
  • Helps decrease multitasking
  • Automation helps workers focus on more productive tasks

The initial cost will be easily offset by the amount of time automated workflows save your employees, freeing them up to be more productive in other tasks. While the workflow automation process may take quite a long time, especially if you’re setting up a complex system, the time and money it saves for your organization is definitely worth it.

And with the tools available on the market right now, it’s not even that expensive or hard to set up a couple of automated workflows for your company. You’re not looking at hiring a tech company to write custom code for you. Rather than that, you can get started for free or with an inexpensive subscription and potentially save thousands of dollars on automating dull processes.  

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