16 min read
Jun 11, 2021
Automation

5 Process Automation Challenges and Mistakes (And How You Can Avoid Them)

Process automation has the potential to amp up the efficiency and accuracy of processes, but it can also come with a steep learning curve. Here are 5 stories of automation mistakes (and how you can avoid them).

T.C.
Toby CoxSenior Content Writer

Software that makes process automation possible is the type of tool that business owners and team managers dream about. The benefits of process automation include increased efficiency, more thorough usage of data across business departments, and greater communication between teams.

According to GetApp’s 2020 Technology Trends survey, 59% of small businesses surveyed say productivity improvement needs are one of the top factors triggering new software investments (methodology below). 

But you can only reap these benefits if you approach automation correctly: When an automation process is not properly implemented, the automation dream can quickly spiral into a nightmare.

What is process automation?

Process automation is the use of software and artificial intelligence (AI) to automate tasks or processes within a business. This can be applied to the manufacturing of physical goods or to less tangible processes such as marketing, recruitment, purchasing and procurement, customer service, and .

Small businesses who are unsure of whether or not they want to risk a failed automation have come to the right place. We’ll show you exactly what could go wrong when automating processes, as well as why it's absolutely worth it when implemented the correct way. Let’s meet some business owners and leaders like you who have made some mistakes along the way but don’t regret their decision to automate because of the benefits.

Mistake 1: Picking the wrong software for the task

Eden Cheng had a vision. She was helping a friend run a sporting goods retailer shop and wanted to improve the efficiency of her business’ invoicing process. She saw potential in automation and decided to go for it. 

However, it didn’t quite go as planned: She was trying to automate invoicing for physical goods but the automation software seemed to cater more toward invoicing for offered services. 

As a result, the software she chose didn’t do what she needed it to do, and this meant wasted effort and money on something that ultimately didn’t work.

Quote from Eden Chang

Cheng ended up replacing the invoicing solution with one that allowed her to automate invoicing and billing with an easier user experience.

What to do instead: Find the right tool from the get-go

Don’t waste time and money on software that doesn’t fit your business needs, and don’t rush into making an automation software decision. Instead:

  • Take the time to understand your business’ processes and how they work.

  • Pinpoint a process that could benefit from automation. Gartner recommends targeting low-risk, high volume work items first, as part of an incremental approach to automation (full research available to clients).

Download this template to help you prioritize work items for automation.

  • Understand exactly what you need the automation software to do by surveying your team on their biggest pain points. Polling software could help compile feedback from multiple sources.

  • Read reviews to inform your software search, and learn how others in your industry automated processes successfully.

  • Weigh your shortlisted software options against your business needs.

  • Take advantage of free trials and demos to “try on” software.

Before you commit to an automation software, you want to make sure it's the best fit for your business needs and that it will do what you expect it to do. You don’t want any surprises when it comes to automation. 

“It is crucial to focus on the automation of the right business activities with the right tools,” Cheng says.

Why new tech was worth the risk:

Cheng didn't choose the right tool at first but tried again, understanding the long-term value of automation. On her second try, she paid closer attention to the tool itself and who it was designed for, making sure it was a good match for her business needs.

Mistake 2: Designing the automation process around a tool 

Alex Magnin recently tried to automate an IT process to streamline operations, but it was unsuccessful.

The goal was to automate part of the employee’s daily tasks to help them keep up with deadlines, especially with a new work schedule related to the pandemic. The idea was that the tool would run for only part of the day, when the employee was not online, and then would stop running when the employee was online for the other part of the day. However, they did not account for his employees' full days off.

Quote from Alex Magnin

As a result, Magnin reported a lot of time was wasted. Although he is reluctant to try it again, Magnin says he will use the lessons learned in his first attempt to inform future automation initiatives. 

“We have already started to try again and will be committed to resolving it within the next few weeks.” Magnin says.

What to do instead: Design the automation process around the people who will be using it

Automation should work for the people it will help, not the other way around. That’s why it’s important to include the people who will benefit from the automation solution from the very beginning. 

According to Gartner, employees might react anxiously to rapid automation change because they do not know how it will impact their role. This, in turn, can impact their productivity. By including employees in the automation process, however, you can help them adapt and ease anxiety (full research available to clients).

  • Chat with employees to get an understanding of which processes could be automated.

  • Get to know the details of the process you want to automate directly from the source: the employees who run it. Communicate with them from the start about the plan to automate.

  • Managers should have ongoing personalized conversations with employees to understand their concerns and help them develop the new skills they’ll need to manage the newly automated process.

  • Managers should first process their own emotional reaction to automation and understand how automation will impact their team.

  • During conversations with team members, managers should be honest with team members about how automation will affect them and ask questions that engage employees in reflection.

  • Continue the communication beyond initial conversations by asking employees to identify challenges during the implementation process (full research available to clients).

Because automation can be a lengthy process, be sure to give you and your employees plenty of time to select the right automation software as well as the time needed to adapt. 

“I suggest that [businesses interested in automation] give themselves plenty of time as these things cannot be rushed,” Magnin says.

Why new tech was worth the risk: 

Magnin made the mistake of designing the automation process around the tool and the person who would be using it. They decided to try again, seeing the potential for automation to streamline specifically some of his employee's daily tasks.

Mistake 3: Not integrating your automation tool with other platforms you’re using

Stephen Light is a marketing professional who appreciates the benefits automation can offer but can also attest to the importance of making sure you follow all of the necessary steps to automate a process (and integrate new software with existing platforms). 

He adopted a marketing automation tool with goals to nurture better leads, save money on data acquisition, expedite the sales process, and retarget previous leads. But his attempt nearly failed.

Quote from Stephen Light

Fortunately, Light figured out the misstep after three days and was able to properly and quickly integrate his automation tool with his customer relationship management platform. Not integrating his automation tool with his CRM platform could have resulted in missed opportunities to send necessary emails, connect with clients, and collect data that could be used to inform future decisions. 

“I would’ve lost money if I let the tool run [by itself] indefinitely,” Light says.

What to do instead: Understand how your automation tool will interact with the platforms you already use

All of your software should work together and not at odds with each other. You should know how automation will work with your existing tech stack from the very beginning.

  • Take inventory of the software and tools you already use. For example, if you are trying to integrate a new tool with your marketing tech stack, figure out how the two tools will work together to achieve the best results.

  • While weighing your automation software options, confirm how it will interact with the software already in your tech stack. For example, can you integrate it directly or will you need to use an integration platform such as Zapier, Microsoft Power Automate, IFTTT, and Automate.io?

  •  Be sure to test these integrations to make sure they’re set up properly from the very beginning.

Not integrating your automation tool with your existing platforms might create more work down the road and cause you to miss out on powerful data collection.

Why new tech was worth the risk: 

Light forgot to integrate his automation tool with his CRM platform, arguably one of the most important in a marketer's digital toolbox. He caught the error early on, and now will be able to reap the benefits of integrating the two systems, such as powerful data insights, automatic emails and follow-ups, and connecting with clients.

Mistake 4: Not testing the automation process before launching it

Ravi Parikh wanted to automate customer rewards so that each of his customers would receive an email discount code after spending a certain sum of money with his company. 

Their first attempt, however, was unsuccessful: The mistake was made in how they grouped users resulting in discount codes being accidentally sent for services some users already had.

Quote from Ravi

Parikh and his team fixed the error, tried again, and it worked.

What to do instead: Thoroughly test your newly automated process before launching

You can avoid overwhelming, messy blunders by testing your automated process before launching it in full. Through automation testing and user interface (UI) testing, you can identify gaps in employee understanding of the interface and dynamic elements and gaps within the automation framework in a safe, contained space.

  • Get the automated process set up as if it were ready to fully launch

  • Release to a select group of team members to test and identify system errors or user experience glitches

  • Create low-risk workflows that allow employees to experiment and get comfortable using the system without needing to worry about making mistakes (full research available to clients)

For example, in the legal industry, a low-risk workflow is one that would not negatively or irreversibly impact a client, while a high-risk workflow might.

Phased workflow automation and testing plan

Software testing gives your employees time to learn how to use the automation software in a low-stakes environment and lower the risk of making mistakes that require a lot of time to correct.

Why new tech was worth the risk:

Although Parikh and his team did not test their newly automated process in phases, they were able to fix the error and ultimately learned a valuable lesson for future automation attempts. Despite some bumps when they first started, Parikh and his team were able to fix the error and make it run smoothly and accurately.

Mistake 5: Automating processes before your business (and customers) are ready

As the Director of Operations at her company, Ann Martin wanted to create a better way to field customer questions that came through her business’ website. To do this, she and her team tried to harness the potential of chatbots. 

Instead of creating a better user experience, however, it had the opposite effect. They jumped to 100% automated responses and found this did not meet their visitors’ needs. As a result, Martin says they saw a drop in engagement and lost opportunities to direct readers to the content they were looking for.

Quote from Ann Martin

They removed the chatbot from the company completely and are waiting to try again to avoid confusion. When they do try again, however, they will use a tool that balances automated responses with prompted responses written by employees. 

To business owners looking to automate, Martin suggests doing your research. 

“Look at what similar business models to yours are using, and take that into account,” Martin says.

What to do instead: Assess how ready your business (and customers) are for automation

Automation attempts can fail for a variety of reasons, and many of these mistakes are made early on in the planning process. 

According to Gartner, many businesses do not accurately gauge their level of automation maturity, and this can result in unrealistic goals or goals that aim too low. 

For example, a low maturity automation plan combined with “aggressive” IT goals is likely to fail. Similarly, a business with a mature level of automation may underachieve with their automation goals if they choose to focus on administrative, tactical tasks rather than strategic projects (full research available to clients).

  • Realistically assess your business’ level of automation maturity

  • Determine if your automation goals are compatible with your business’ level of automation maturity (i.e., are you aiming too high or too low?)

  • Understand how automation will impact customers if the process you’re automating is customer facing

  • Know how it will impact the customers’ experience by mapping out their current journey and what it will look like once the process is automated

  • Predict how customers will react to the new process and collect their feedback

Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to automate things gradually to give your employees and customers time to adjust. If the process will change drastically from what your customers are used to, consider A/B testing to get insight into how customers might react to the changes.

Why new tech was worth the risk: 

For Martin, the attempt to adopt chatbots to field customers’ questions was not welcomed by customers. It caused confusion and ultimately resulted in her company taking the chatbots off the website completely. This kind of reaction could have been avoided through A/B testing, which will gauge through surveys how customers will react to chatbots, and a more gradual rollout. Martin and her team plan to try again in the future, and since they learned some tough lessons on their first try, their second is bound to go more smoothly.

Approach automation with a well thought out plan

According to Gartner, unrealistic expectations cause many automation attempts to fail. Similarly, rushing into automation can also cause it to fail. 

Avoid these automation mistakes by taking your time, focus your automation efforts on doing your research, and preparing your employees for how it will change (and improve) their day-to-day. While intelligent automation certainly can benefit your business, it won’t happen overnight and will take careful planning.

Just starting to find software for your business?

Learn about what a tech stack is and how you can build the perfect one for your business. 

Methodology

GetApp conducted its 2020 Top Technology Trends survey from August 24 through September 27, 2020 of 700 small business leaders from the USA. The goal of the study is to understand what technology investments SMBs are making and the drivers and challenges that influence their decisions. 

Respondents were screened by:

Number of employees: Two to 499 employees

Annual revenue: $5M-$250M

Respondents are required to be involved in purchasing technologies for the organization and hold a manager-level position or above in the company.

Disclaimer: Results of this study do not represent global findings or the market as a whole but reflect sentiment of the respondents and companies surveyed.

Note: The software applications referenced in this article were cited by the interviewee in context and are not intended as endorsements or recommendations.

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