Everyone is talking up automation these days with many arguing that it has now become a critical asset for enterprises. However, there is also evidence that automation tools, once thought of only as a solution for larger enterprises, have also become key to the survival of SMBs.

In fact, new research from Norwalk, CT-based Xerox indicates that up to 80 percent of organizations believe that automation is essential for their survival. The Xerox State and Fate of Small and Medium Business survey conducted by Morning Consult polled 1,200 business decision makers from companies with 25 to 1,000 employees in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Among the key findings were:

  • 82 percent say digitizing paperwork is important to their survival.
  • 75 percent are more reliant on workflow technologies, compared with their pre-pandemic setups.
  • 88 percent view security software and hardware that protects business information as core to their longevity, with 75 percent likely to upgrade current solutions this year.
  • 65 percent said remote IT support was a substantial pain point — and 74 percent are likely to invest in better solutions this year.

Despite the pandemic, it also found that most leaders were optimistic about prospects. It showed that 64 percent anticipate emerging from the pandemic stronger, while 81 percent acknowledge the health crisis has made them more reliant on technology. More to the point, compared to last year, 75 percent have increased their technology budgets by an average of 34 percent. For SMBs automation is a key part of their COVID-exit strategy.

When it comes to IT automation, there really is no one-size-fits-all approach, especially for small businesses, Rob Makin, Lenovo executive director for worldwide DaaS (Device-as-a-Service), solutions and services group, told us. The key, he said, is to improve efficiencies wherever you can so that you can allocate resources to automating your own business processes.

There are several standard functions like technical support, IT delivery, deployments, configurations, and maintenance that consume an IT department's time. Citing recent studies, he points out that 77% of IT staff's time is dedicated solely to maintenance and support. Employing solutions like device as service (DaaS) is one way companies can maximize their resources to achieve greater IT optimization.

A DaaS model can incorporate more than just new devices and allows companies to more affordably secure updated technology, as well as the technical support and managed services that can help businesses improve productivity, increase security, and better manage their end users — allowing their IT staff to focus on other parts of the business. 

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The Need for End-to-End Solutions

The use of automation can also have major advantages for SMBs that are facing glaring gaps in IT services that affect their ability to operate at full efficiency and potential, Chuck Canton, founder and CEO of New York City-based Sourcepass, a company that links SMBs and technologies, said. A common pattern has seen technology companies only focus on a small segment of a broader set of issues customers deal with. For SMBs, this lack of full end-to-end solutions and the customization they need to bring a laser-focus to address their needs leads to a clunky, fractured approach that relies on dozens of vendors to properly power their business’ technology. This is not just costly but time-consuming and translates to a very poor customer experience in the end.

“Enter AI, RPA. and similar automation technologies. Not only do they solve the challenge of customization at the SMB operational level but also of improving customer experience. AI initiatives are the future and are a critical lifeline to ensuring continued viability for SMBs across industries in the decade to come,” he said.

From the get-go, SMBs should accept and expect that digital transformation of any kind, AI included, never truly ends. Instead, it operates along a continuum that starts with a large-scale cultural shift throughout the organization. It is critical to take a proactive, iterative approach to your automation initiatives for a smooth digital journey, as opposed to waiting too long and creating a significantly more uphill climb.

AI is just one of the automation tools that is making digital transformation more robust, and for SMBs. AI, RPA, and automation initiatives have been and will continue to be key to survival and success in the years to come. Successfully implementing these automation initiatives requires change, possible discomfort, and investment in time and resources, however they generate massive impacts for SMBs’ daily operations.

AI provides an enhanced ability to serve customers more directly and responsively, for example, going into service calls knowing what platforms they are using, and recalling personal details to create a stronger rapport to creating the customized tools that will help it operate more efficiently are just some of the benefits AI and automation solutions deliver to SMBs.

Automating SMB Marketing

Automation, from a marketing standpoint, is within reach for brands of pretty much any size. With most businesses needing to use online use tools to a much greater level during the pandemic (such as email automation, call tracking, order processing), many SMBs have had their eyes opened to the power automation holds to increasing profitability, according to Matt Erickson, marketing director of National Positions.

Even local SMBs understand how valuable expanding beyond their local markets can be as well as the need to extend the lifetime value of their customer base - both of which marketing automation can play a pivotal role in achieving.

Learning Opportunities

“Automation is not about replacing SMB team members. Instead, it is leveraged to automate those repetitive tasks that are hindering progress due to time constraints,” he said; “SMBs should look at where the majority of time is being spent, understand what could be automated, and then explore the cost-effective options that could give them this time back.”

Most SMBs do not need every option under the sun, so they should just focus on the handful that will help them adapt today and scale tomorrow. They include:

Marketing and ecommerce automation: Small businesses need to implement marketing and ecommerce automation because they enable them to collect and analyze customer data, which is key for customer acquisition and retention. CRM systems, chatbots and email marketing software are all examples of automation that SMBs can leverage to help them grow while competing with larger enterprises.

Business process automation: SMBs can also take advantage of business process automation, especially important and tedious HR functions like time-off requests, onboarding and travel and expense authorization. This helps streamline workflows and cuts down on the costs of what would otherwise be tedious manual processes.

Customer support: A $500/month investment in customer support AI can provide a small business with round the clock customer service and, when integrated with a CRM, can allow an autonomous program to access customer information and provide world-class support 7 days a week, 24-hours-a-day. With customer support automation, even a small business can have fortune 500-level customer care capabilities.

SMB Disruption

Think about what the COVID-19 pandemic would have been like for many SMBs without automation? RPA rapidly processed millions of travel refunds streamlined forbearance requests on loans and mortgages, and helped people receive their COVID test results and made vaccination appointments faster, said Harel Tayeb, CEO of Atlanta-based Kryon Systems.

The pandemic showed us that there is always a potential for disruption and because of that, the need for automation in businesses will only increase. RPA empowers employees by allowing them to focus on areas where they make the most impact, and outsourcing skills that take time away from their specialty. This does more than make a department more productive; it creates fulfilling roles for employees, resulting in happier staff who want to stay with the company.

“RPA’s market maturation is democratizing automation and gaining the attention of smaller enterprises that recognize the potential to capture a competitive advantage and increase productivity and profits. But RPA vendors must be agile to adapt their technologies for ease-of-use by SMBs,” he said.

Solutions must be simple enough for any business user to implement — from process discovery through to bot creation and implementation. SMEs do not have the time, the need, or the capability to invest and transform entire processes. They can deploy and scale incrementally and realize tremendous benefits as they do.