When workflow automation software works, it really works. You’ll save hours every day.
But for every time automating a process works perfectly, there are a dozen times when it doesn’t quite get you to where you want to be.
When the third step in the process just needs that little extra tweak. Or your customers keep calling because they’re stuck and you have to walk them through a setup. Or a glitch duplicates every new employee in payroll. Workflow automation isn’t always smooth-sailing.
So, in response, we’ve checked out everything the best workflow automation software has, and created a back-to-basics guide to getting the best tools in place for your business.
What is workflow automation?
We could get all philosophical about the AI revolution or a global takeover by machines, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. If you’ve searched workflow automation software solutions online, chances are you’re looking to automate boring and repetitive tasks. 😴
That’s really all it is at its most basic: the automation of a simple task by a software app. And they usually work by following a series of “if this…then that” steps:
- If someone submits an enquiry through a website, then send them an automatic response giving them the information they need to register.
- If it’s been three weeks since someone ordered something online, then send an upsell email offering them a discount on a follow-up purchase.
- If a new employee form gets logged by HR, then take the data into a new IT signup form as well.
These if-then steps then combine into a series called a workflow, and Voila! Like that, suddenly a chore gets done in seconds without anyone having to think about it.
Here’s what a simple, standard workflow automation might look like:
Each step is triggered by the completion of the previous one. In this case, the whole process means the sales team doesn't need to get involved until a new prospect has properly signed up. The second branch at the end also means that filling out the CRM is done automatically.
Obviously, workflows can get way more complicated than this, with dozens (or hundreds) of flows in different directions and lots of branches. But this is the general gist.
The more complicated a process, the more likely it is to require input from you or your team at some stage. But simplicity is the key to good workflow automation. Simple tasks that don’t require decision trees or nuance. And this depends on how you’re set up…
Setting up a workflow automation: 4 steps to follow
How do you create an automated workflow?
Like a lot of things in life—and certainly when it comes to making processes more efficient—the way to do it right is to make sure you’ve done the prep. Spend more time wisely here, and you save yourself and your business wasted time further down the line. 🤓
The 4 key steps to get right when setting up a workflow automation are:
- Defining your automation goal
- Mapping your real-life process
- Matching your goals to processes
- Choosing software that’s best-suited to that goal
Let’s dig into these steps in a bit more detail:
1. Defining your automation goal
All automation starts because teams want to be more efficient.
But you need to be precise.
How exactly do you want to be more efficient? If there was one pain point that could be alleviated, what would it be?
Maybe your website has just been revamped and you’re getting way more new customer inquiries than your sales team can handle? Or every time a new employee joins, your HR and IT teams waste days of their lives doing onboarding. Every business will have its own.
So your automation goals would be to alleviate those pain points. If you’re approaching workflow automation because you want growth for your business but are unsure which pain point will create the most efficiency, start with Step 2 to identify your processes first.
2. Mapping your real-life process
How well do you really know your processes? The standard advice on this topic around the web is accurate—check with team members, ask customers to complete surveys, etc. But it often takes more time and demands more detail than you think it will.
Once you think you know, set yourself a challenge: use single units of time or single actions to denote each block in your workflow. Try to break each process down into as many individual steps as possible. Get into the nitty-gritty.
A key aspect here if you’re looking for ways to identify bottlenecks is to ask your team to allocate a “time spent” to each step.
“Email customers back to specify their exact needs” could be one step in their process, but it would probably be useful for you to know that that is taking them 15 minutes per email, and eight hours over a week, for example, to see where automation could help.
3. Matching your goals to process steps
Whole processes are unlikely to be alleviated by one catch-all automation software. But single steps, like “registering new online inquiries” for example, could be.
Then see if the process steps that can be automated will help you achieve your original goal and choose a tool that focuses on that area.
4. Choosing software that’s best-suited to your goal
This part will be pretty easy if you’ve nailed the previous steps. When you choose your software, you can head straight to products specializing in the type of automation you need.
Let’s say you need to automate data entry and speed up your sales outreach…
One app worth checking out here is yours truly—Magical. Magical has automated over 1 billion repetitive tasks so far, and our users have saved more than 1,500 years of time. 🤯
With our text expander, you can save frequently used phrases as shortcuts and drop them into any field with just a few keystrokes. But Magical is much more than a text expander. You can make data entry tasks much less dull. Pull data from anywhere on the web and automatically populate your spreadsheets or internal systems.
Magical is perfect for recruiters, sales pros, and customer service teams. It’s used for workflow automation by the likes of Uber, Disney, Facebook, Loom, and Salesforce.
No complex setup is required. Just download to Chrome, and it works like a charm. 🪄
What to look for in automation software: 6 key features
The top automation tools may differ in terms of which business processes or workflows they’re a good fit for, but they all offer a few basic things in common.
1. No-code or low-code
If your team members have low tech skills, make sure any automation tool you go for is code-free, with a user-friendly and simple interface. This means that they’ll just use the features of the tool’s interface as they appear—a little like a Microsoft Word or Google Doc.
Low-code might be more like a basic WordPress or blogging site. The aim with low-code apps or platforms is to give users a little more flexibility. This might be useful if you want team members to be able to design some of their workflows themselves and be a bit more complex and creative. Nintex and Kissflow are examples of popular low-code tools.
Be warned: Only go low-code if your team members have at least some tech know-how. Trying to turn your marketers into developers won’t save you time or earn you brownie points. There are plenty of code-free apps and automation tools out there. Check them out.
2. A simple and straightforward interface
Again this depends on the makeup of your team. Maybe try your least tech-savvy worker—if they can use it, your whole team should be able to too. Drag-and-drop interfaces have proved popular, allowing users to create a flowchart of the process they want to automate.
Needing flexibility is less of a given, depending on the specifics of the processes you have. But generally, the better software tools for automation are those that have a degree of flexibility built into them. HubSpot is a good CRM tool on the flexibility front, for example.
However, flexibility shouldn’t make things more complicated than they need to be, so this is a fine line. Make sure you test before you buy, because one person’s flexibility is another person’s complexity. Make sure that the balance is right for your team, and beware of overkill and getting lost in the endless possibilities of what you could do with automation.
Again, that'll depend on your business and how your team members work and use their software, but the ability to hop from desktop, to tablet, to mobile is an important feature of automation software. Particularly in industries where mobility is important (e.g. sales) and when you operate with remote teams who regularly travel.
5. Security and privacy
End-to-end data encryption is a fairly standard necessity. Make sure you can guarantee that any client details are safe—for example, when transferring data from emails into a CRM.
6. Compatibility with existing systems
Finally, you want to be sure that any software tool you get works seamlessly with what you’re already running. Zapier is the most established tool for bringing applications and platforms together. With Zapier, an action in one place—say for example, a new email from a prospect—triggers an action elsewhere, like a Slack message notifying the person who spoke to them most recently.
Workflow automation: final takeaways
Introducing new software to automate tasks demands time, energy, and budget—without always delivering the gains in productivity it promises.
So, to get the best out of workflow automation, a) be clear about your goals and specific processes you want to fix, and b) make sure you choose software that’s designed to alleviate specific parts of your workflows. For example, start using a text expander to speed up messaging and improve a cumbersome customer service response rate.
Download Magical for free today and start making your tasks disappear right away. 🪄