How Your Agency Can Leverage Automation to Run Better Projects
Automating your agency can save you countless hours of tedious manual work. Learn how to use automation in your agency in this post.
Imagine never having to write another report or send another check-in email.
That’s the promise of automation.
Automation, as an idea, has been on the fringes of project management for years. It’s a compelling concept in theory - set up rules and have a software do everything without lifting a finger.
The benefits are plentiful - less wastage, better productivity, and more efficient businesses.
Now, we finally have the tools necessary to make this automation dream a reality. With better project management systems, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and some simple hacks, it’s entirely possible to run a large part of your agency completely automatically.
I’ll explore automation in detail in this article. We’ll cover why automation matters and what kind of approach you should use for it. We’ll then discuss a few ways you can automate your agency.
Why Automation Matters
Augmenting or replacing human activities with task automation is quickly becoming standard practice for businesses that want to compete in today’s dynamic marketplace.
A December 2018 cross-industry survey conducted by IDC & Document Strategy found 73% of the primarily American businesses questioned had already set the wheels of automation in motion and were enjoying a raft of benefits as a result.
The survey found the primary benefit of adopting technologies (such as workflow automation software and business process management software) is the reduction of human error.
Of the businesses surveyed – most of which were in the professional services, insurance, healthcare, government, and education industries – 67% reported higher accuracy and/or a reduction of errors in their work, and 54% reported a reduction in operational risk.
(Image source: IDC.com)
In the agency context, think of the steps you go through when onboarding a new client. If the process is entirely manual, there is a chance a new employee might miss a few steps (say, forgetting to share the client login URL).
But if the process is automated or automation-assisted, every new client will go through the same proven steps, thus reducing manual mistakes.
Automation improves productivity and employee happiness
The second biggest benefit of automation technology is better productivity. This should come as no surprise since tech can work faster and more accurately than people (and doesn’t need to break for coffee and lunch).
Moreover, by speeding up workflow, automation technology can remove mundane manual tasks from your To Do list completely. This gives your employees more time to focus on high-level tasks.
Of the businesses surveyed above, 51% stated that automation technology had allowed staff to focus on completing higher value tasks and 64% reported that employee productivity had improved.
By freeing employees from the drudgery of manual tasks, automation technology also has the wider but perhaps less measurable benefit of making people happier in their jobs. People join agencies to do creative work, not fill out endless forms.
Automation saves money
Hand in hand with the increased efficiency and time-saving benefits comes that perhaps mightiest of business motivators – saving money.
Of the businesses surveyed above, 60% reported cost savings after adopting automation.
This partly comes from reducing the number of people you need to handle mostly manual tasks. And partly from letting your high-value talent focus more on high-level tasks.
Adding to these cost savings is the drastically reduced price of automation software. Even something as simple as email automation used to be prohibitively expensive. Today, a business with a few dollars to spare each month can automate its email marketing.
MailChimp, one of the most popular email marketing tools in the world, is free for most users.
This brings the obvious question - how exactly should you go about implementing automation in your agency?
Let’s look at some answers below.
How to Use Automation
Marvellous as it is, automation shouldn’t be used as a blanket solution. Businesses must align their approach to automation firstly with their agency type, and secondly with the nature of the interaction.
Where low-end agencies re-selling affordable work can get away with automating everything including client interactions, high-end agencies must preserve a sense of the personal in every aspect of the client relationship.
In other words, automation should be viewed as an effective tool which your agency can use to improve client interactions and speed up workflow. Embracing it does not reduce the value of the service you are providing, in the same way that David Hockney using an iPad to create digital art doesn’t detract from his artistic worth.
In the next section, I’ll share a detailed guide on automating your agency’s work.
1. Identify What to Automate
Before you rush to implement any automation, you need to take time to evaluate all your processes. Anything that is repeatable and periodic is a top candidate for automation.
Begin by documenting all your processes, right from the moment you acquire a client to final delivery. Then break down every process into its constituent tasks.
Classify each task into one of the following categories:
- Recurring and periodic: Tasks that are repeated across projects at periodic intervals. For example, asking for requirements from a client or sending a weekly project status report. These tasks are top candidates for automation.
- Recurring only: Tasks that are repeated only a few times in every project at infrequent intervals. For example, sending clients a performance report or asking them to sign-off on deliverables. Which of these tasks can be automated will depend on their complexity (asking clients to sign-off on a deliverable, for instance, can be automated).
- Unique: Tasks that are unique for each project. Since the task is unique and done once only in the project, it is impossible to automate it.
You’ll find that a surprising number of tasks in any project are recurring and periodic. The frequency might vary (once only, weekly, monthly, etc.), but they repeat across projects.
For example, you’ll need to ask clients for requirements on every project. You’ll also need to run an onboarding campaign on all projects.
Tasks such as these are top candidates for automation. Instead of manually onboarding clients, you can create an email drip campaign to get them up to speed.
The good part about this introspective exercise is that it gets you a better handle on your own processes and way of working.
2. Document ‘If-Then’ Rules for Automation
Working down your task list, piece together a workflow for each task using detailed if-then automation rules to identify what action should be taken and when.
For example, “if a project is 10 days late, then send an email reminder” or “if a client clicks on X webpage, then it will trigger a pop-up containing an introductory offer”.
Think of it as programming. There should be a default course of action based on the project status and the actions of your employees/clients.
You can even create flowcharts to map the workflow, like this:
For each activity, also identify the tools you can use to execute the action. For instance, if you’re creating a client onboarding process, you can use your email marketing tool to create detailed if-then rule based automations.
Similarly, if you’re automating something like timesheets, your project management tool should be able to fill them out for you.
Workamajig can automatically fill timesheets, saving you hours of manual data entry
Also make sure to leverage tools such as Zapier to automate activities across software.
Even if you don’t automate anything, it’s still a good idea to document all your processes via if-then rules. It gives you a far better understanding of the right course of action in any situation. It’s also a great tool to help new employees learn how your business works.
3. Combine Automation With Templates
By combining automation with thoughtfully designed templates you can scratch many high-touched personalized interactions from your task list.
For example, you could create a personalized performance report template with data fields that are populated automatically. You can even arrange for it to be instantly emailed to clients when they click a button marked ‘How is my campaign doing?’
“Templatizing” your projects should be one of the top priorities in any automation program. Templates are essentially about processes. A template for a content marketing project, for instance, would follow a very different process than one for a web design project. The latter would focus on mockups and user research, while the former might prioritize outlines and keywords.
In an automated approach, you would have a default template for each project type. Creating a new project would automatically create all the processes and documents associated with that project-type. Project managers can later add/remove processes as necessary. This saves you valuable time in setting up the project.
Workamajig, for instance, automatically creates the processes and documents associated with a project type (as defined) when you create a new project.
To leverage this, break down all your projects into different categories. This can be based on the project type (SEO, Social Media, PPC, etc.), project cost, client type (small business, Fortune 500 firm, etc.), and other parameters such as project complexity, duration, etc.
For each of these projects, identify the core processes you’ll need to follow, their related documents, frequency, and key data fields. For instance, you might have the following distinction between PPC and SEO projects:
SEO Projects: Performance report
- Frequency: Monthly
- Key fields: Keywords, ranking for current period, ranking for previous period, target URL, traffic for current period, traffic for previous period
- Performance Report
- Frequency: Weekly
- Key fields: Total spending, total revenue, total expenses, net profit, CTR, CPC
Create templates for each of these documents. Then use your project management tool to automatically populate each of these templates with client information (you shouldn’t have to manually enter the client’s name in any template) on every new project you create.
This might sound like a lot of work, but you only have to do it once and it will save you hours later.
4. Use Automation for High-Conflict Interactions
So far, we’ve emphasised the use of automation technology in a way that doesn’t leave clients feeling like they are dealing with a machine.
However, when it comes to handling a situation where conflict could easily arise, it’s precisely the impersonal nature of automation which makes it a valuable tool.
For example, when reviewing requirements and signing-off on deliverables, some clients seem to disappear into thin air, slowing down or even grinding to a halt a project’s delivery.
Asking the client repeatedly over the phone or via direct email to take action is frustrating for the agency and can lead to conflict if the client feels like they are being personally criticized or simply nagged.
In contrast, when a client receives reminders from an obviously automated source, the ‘nag factor’ is neutralized as the client is unable to direct their anger at any one specific person.
This is one heavily underutilized aspect of automation. For all your projects, identify tasks with a high ‘nag factor’. The usual candidates for this are:
- Signing off on deliverables
- Sharing requirements
- Approving edits/change requests
Automate all of these so your employees don’t have to manually reach out to clients in such high stress situations. Not only will you save time, your employees will also be happier for it.
Finally, before you implement any automation take the time to properly train your team in how to use it and how to manage the changeover from the old system. Even perfectly designed automation will flounder if people are unwilling to accept it, or don’t know how to use it.
Clearly explain to your team how workflow automation will help them to perform their jobs so that they are motivated to accept the change.
Automation Requires Good Project Management Software
Automation relies heavily on good systems and processes. Minus a capable software, you’ll find that your dream of automating your agency remains just that - a dream.
Try an agency management system like Workamajig that gives you a lot of freedom to automate your tasks. From pre-populating templates to automatic data entry, Workamajig takes a lot off your plate so you can focus on what you do best.
Get a free demo of Workamajig today to see how it can transform your agency.
About The Author
Esther, Workamajig’s current Marketing Manager, joined the team back in ‘14. She's a Jersey girl at heart with plenty of NY grit from her time across the river. Like most credentialed marketing gals, she’s always got a good cup of coffee and would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.