How To Get Started Automating Your Workflows.

By Joel Van Patten
Written on January 13, 2020

As I discussed in my previous post, many business owners understand that investing in technology can be good for their business but they don't know where to start. In the next few posts I will offer up some of the methods I use when consulting with clients.

I start with the premise that any solution (even pre-packaged solutions) must be tailored to the needs of the client. If you are a weight loss coach you would need one strategy for an out-of-shape 40 year old and a different strategy for a 20 year old athlete. IT is the same. The solution that works for a fortune 500 company would be a nightmare for a small mom-and-pop business and vice versa.

As a side note I would caution you to be wary of any service provider promising a one-size-fits-all solution. The service provider might be inexperienced or they might be too heavily invested in a specific solution -- either way they only have one trick up their sleeve and you deserve better.

With the above in mind, I will start with the basics and work up from there. Keep in mind that what may seem obvious to you may not be obvious to someone else. I always try to start with the low hanging fruit first, because that is almost always where you can get the most "bang for your buck". If you have already taken care of the basics then you might want to skip ahead to some of the other automation articles in this series.

Where To Start

Email. Email is for talking to people. It is for memos. You should not use if for everything. Here are somethings you should NOT be doing in email:

  • Invoicing customers
  • Project management
  • Document management
  • Customer service management
  • Manually creating or sending emails with similar content.

The last item in the list is completely different than the others, and we'll get to that in just a moment. For now let's talk about the first four items in the list.

The problem with email is that it creates silos. When I looked up the definition for the word silo I saw the following:

A system, process, department, etc. that operates in isolation from others.

And it also gave an example of the word used in a sentence:

"it's vital that team members step out of their silos and start working together"

Really small companies tend to use their email for everything. This is one of those things that is usually not a big problem until you try to scale your business. If you have less than 5 employees the problem of silos is real but not very significant. At more than 50 employees the problem of silos can be monumental.

Using the customer service example, if an angry customer calls your support desk and talks to your customer service representative named Sally. Sally emails the customer some instructions on how to return her purchase and collect a refund. Two days later the customer calls again. This time Sally is out of the office and the customer talks to Bob. If you are using email as your sole means of Customer Support Management then Bob has no way of knowing what happened on the previous call. While this might not seem like a big deal to you, it is often a big deal to an unsatisfied customer.

Any authorized individual within your company should be able to track support requests from the customer's first interaction all the way to their last interaction. That means you should be using some type of ticketing system or you run the risk of things falling through the cracks.

Document management and project management are no different. Sally and Bob are working on an important proposal. They email the finished draft to a supervisor Karen for editing and revisions. Then later you realize that it would be beneficial to add a section to the proposal. You want Larry to write it because he has a background in contract law. You ask Larry to get started right away. There's only one problem. Karen has the latest revisions. Karen's spouse recently had a sudden health emergency and Larry can't get started until Karen returns from FMLA leave.

Even once you get past this obstacle you still need some way to break the document out of its silos. In order to maximize productivity you need to make this document accessible to all the relevant parties. You need a document repository a.k.a. a document management system.

Automated Emails

Now we come to the last item in the above list of things not to do: manually creating or sending emails with similar content.

Recently my car was at the mechanics and I ended up in a conversation with the shop owner. The shop owner fits a profile I see quite often. While he recognized that digital technology can do amazing things to boost businesses' bottom line, he had difficulty seeing how technology could help him in his business. He was on a shoe string budget and wouldn't even know where to start.

I started asking him questions about his business. He shared with me that he simply doesn't have the time to respond to incoming emails. He said that for him email inquiries were a wasted effort because at the end of the day he always needs his customers to bring their cars into him. He said that the number one question people ask is "How much will it cost to fix my car?". He said his response is almost always the same: "I have no way of knowing until I can pop the hood and do a visual inspection and listen to the engine." I can certainly relate to that -- there are a lot of similarities between my work and his. It is hard to know how much work is needed until you can assess what you are starting with.

Here is the advice I gave him:

  1. Sit down and write down a brief explanation of what he had just told me. Explain to your potential customers that you really want to help them out but that in order to give a price quote you need more information. Explain why you need that information and how they would go about providing that information if they want to move forward with you.
  2. Find someone young and tech savvy in your network of friends and family. Maybe a niece or nephew who is attending college. Perhaps one of your employees who is constantly talking about video games or apps on their phone. Have this person set up auto-responders in your business email. Bribe Pay them to set it up if you have to. Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook, it doesn't matter - almost all email providers have at least some options for setting up auto-responders. Typically they are free to set up, so anyone should be able to do this on a shoestring budget.

Now when a customer sends you an inquiry, you are showing them you care by immediately responding back. Even a response of "I am sorry but I cannot help you until you bring your car into the shop." is much better than no response at all. Think of it from the customer perspective. You email two auto repair shops and ask for a price quote. One shop promptly replies with an email back saying they would love to help you and explaining why they cannot give you a quote until you bring your car in. The other shop just ignores you and doesn't respond at all. Out of those two shops, which would you take your car to?

If you have the time to provide a personal response to each email, that is the best customer experience of all. But that kind of high-touch communication does not scale well. And what about people who email you at 3 AM while you are sleeping? How long will it take you to respond to them? For these reasons "canned response" emails that are sent automatically can be a great option for your business.

Now I know some of you are thinking "Canned responses won't work for my business." In that case it becomes a question of how much of your outbound email content is the same or similar to other emails you send.

A good example is when a customer places an order on your website. Ideally they should receive a "Thank you for your purchase" email. If you happen to be creating these thank-you-emails manually, you would customize each one with the customer's name and the details of their order. In that case each email is unique, but the overall content and layout is exactly the same. In other words, every thank-you-email will have a customer name, order details, return policy, etc.

While a simple auto-responder may not work for this situation, you could still benefit from email automation. With a little work you can create a system (or leverage an existing system) that would use the details of a customer order and an email template to automatically generate and send "unique" thank you emails. This can also typically be done on a very tiny budget.


Most of us spend a significant portion of time creating, sending, filtering, archiving, and otherwise managing our email communications. That means that optimizing your email workflows can be a real game changer in terms of your productivity.

Eventually you will want to move past email and look at other ways that workflow automation can turbo charge your business. Don't worry, I be covering some of those strategies in the next post.