Ben Dalton 12 April 2022 25 min read

Automation is a Journey: The Six Steps to Automation

No matter the industry, it seems every recent report on business trends includes predictions around automation and its ability to transform the workplace.

Whilst, indeed, automation has indeed become part of everyday life for many businesses, it’s worth noting that it remains a largely misunderstood process.

As our years of automation experience with Lucy have revealed, the belief that automation is a simple plug-and-play exercise is widespread. There’s a common misconception that you simply choose a task to automate, buy the software, flick the switch, and then sit back and watch the dollars roll in.

But the reality is something quite different. Done properly, automation happens more incrementally. It’s a deliberate journey, with significant benefits to be gained at each step along the way – and not all of them monetary.

This article is the first in a seven-part series on the journey of automation. Using Lucy sales order automation as an example, we’ll provide a high-level overview of the entire process. In subsequent articles we’ll explore the various steps in more depth, so that by the end of the series, you’ll be armed with the questions to ask, know the pitfalls to watch out for, and understand what to expect on your path to automation nirvana.

Mapping the journey

Before embarking on an automation project, it’s important to have a sound understanding of what the process looks like. Diving in unprepared is unlikely to net the results your business is hoping for. In fact, failing to ask – and answer – the right questions at each step can lead to problems like a drop in staff morale, process upheaval, and disgruntled stakeholders.

As you map out your business case for automation, consider each of the following steps and their evaluation requirements:

Step 1: Identifying the process to automate

  1. First and foremost - what problem are you looking to solve? And why now?
  2. What are the expected benefits of automating this process? Reallocation of staff to higher value activities? Lower cost to serve?
  3. Who will be impacted by the automation in terms of change management? It’s preferable to automate a process that won’t require a complex overhaul of customer behavior or business logic.

Step 2: Research options

  1. Is there a product designed especially for this purpose? What about more generic one-size-fits-all options?
  2. How do the different solutions compare? In addition to cost, consider self-service features, contract obligations, and support and training resources.
  3. How are the solutions implemented in terms of speed, complexity, and up-front cost? Where does each vendor's integration capability sit?

Step 3: Calculating ROI

  1. What does the process currently cost when performed manually? Be aware that this can be difficult to accurately quantify. A stopwatch can tell you how long it takes to key in the average order, but it doesn’t take into account the human distraction factor and loss of focus time that constant switching between tasks brings.
  2. What do the proposed solutions cost by comparison?
  3. Are there adjacent savings to be made as side effects of automating this process? Your true ROI could take the form of fewer keying errors, fewer returns, less time spent resolving invoice disputes, faster service, happier customers...

Step 4: Evaluating early results

  1. What do the numbers look like one month post-implementation? Your vendor should be able to provide stats on agreed automation metrics such as number of orders processed, average order lines, and interventions required.
  2. Has uptake been as expected? Again, your vendor should ensure you understand what is realistic in the initial stages of automation, and help you take action if results aren’t aligned with expectations.
  3. What is the feedback from internal and external stakeholders? Are staff on board with the changes?
  4. What do the numbers look like 2, 4, 6 months in? Revisit the stats regularly with your vendor.

Step 5: Acting on insights

  1. What are the issues humans have been masking up until now? Automation can uncover a multitude of sin - in data, entrenched processes and accepted logic.
  2. How can the forensic findings help you address underlying problems, perhaps with customer behaviour or outdated business process?

Step 6: Extending/expanding automation

  1. Having successfully digitised this process, how can your business apply these newly acquired automation skills elsewhere?
  2. Other inefficiencies and bottlenecks most certainly exist within your operations. How would automation improve them?

Everyone benefits

Automation is a journey. Expecting a set and forget experience is a surefire path to disappointment and sunk costs. But set out on the right foot, and your business stands to reap profound benefits and learnings along the way.

In 2021, Lucy processed more than 1.5 million lines of data from over 300,000 purchase orders. Whilst Lucy quite literally saved her customers millions of dollars in manual labour, she also delivered benefits far beyond the cost of data entry.

From faster order fulfillment and improved customer experience, to more engaged staff doing more meaningful work - automating the sales order entry piece has allowed these businesses to do what they do, better.

The Six Steps To Automation

If your business is considering automation, here's where to begin. Evaluating potential automation begs 3 key questions, which we’ll examine through the lens of our own experience with Lucy sales order automation software.

I. What problem are you solving? (and why now?)

Consider the various processes, workflows, and constraints that exist within your business, whether cross-departmental or localised to one team. Before you assess their automation potential, ask yourself: What problem are we trying to solve?

If you're not clear what the problem is, automation won’t fix it.

Once the problem is articulated, consider the timing. Why now? There is often some compelling event which prompts a business to start exploring automation. Understand yours.

Of course every business is different. Motivators can be simple or complex, but as we’ve found working with Lucy customers, there are generally some common themes:

  • Perhaps your Customer Service team is facing the perfect storm of staffing changes. Deborah, who keys all the orders and knows all the customers and their quirks, is retiring soon. With a few other CSRs advancing into Sales roles, your team’s capacity to process orders manually is about to drop suddenly and dramatically.
  • Or maybe flagging CSAT ratings are attracting all the wrong kind of attention around the business. A push to boost customer satisfaction might involve speeding up delivery times and reducing the write-offs and returns brought on by data errors.

A clearly defined problem and timeline should set you on the right course, and serve as a compass to gauge your progress along the way.

II. What benefits are you expecting?

Once everyone agrees on the why (and why now), the next exercise is to outline the benefits you expect to gain by automating.

In the case of sales order automation, many Lucy customers cited improved data entry speed and accuracy as the main benefits to be had. Purchase orders processed instantly and accurately can be picked, packed and despatched far more quickly. Fulfilment times go down, satisfaction levels go up.

Other customers hoped to re-direct staff into higher value activities. With Lucy relieving staff of the burden of data entry, CSRs could focus instead on the kind of work us humans excel at – customer engagement, problem solving, empathy, decision-making.

Still others may see automation as a means to cut staffing costs. We’ll talk more about this later, but it’s worth noting here that replacing people with robots is generally not the way automation plays out. In the case of Lucy, we have yet to see a single staff member made redundant by a business implementing our software. And that is without doubt, a good thing.

III. Who will be impacted?

Finally, it’s important to identify who exactly will be impacted by the automation in terms of change management. It’s vastly preferable to automate a process that won’t require a complete overhaul of customer behaviour or business logic. The more change you introduce, particularly internally, the harder it will be to achieve buy-in from those most affected (particularly where the automation is seen as a threat to job security).

For staff who may be wary of automation and its potential impact on their own role, it’s worth noting that software like Lucy is what we call ‘collaborative automation’. In other words, Lucy’s not here to steal your job - she’s here to make your job infinitely more rewarding. Viewing automation tools as an extension of your team can be a helpful approach. Like any new team member, Lucy will need to be taught how to perform the job to the standard you expect. But once she’s trained up, the staff who used to perform her role can enjoy working on the good stuff.

The other group to consider when evaluating impacts is your customer base. Will automating this process require any behavioural change on their part? The beauty of Lucy is that she can be implemented without disrupting your customers. They don’t need to alter their existing ordering habits, yet they’ll still reap the benefits of improved order speed and accuracy. Not all automation tools will integrate so seamlessly, so the trick is to ensure (and communicate) that any change you’re asking customers to make will be far outweighed by the benefits they’ll experience.

A note about sponsors

If you haven't already, now is the time to ensure you have an automation project sponsor or champion. The project champion articulates the benefits of automation across the business, understands the processes affected, and ensures queries and concerns are addressed. Without a champion acting as conduit between staff, stakeholders and vendor, it’s likely your automation project will stall before it ever gets off the ground.

Step one complete

Once you’ve completed this analysis, your automation journey has begun and you're on the way to outlining a business case.

In our next article, we’ll examine Step 2: Researching options (spoiler alert - there’s far more than just price at stake!)

We hope you’ll stay tuned as we continue our series. In the meantime, to find out how Lucy can handle your sales order entry, speak to our experts.

Book a discovery call

By now, you’ve asked (and answered) those difficult early questions. You know which manual process makes good business sense to automate, and so it’s time to look at your software options and vendors.

Keeping in mind that specific process you’ve chosen to automate, begin your search by asking:

I. Is there a product designed for this purpose? Are there several you can compare?

There are definite advantages to choosing a purpose-built solution that solves exactly the problem you have. Don’t underestimate the efficiencies of a vendor who intimately understands your business's problem inside and out.

Conversely, a generalist ‘jack of all trades’ may be what your organisation (thinks it) is looking for. If so, it pays to ensure this vendor’s ancillary services are features you’re likely to actually use. And be realistic - otherwise it’s sunk cost. 

II. How do the different solutions compare BEYOND pricing, contract terms, training/support?

  1. Are others in your industry using any of these vendors?
    • Are they happy? Is it a successful partnership?
    • It’s imperative that you speak with peers and trusted colleagues about their own experiences with the type of automation software you’re considering.
    • Ask the vendor for references – not just in the form of publicly available case studies, but actual contact details for real people, willing to tell their story.

  2. To what level does the vendor promote user autonomy / self-service options, or control access to simple backend maintenance?
    • The more data you have access to, the easier (and cheaper) it will be to scale later.
    • Having to rely on your vendor for simple admin will inevitably slow you down. The object of automation is always to scale, whether now or at some point in the future.

III. True cost - Compare not just the upfront financial outlay, but the ongoing subscription fees.

  • How does each vendor stack up, and how do the figures change as your business GROWS? For example, Lucy does not impose limits or charges per Trading Partner, while other vendors do structure their fees this way, making it costly to expand the automation.
  • Will scaling send you bankrupt? Or will it improve your ROI?

IV. How well does the vendor understand your business and its systems?

Do they integrate to your ERP (and do they do it in-house)? Outsourced integration means you have someone between you and the people who ‘get’ your single source of truth. Buyer beware.

V. What does the implementation phase look like?

  • Get some upfront quotes on implementation complexity, cost, and timeframe. The faster you’re up and running, the quicker you start to reap the benefits of automation.
  • Ideally, implementation should be quoted in terms of weeks, not months.

In summary

Once it becomes apparent there are more than just dollars at stake, you’ll no doubt evaluate your automation options through a whole new lens.

Whilst on face value, price is an important consideration, once you dig into the terms, conditions, and services on offer, it becomes clear that metrics other than dollars do matter.

Look for a solution that ticks the boxes you care about. One happy Lucy customer recently exclaimed, “There’s nothing not to like. It’s simple to implement and use, plus the billing model is very transparent and easy to understand – there are no hidden fees or costs. Easy to implement, super fast return for effort.

In our next instalment, we'll move on to Step 3: Calculating ROI. It's an important part of the evaluation process, and more nuanced than you might expect.

Until then, if you're ready to research automation options for your business, be sure to speak with one of our experts!

In broad terms, ROI is a financial metric to predict how profitable an investment is likely to be relative to its cost. It’s a key part of the business case when seeking approval for a project, and is generally straightforward to calculate.   

However, when it comes to automation, ROI is often harder to measure, more nuanced (and in many ways greater) than you might imagine. Let’s look at three key questions to consider for return on your automation investment:   

I. What does the process currently cost when performed manually?  

To determine automation ROI, you first need to calculate what the process currently costs to perform manually. This is harder than it sounds 

Using sales order entry as an example, it can be tempting to simply pull out a stopwatch and time how long it takes a CSR to key an average purchase order into the ERP.  Doing that may give you a baseline indication, but it’s by no means a reliable assessment of actual time spent on data entry. It doesn’t take into account the human distraction factor.

Consider the friction involved in repeatedly switching between tasks. Your typical Customer Service Rep doesn’t spend the entire day with their head down, keying in orders one after another. There are endless interruptions, perhaps answering a phone call, helping a co-worker, or chasing info for a customer. The loss of focus time significantly compounds the cost of processing even one order manually. 

Next, think about how else you might be ‘paying’ for manual order entry. If a customer includes an obsolete stock code on their order, does the CSR simply remove it? Or do they contact the customer to upsell or substitute with a replacement product? What about mismatches between units of measure? The Lucy automation tool won’t decide how to handle these discrepancies the first time they arise, but she will bring them to your attention and remember the action you instruct her to take. When the issue invariably pops up again in future, Lucy will correct it instantly.   

II. What do the proposed solutions cost by comparison?  

This comparison can also be tricky if the true cost of a solution ends up higher than just face value SaaS fees.  

Remember to factor in any additional costs to scale - depending on their pricing model, some vendors may become less economical as your business grows. A common pitfall with sales order automation is the charge-per-trading-partner model. With a solution like this, the more you automate, the more you pay.

Look for vendors with more flexible scaling options to get the most cost-efficiency from an automation solution. 

III. Are there adjacent savings to be made as side effects of automating this process?  

Automating sales order entry, for example, can result in fewer keying errors, fewer returns, less time on invoice disputes, quicker delivery, happier customers, happier staff...  

These benefits aren’t as easy to measure in terms of dollar savings, but they’re just as important (some would argue more). For many businesses, this is the true ROI.   

Consider the Lucy customer who was able to promote a CSR into a more senior Sales role once she was free of all the data entry. Or the Lucy user who identified thousands of dollars in missed sales opportunities pre-automation, due to incorrect stock codes. We’ll talk more about forensics in a future instalment – they're an important (and often overlooked) benefit of automation.   

In summary 

The money a business can save by adopting automation is not trivial. But it’s also important to remember that the dollars you save each year are really only the tip of the ROI iceberg. The value that automation creates is almost unlimited.

Ready to move onto the next chapter? You'll find it here - Step 4: Evaluating early results.

Ready to speak to an automation expert? We’d love to chat.

Okay so you’re not an automation expert – not yet anyway.

Therefore, it’s really important to work closely with your vendor through this early, post-go-live period. Your vendor should have set clear expectations around what success looks like in the first months. Those expectations should align with your business goals, which will help inform the results you choose to measure.

When interrogating early results, start by examining the following:

I. What do the numbers look like one month post-implementation? Dartboard image by engin-akyurt via unsplash

Your vendor should be tracking all the statistics on those previously agreed metrics. After about 30 days of automation, it’s time to check in on yours.

To give you an example of common metrics, with Lucy our initial review would include the number of purchase orders Lucy processed during the month. In addition to total orders, how many order lines were successfully integrated? How many staff interventions were required due to mismatched data? How many trading partners did Lucy look after?

There are always two sets of expectations at play here: 1) realistic performance in the first month, and 2) automation nirvana.

If you can view early results through a realistic lens, it will help identify ways to reach nirvana later.

II. Has uptake been as expected?  

Here it can get interesting. Hopefully your staff were all on board with this automation project at the outset. Now that it’s launched, how has it impacted them? Metrics and statistics may not paint the full picture, so it’s important to talk to those staff who’ve been impacted - do a debrief and get the whole story.

By our very nature, we humans can be resistant to change. Customer service reps or other staff who see automation as a threat to job security are unlikely to embrace it. Engaging and supporting affected staff early in the project can head off possible disengagement (or even subconscious sabotage attempts) later.

The project champion should lead the charge on staff engagement, backed by plenty of support from the vendor. Now is a good time to revisit staff training to ensure the automation software is well-understood. If there are new staff or you’ve identified knowledge gaps, get your vendor to provide more training. Listen to staff feedback – there may be a pain point they’re experiencing that the vendor can address.

Open communication is key. 

III. What is the feedback from internal & external stakeholders?  

This links back to the previous question around uptake and staff engagement, but you should also be listening to other voices around the business.

How are warehouse staff experiencing the change (if any)? With sales order automation, Lucy customers have found that demand on their warehouses smooths out, with less dramatic peaks and troughs to navigate.

Perhaps customer orders are being packed and dispatched more quickly? Are the finance team processing fewer credits due to a reduction in errors?

Gather as much feedback as possible. If it’s quantifiable, all the better.

IV. What do the numbers look like 2, 4, 6 months in?  

At the risk of overstating it, we urge you to revisit performance continually with your vendor. Automation is a journey and your vendor should be a partner who travels with you long after implementation.

As time goes on, look for ways to analyse the feedback you’ve been collecting since go live. Gauge customer satisfaction by comparing pre and post-automation CSAT scores. Check whether the business’s DIFOT (delivered in full, on time) figures have changed since automation began?

Watch for usage trends within your automation stats. Regular monitoring can help identify areas to scale. Perhaps additional trading partners can be onboarded now that staff are confident using the software.

Leverage in-built smarts if your automation software offers them. For example, Lucy can be taught to remember data corrections and order patterns, which means she gets smarter over time. This is reflected in fewer interventions required as Lucy takes on more of the purchase order processing.

In summary 

The aim of this step is to gain a very clear picture of what is happening within your business as a result of this automation.

During the initial weeks and months, your vendor should be close at hand, providing guidance, data, and support. If your early results aren’t aligned to expectations, how can your vendor help get you there?

Next time we'll look at Step 5: Acting on insights

Until then..... we’re always happy to chat automation. If you are too, please get in touch!

Before automation came along, the data issues in your business processes were routinely masked by humans.

There’s no doubt a good CSR is worth their weight in gold. But their dedication to great service can also hide a multitude of sins. Automation’s dedication to clean data and clear process rules can quickly uncover those sins.

Many companies find that automation shines a spotlight on problems - in data, in entrenched processes, in accepted logic.

The key is to expose these issues and take action to stop them from reoccurring.
Image of lighbulb in hand by rohan makhecha via unsplash

In Step 4: Evaluating early results we took a look at the initial forensics, post-automation.

What did yours tell you? And how can your automation solution help you overcome the anomalies?

To give you a better idea of some real-world actionable insights, we'll look at two examples we’ve seen first-hand with Lucy sales order automation.

Example 1

Acme Co. has recently gone live with Lucy (cue applause and confetti). After the first month, it becomes evident that one of Acme's biggest customers consistently sends through purchase orders that require manual intervention. Incorrect pricing is commonplace on this customer's purchase orders, which means they don't make it past Lucy's watchful eye. Thus, this customer's orders end up requiring a disproportionate amount of attention from Acme staff.

Of course, none of this is news to Acme staff, who (as they have done for years) routinely correct and override prices whilst keying the order into the ERP.

However, it IS news to Lucy. Like many new starters, when she first joins a company, Lucy asks questions. Any time the customer’s purchase order data doesn’t match the ERP, Lucy flags it. Preventing bad data getting into the ERP is one of Lucy’s greatest talents. But she won't make business decisions on behalf of humans, unless she's been given authority to do so. Lucy can learn what to do in these scenarios, based on the decisions your team makes, if you choose to teach her.

In the above example, Acme Co. took a two-pronged approach to reduce the interventions they were making:

  1. They supplied their customer with an up-to-date contract price list and offered to assist with updating the customer's procurement records
  2. They enabled Lucy’s Automatic Price Acceptance feature. This allowed Acme to specify a tolerance level for that particular customer, and dictate what Lucy should do in the event the purchase order price was incorrect. If the customer's PO price was within the specified range of what the ERP said it should be, Lucy would take the appropriate action - either accepting the PO price, or updating it to match the ERP.

Taking either one of the above actions would have saved Acme Co. time, cost, and effort. But approaching the issue from both angles dramatically reduced their cost to serve this customer, whist also expediting the processing (and ultimately the delivery) of the customer's orders.

Example 2

Globex Corp has now been using Lucy for a few months. In reviewing their early forensics, Globex discovered a pattern of Customer Service Reps repeatedly deleting a significant number of products and lines from incoming customer orders.

On investigation, they found that several Globex customers had been ordering obsolete or discontinued product lines for months (or even years). When this happened, the Globex CSR's would delete the item from the order, before (very thoughtfully) phoning or emailing the customer to offer an alternative product. Whilst this was undeniably sound service, the problem was that no one had ever systematically recorded or analysed this activity. So the next time that same customer placed an order, they'd invariably order the same discontinued products, and the cycle would begin all over again.

But then, Lucy joined the team. 

Because Lucy records every action taken with every order, the data was right there for Globex to gain insights. Working with the Lucy team, Globex took several swift actions to reduce the number of manual order processing interventions: 

  1. By having Lucy add a flag to specific reporting data fields, Globex Corp were able to go back in time and determine every obsolete or discontinued product that every customer had ordered since Lucy's implementation.
  2. By offering product training and marketing support to their Sales team, Globex boosted success of their new product lines, whilst reducing time spent on phones and emails to correct orders for old products.
  3. By utilising Lucy's Alternative Product Suggestions, Globex further reduced their order interventions. Not only did this claw back significant CSR time and effort, but it also reduced the invoice disputes, returns and credit requests which invariably reared their heads down the line. 

By acting on these insights, Globex not only increased exposure for their new product lines but also turned the tide from losing sales to product obsolescence, into a strong upselling campaign for new product alternatives. 

In summary 

Your automation solution vendor should regularly report back on the types of interventions and errors that arise during the early phase of automation. They should also come to you equipped with suggestions on how to handle these scenarios so you get the most value from the solution you’ve just implemented. If the previous two statements don't align to your own experience, it's possible your vendor isn't the right one for you. 

After all, insights aren’t of much value if they aren’t actionable.

Thank you again for continuing on the automation journey with us! Stay tuned for the final article in our series, where we explore Step 6: Extending automation. 

Until then.... feel free to chat with us about how automation can transform your sales order entry!

During the course of planning, researching, calculating, and launching your automation project, you’ve hopefully gained some valuable insights - about automation in general, and your business in particular. For some, discovering untapped talent in staff who’ve previously been saddled with manual processing is an unexpected and welcome surprise. joey-nicotra-0EI_4R2r0qg-unsplash_resized

The journey of launching an automation project has not only served to vastly improve a clunky process within your business, but it’s had the added benefit of boosting digital capability across your organisation.

You and your team possess new, sharpened skills in digitising business processes. And as a great comic book writer once declared, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Take a look around your business - what other inefficiencies can you uncover? In most organisations there will be plenty! Which of these can be improved by applying the principles of automation?

What is the next broken process you can apply your automation knowledge toward fixing?

Start by reviewing adjacent workflows

In some instances, you may recognise the opportunity to automate a process related to the one you’ve just addressed.

For example, after automating incoming PDF purchase orders, one Lucy customer decided to extend Lucy’s skills to their marketplace orders coming in from Amazon.

Another leapt at the chance to maximise their existing EDI investment by training Lucy to act as the translator between their small, non-EDI customers and the EDI van. In this way they were able to increase the volume going through their EDI system, without asking their customers to alter their ordering process or shoulder large EDI setup costs.

There is often room to expand the scope of your original project in order to gain even more efficiencies (and higher return on investment). It's the perfect place to start, before looking further afield at other processes around your organisation.

Wrapping up 

At the commencement of this journey, you weren’t an automation expert (and we quite bluntly told you so).

But now.... you are.

You’ve got powerful new tools in your arsenal, you’ve brought your stakeholders along for the journey, and your successful automation project is now proving its ROI, every day.

It’s an achievement to be proud of. And now it’s time - go forth and automate!

Are you ready to get an automation project in motion? We'd love to help.