Running a small business can be challenging. With numerous tasks to juggle, from communicating with marketing or finance teams to hiring staff, getting everything done can take a lot of time.
All too often, too much time is taken up by business admin.
In recent research by Plum Consulting and Sage, businesses estimated they lost 71 days each year to admin. That’s 14 working weeks doing nothing but admin.
During that time, you’re unable to grow your business, or simply do what you love.
“I always give my clients the 100% service they ask for and need,” says Sarah Burns, owner of Prizeology, a prize promotions agency. “That’s all myself and my colleagues care about—but sometimes all the admin requirements make it can feel like I can’t do my job. It just eats into my resources.”
Your staff process paperwork for a variety of reasons. So, for your small business, how do you go about cutting back on this workload?
We’ve all had our lives revolutionized by technology, and especially mobile technology over the past few years. This started in our personal lives, but has spread to our business lives too.
A mobile phone can replace a boarding pass when you’re taking a flight. If you use accounting apps, it can issue an invoice electronically. You can even take a photo of a receipt or invoice and have the details automatically entered into your accounting.
These are all forms of automation removing paperwork requirements, and they show how automation isn’t necessarily that complicated.
“Automation is about making the most of our human capabilities,” says Jen Stirrup, founder of Data Relish, a boutique data science and business intelligence consultancy. “It does this by reducing and streamlining tasks that we are not very good at – but that computers are perfectly designed to do.”
“We’re looking to turn dials so we can make processes faster. But we also want a brake in there, so that if something is not correct that the human can come in and check or change a decision that the artificial intelligence has made.”
As mentioned, automation is already well established in key business software, where it’s eradicating the need for paperwork. For example, many businesses use a customer relationship manager (CRM). This handles customer interactions all the way from identifying prospects, through to managing them as a customer. At no point for a typical business is there a need to print off forms to give customers, or to keep a paper-based notes of transactions.
“The best technology disappears and you don’t notice it,” adds Stirrup. “It just does its job. When automation is working well then it disappears, but you’ve still got confidence in it.”
In terms of technologies, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is the basic level of creating repeatable tasks. This is typically found in accounting software.
“In an office environment, it can help you to automatically fill in fields within forms,” says Stirrup. “I see this as a big trend in the industry at the minute, and that will become more prevalent as more people start to understand the low impact automation.”
Increasingly popular today is artificial intelligence (AI), which is becoming more sophisticated almost on a daily basis.
Right now, most implementations of AI are ANI – Artificial Narrow Intelligence.
“ANI means that the AI tends to be very good at one thing and one thing only,” adds Stirrup. “An example might be the Alexa devices from Amazon. You ask it to do something like play you a song and it does it. It does it really well.
“You also get general AI, more like you might see in movies like Terminator. But we’re a long way from that.”
Cutting time on processing paperwork
Rachel Baker, head of content at document management company Cleardata, says there are many ways in which your small business can cut down on the amount of time you spend on processing paperwork. They include:
If you use a digital mailroom service, incoming mail for your business gets sent directly to the document management company, who open, sort and digitise the documents received on your behalf. Documents are scanned in, then sent directly to the appropriate person in digital form.
Invoices, for example, can be sent directly to your company’s accounting system. This saves your staff time, meaning they can get on with their core tasks. It also means documents are easily accessible via any electronic device.
Intelligent data capture
A key way to speed up the processing of paperwork is by using optical character recognition (OCR) technology to capture data from documents intelligently.
Built into an app like AutoEntry, this is able to read, process and digitize data from structured documents, meaning data can be captured significantly faster than via manual data entry.
Key data such as purchase order numbers, supplier names and amounts can be extracted from invoices and then validated against existing information. Scanning bureaus are able to perform bulk OCR scanning of your documents so your staff can spend time on more valuable and enjoyable tasks.
Electronic document management system
Part of the reason why paperwork can take so long is inefficient organisation and not being able to locate documents when you need them. Using an electronic document management system (EDM) allows you to easily search for and view documents online.
A professional scanning bureau and EDM provider can scan all of your paper documents to an electronic management system, where they are properly indexed and searchable by name, date and key information.
Tips to reduce time spent on processing paperwork
AccountAbility-Plus, a consultancy offering operational and back office support services, offers the following tips to spend less time processing paperwork at your business:
1. Look at software
There are a number of software options available to help you cut back on admin, but they need to work for you and you need to use them. Try them and see what works and what does not. They are likely to include CRM and accounting systems, so take your time and work out which one will work for best for your business.
2. Try outsourcing
You don’t have to be the expert on all things.
It is always more profitable to work at gaining sales than focus on administration tasks, so you could look at outsourcing some of your admin. Make sure you outsource to the right provider – a full business support service might be just what you need.
A business such as this will offer a wide range of services that you can tap into as you need them, or can provide you will a full back office that effectively runs the admin for your company.
3. Prioritise your work
Make sure you prioritise your tasks each day so you do the most profitable or productive things first.
4. Be aware of time taken on admin
Track the time it takes you to do your administration tasks over a month or so. It will probably be more than you think.
5. Spend some time on templates
Spend a little time on building a bank of templates that you can tap into each time you need to contact a customer. These could include your letterheads, your quotes, invoices and receipts.
6. Make sure your processes are in place
Decide how you will manage your late payers and invest into credit control activities.
7. Make sure you are contactable
Nothing puts a potential customer off faster than not being able to get hold of you. Answerphones have their place, but think about investing in a telephone answering service, so not only do your customers get a personal service, you’re aware of who you need to contact and why.
8. Keep on top of your accounts
Regular time spent on keeping your accounts up to date pays off hugely in the long run. Get into a habit of putting receipts into one place so you can find them when you need them. Even better, with the right accounting solution, you can scan them with your mobile phone and the info will appear in your software.
Getting started with reducing paperwork
Processing paperwork can be time-consuming and slow down the day-to-day running of your business. Although, some paperwork is necessary, it’s important to embrace the digital age and use AI or OCR to help with tasks such as invoicing, receipts or storage of files.
To get started, Stirrup suggests Googling as a first measure but adds:
“I would look at case studies. Then start by listing out what are the painful, repetitive tasks that you don’t like doing. Look at ways that you can optimize them based on what others have done.
“Something I did for a whole week was to measure my time – what I actually did. This can be different from what we think we do! I realized I was spending 10 hours a week organizing my social media. So, I started to automate my tweets and my LinkedIn posts. I now spend a day a month doing that, down from one week of my time just to do that.
“You’d be surprised how many tasks can be automated.”