Automation is being underused by finance functions, explains Simon Molewood, transformation consultant.

Not so very long ago, it was the norm for finance and accounts departments to go through huge piles of paper-based bank statements with a highlighter. Reconciling accounts, settling invoices and keeping an eye on cash flow.

Of course, no one does this anymore. There are high tech solutions that take the pain out of otherwise monotonous and laborious tasks. But, says Simon Cole MD at software consultancy Molewood Consulting, that’s exactly what many departments – including finance – are doing, without necessarily realising it.

Automating the ‘smelly bits’

“Anytime a company uses paper, you can turn that into an automated process,” Simon insists. “Business transformation is about looking for inefficiencies or what I like to call the ‘smelly bits’. Why have you got all those people on payroll? Why are you using paper for this task? Why are your staff travelling across the globe to meetings when it can be done just as easily virtually?”

This is important because forward-thinking, agile business owners need to think about scalability. How can they grow at the same rate as revenue but without necessarily adding more people? This is where automation comes in.

“There are often lots of ‘smelly bits’ in an organisation: and those are easy wins. If it’s inefficient, it can be improved. Turn paper-based processes into automated ones, cut back on headcount by redeployment or other means favouring software investment. Processes need to be slicker; that way, businesses can scale.”

Breaking mindsets

Yet this is often a stumbling block for companies, many of whom have become stuck in: ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ mindset. As Simon explains, there is often a lack of software knowledge, and many see it as an unnecessary expense. And for those who do invest, there’s the learning curve to navigate around staff training. “It can be a faff to train, but actually, it’s one step back and three steps forwards.”

Part of what Simon does is support companies to become slicker and more agile. He’s spent decades morphing between operations and supply chain, finance and product creation, working with start-ups and SMEs as well as large corporations such as Disney, McDonald’s and Discovery. Simon’s approach has always been about transformation: sometimes that’s been driving organisational restructures, mergers and acquisitions, while other times it’s around supply chain strategy. He was even involved in supplying McDonald’s Happy Meal toys around the world, for example.

Technology and, therefore, automation sits at the heart of all this. In Simon’s view, technology is a multiplier. From an investment standpoint, people are more likely to want to buy and pay a higher price for a business if there’s a technological aspect to it.

Automation in action

Simon recalls an exhibition production company he worked with recently who put on around 50 shows a year globally (pre-pandemic). They employed a large number of freelance staff but contacting them regularly to check their availability became a ‘painful process’: permanent staff members had to call every freelancer individually, and if they weren’t in, they’d then have to call back.

Simon’s solution was to incorporate automation throughout the entire process using software that enabled the company to ‘drag and drop’ the details of everyone they wanted to work with for a particular show.

The system would automatically send ‘are you available?’ emails, which just required an initial ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. ‘Yes’ responses showed green against individual details, and ‘no’ responses showed red. Individuals who selected yes, had their calendars automatically updated with rehearsal and performance date and times.

“It was extremely simple to use, and it worked really well,” Simon recalls. “It’s about making software grandma proof. If you can do that, you get buy-in.”

The automation ‘sweet spot’

This, says Simon, is the ‘sweet spot’ to aim for: building efficient, automated processes that staff buy into because the software is easy to use and navigate.

“Once you get to that point, then you can focus on sales. And everything comes down to sales. If you strip it all back, we all want to sell more.”
Simon knows how to make the sales process more efficient, too: through data mining. Often, companies already have customer and sales data, but they don’t know what to do with it, let alone how to use it. Analytic tools such as Zoho Analytics or Chart.io can help immensely.

“Zoho Analytics help customers understand their data and help them work out who their best customers and clients are. For companies with a transactional business model, their data alone may show a huge number of transactions, and there will be no way to interpret that data. Zoho Analytics can pull out, say, the top 5% of customers who account for maybe 75% of all transactions. The company can then focus on engaging with these clients.”

Like other data analytic tools on the market, Zoho Analytics’ wraps around’ other database systems such as Salesforce or MailChimp, amalgamating existing data and churning out meaningful analysis. It can highlight potential or ‘good’ clients and show which sales and marketing campaigns have the most impact, like which advertisement channel gets the most bang for buck.

Data into action

TV advertisements, for example, says Simon, have had their day. It’s the law of diminishing returns due to their attribution window: fewer people purchase the product or visit an online store with each advertisement airing, which can cost up to £60,000 a year (plus production costs). On the other hand, Google Ads can also ‘die quickly’ as there’s often a bidding war. Instead, companies are turning more and more to advertise on social media. It’s more efficient, gives a better ROI and drives sales.

In a landscape where companies have to analyse and justify every pound they spend, this stuff matters. “It’s about scalability by digitising and automating internally as much as possible and then using data analytics to identify the most efficient way of acquiring more customers,” says Simon. “Because the end game is to get a customer and make a sale, and you want to do that by spending as little possible.”