Every business needs clear automated systems and procedures that work by making your life easier and your customer experience smooth (learn more about how systems benefit you in this post). There are so many amazing resources online for how to build workflows, automations, systems, policies and process for small to midsize businesses but they’re all pretty standardized. Your business isn’t standard. In fact, solopreneurship and tiny businesses are big on customized services and make up the backdrop of ‘one-woman-does-it-all’ shows.

How do you take your completely unique and personalized business and create repeatable processes that guarantee to save you time, money, and make your customers happier?

After creating some absolutely dreadful procedures and systems, I’m here to tell you the things that do and don’t work!

Identify the places in your business that would benefit from workflows, automation, and processes

Starting the process into system creation can feel overwhelming. There’s so much advice out there and, actually, a quick google search comes up with AI and machinery that can help move your business forward. You do not need advanced automation like that and I don’t want you investing in machinery to grow your business (not at this stage!).

But even knowing that much of the advice is aimed at much larger companies it’s still easy to feel panicked and/or come to the conclusion that you’re too small a business for such strategies.

robot collage with robots interacting happily on a post about systems, automations and workflow setups

But automation and workflow development aren’t just for big companies. They will seriously help you gain the traction, professionalism, and consistency required to keep growing your small business.

Before you even begin designing any system or automation you need to start identifying what your business needs. Learn more about identifying your business needs for growth in this post.

A few examples of areas requiring automation and workflows include:

  • Customer service:
    • Mailing list sign up + lead magnet automation
    • Canned responses to commonly asked questions
    • Onboarding (client intake) process/workflow/automation
    • Automated client calendar/appointment system
    • Bot autoresponders on social media
    • Lead follow up process for potential clients + customers
  • Productivity:
    • Project management system setup + place for all processes and procedures (e.g. Trello)
    • Password storage
    • File storage (and management)
    • If this, then that automation using IFTTT or Zapier
    • Email filters and management
    • Social media planner
    • Social media content finder process
    • Newsletter planner

There are many many areas that will benefit from your implementation of procedures and processes. And don’t worry, you don’t have to set them all up at once but you do need to write them all out.

Identifying the workflows that you want to implement gives you a clear list of tasks to work through. If it seems like too much work remember that you waste up to 6 hours a week completing tasks that you could be automating. That’s bonkers!

6 hours over 1 month is a whole day of wasted time. That’s nearly 2 weeks of time a year. Now tell me, what would an extra 2 weeks of vacation time a year do for your family and lifestyle?

Get Your Free Automation Workflow Checklist: You’ll receive access to all the free (and low cost) tools that help you take charge of form filling, customer service, client relationship management, email management and more.

Start building workflows and automation based on your smaller goals and tasks

When you start thinking about your business workflows and automation it’s tempting to start with the really big ones or the ones that will seemingly result in instant customer happiness.

But start slower. Think about how you fill out your passwords and consider an app that will make life easier (like Lastpass) or consider setting up Trello for project management or simply organizing your Google Calendar.

When you start with the smaller tasks it’s easier to build confidence (if it goes wrong it’s not the end of the world!), stick to using them (consistency is key), and get used to your new business operations.

Identify your goals and expectations before starting to plan your workflows and automation

Setting up a process can feel really simple. You just start it and see where it ends up. But that’s not the best way to add workflows and automation to your business. In fact, it’s a good idea to make a list of end goals. Once you have those listed, you may want to address the expectations that need to be laid out within each goal. Here are a few examples:

  • Goal: make the onboarding process consistent so that clients receive full knowledge of what to expect and how the business works
    • Expectations:
      • payment dates
      • scope of project
      • client deadlines + late fees etc
  • Goal: keep my business logins secure without having to have notes on little pieces of paper + without having to share them with contractors
    • Expectations:
      • HIPAA secure app (this is a good certification to look for)
      • All passwords + notes to be secured in one place
      • Clients can share passwords with me/I can share passwords with contractors (without contractors being able to see passwords)

By outlining the end goal and the expectations you have you can then find solutions that a) work and b) have steps to relay expectations to the users (or yourself) simply. For instance, the onboarding workflow process may be a process that you decide to automate in Dubsado. By listing the expectations you want your clients/customers to know you’re able to incorporate them through documents, forms, and emails that consistently go out to every client.

workflow and automations work best when you take the time to carefully consider how your personal work style and client expectations fit within the bigger picture

Questions to ask yourself when setting goals, creating workflows and automation processes:

  • What is the goal?
  • Who does the goal serve?
  • Why does the goal need to exist?
  • What are my minimum requirements for the goal e.g. cost, security etc?
  • Does this process need to be shared with others e.g. customers, contractors?
  • What do these other people need to know about the process and rules of working with me/this system?
  • How can I include these expectations in the overall goal process?

Get Your Free Automation Workflow Checklist: You’ll receive access to all the free (and low cost) tools that help you take charge of form filling, customer service, client relationship management, email management and more.

Keep your goals realistic

It’s easy to have grand plans when setting up your system. After all, wouldn’t it be awesome if your social media basically wrote itself and that you could share it on 10 different social media sites?

Yeah. It would.

But if you set up a social media workflow for sharing blog posts, it’s likely that you will need to create at least 10 different images for the 10 different platforms. Then you’d have to write and tweak 10 different posts to match the places they’ll be shared to.

In theory, this would work amazingly. In reality, you likely don’t have the time to create and write 10 different images and posts every time you write a blog post.

If you’re a one woman show then you have to keep that in mind. Creating processes that require manual input needs to be done with realistic expectations otherwise you’ll never complete it. If you know you can create a blog post with 3 images for 3 different platforms without stressing then that’s your process.

Remember that as  a one-woman show you don’t have the resources of bigger companies. As you grow and hire a graphic designer or a social media manager then your process can change to accommodate the extra labour you have to hand.

Staying realistic is important because if you don’t stick to a workflow or automation process then you’ll lose confidence in the system, your hard work will likely be ignored, and you’ll go back to flying by the seat of your pants.

Make sure you can understand and replicate what you’re creating

This part is vital.

With automation, it’s pretty easy to create replicating tasks. Because most of the time you’re working with a system that instantly sends out the information you request e.g. a lead magnet goes out to your customers when someone gives you their email address etc or your sales spreadsheet gets a new automatic line of information whenever you make a sale on Etsy.

However, when you’re setting up processes that are more akin to workflows and manual input is required then it’s absolutely vital that these processes make sense to whoever may need to use them.

Handing off work to contractors and employees is one of the many reasons people develop workflows and automation processes. And while it may not seem like you have much need for that right now, I can promise that it’s important that your key procedures are documented before you even consider hiring anyone! Why? Because if you become sick, need to reduce your hours for a family emergency, or simply decide it’s the right time to start outsourcing then you absolutely need to have a clear system that someone else can follow (without you having to spend hours guiding them through everything).

Test your written manual workflows and reflect on whether they make sense.

What are your personal boundaries?

Don’t forget to add your personal boundaries to your workflow processes.

For instance, if you always go to dance classes on Thursday nights then block off Thursday nights. That means no checking into email, no appointments, no work.

If you don’t want to work after 9pm then set an alarm at 9pm saying ‘no more screen time’. Set it for every single night (mine is set to go off ‘silently’ so I never have to worry about it making noise while I’m at the cinema). Then set another alarm for 10 minutes later saying ‘seriously, no more working!’.

Workflows can include simple automation like repeat daily alarms that keep you on track or ensure you that you stop working.

Identifying your work boundaries is really important. And it should be incorporated into your schedules, workflows and automation. Here are a few examples:

I only take discovery calls on Monday evenings and Friday mornings

  • Make sure you set up your appointment calendar with these rules
clocks and organization images in the background. text overlay says don't forget the simple automations that keep you on track such as reminders to stop working for the day or to take a break  taylorjohnson administration image found on post about workflow and automation customization for small business

I need 24-48 hours notice before I can accept an appointment

  • Make sure you set up your appointment calendar with these rules and perhaps add it as an expectation outlay when you onboard clients

I don’t return client emails after 4pm

  • If you work past 4pm consider using Boomerang (you’ll get a free premium month if you sign up with this link) or Dubsado (get 20% off your first month with code: Hannahadmin) to delay sending replies until the next day. That means you can write them up but they won’t be received until the start of business the next working day

I block time for client work and do not stray from those days. Deadlines are non-negotiable.

  • Consider implementing a late fee to clients who don’t get content to you on time.
    • Make sure that the deadlines also make sense to you.
      • If you only work on Client A work on Mondays then set up deadlines that make sense for that.
      • For instance, you request information and feedback on Monday. You’ll need 24 hours to review their reply. So, with that in mind, your client has until Thursday to reply, which gives you Friday to review.
      • Using the same example, Client B who you complete work for on Tuesdays will have the Friday deadline. But Client C (Wednesdays dedicated to their work) will have a Monday deadline.
      • You want to make your client deadlines realistic e.g. if you need them to create a big piece of content for you then a couple of days may not be enough notice.
      • Make sure that your clients know about late fees you may charge.

Get Your Free Automation Workflow Checklist: You’ll receive access to all the free (and low cost) tools that help you take charge of form filling, customer service, client relationship management, email management and more.

Refer to your workflows daily and set reminders to check on your automations

When you set up workflows and automation it’s really easy to just leave them as is and never check them out again.

Like that time I set up my social media scheduler and constantly posted 2018 headlines during the start of 2019 – not life and death, admittedly, but it could easily have been avoided had I checked in.

collection of images focusing on reflection, repetition, and thought.

Over the past few years, I’ve set up dozens of workflows, automations, and procedures – to never ever check on them again. Which is really stupid! Because eventually I develop them, forget steps, stop using them, forget they exist entirely. What a lot of wasted work! And pointless should I ever need to outsource these tasks.

I use Dubsado for client-related workflows and Asana for procedure related workflows associated with client work. I use them every single time and make tweaks to the master list should I find that something isn’t working.

Get into the habit of checking your workflows and using them. Make appointments with yourself to check that your automation workflows are on track and that the content in them still fits, e.g. your onboarding system doesn’t still send out pricing from 5 years ago.

Summary

There are so many little steps you can take to make your business setup and workflows unique to your customization, client needs, and operations style.

workflow and automation development is vital when it comes to developing your business
  1. Identify places in your business that could benefit from repetitive, automated, or standard procedures and workflows.
  2. Start outlining and focusing on the small business tasks first. After completing those you can rework this step by step guide for the bigger, more complex, more high risk tasks and strategies.
  3. For each step, identify any expectations you may want to incorporate. Bonus tip: make sure that you also write out every step of the workflow at this stage.
  4. Review your workflows to see if they’re realistic for your business and your current available labour, time, investment, workload. If not, then edit them to fit what you can handle right now. The most important thing is to ensure that you’re going to consistently use and refer to your workflow.
  5. Make sure that the set ups you create make sense to people not involved with your business. Not everyone can live in your head and it’s important that everything can be replicated.
  6. Reassess what you’ve written and check to ensure your personal boundaries have been laid out clearly. Sometimes personal boundaries need to be added to daily operation workflows. Sometimes they are stand-alone workflows and automation. By assessing your personal rules you’ll be able to set up routines to ensure you stick to them.
  7. Set reminders to check in on your workflows and automation periodically. It’s easy to set it up and ignore it but remember not everyone will point out mistakes. You want the information to be current and you want to ensure that your content is consistent between your website, email automations, contracts etc.

Get Your Free Automation Workflow Checklist: You’ll receive access to all the free (and low cost) tools that help you take charge of form filling, customer service, client relationship management, email management and more.