Yes, you should Automate
But Heed These Thoughts for Doing it Well
Automation is a must to some degree for every company and especially for service businesses such as accounting and advisory practices (where my own company plays). But the very term “automate” evokes strong emotions, making people worry about risk of failure or clumsy and impersonal service. In reality, though, automation is not just about the creation of a process to perform work automatically but the ability to speed services and bring improvement as well.
The main idea is to save on the costs of human capital, improve efficiency and reduce human error. So, to find the things you should automate first for best advantage, consider the following helps:
1. If you have to repeat a task more than three times in a given time period, automate it. For example, we work with a professional services firm on the East coast that uses Google.docs for document exchange with its clients. But here’s the thing: This company works in the compliance space and requires a significant number of folders and subfolders for every account. For each new client, a senior professional spends as much as four hours to purge out files from prior accounts and create a new, clean directory with new names and new logos for the incoming client to use. But automation could accomplish it in minutes. Easy “yes”.
2. If your team is struggling with the concept of automation, start with client relationships first. As a matter of principle, you should never require your client to pay the price for your automation delays. When you start to automate, consider taking the benefits to the client side first. You will benefit with satisfaction in the area where it matters the most, leading to increased loyalty and business. The clients will be satisfied, will stay with you, will grow and, best of all, will tell others. This is also an advantage in situations where you really need and want to automate, but some of your partners or employees have dug in their heels. When you take the benefit to clients first, interestingly, everybody seems to soften their stance. Client satisfaction and revenue allow the best decisions and actions to flow.
3. A big barrier to automation is trust. Can you set the process up in a way that minimizes the time required for human oversight? For example, the accounting world fears the risk of losing a critical file and making your client noncompliant. Your team may need to see the system in action before they’re willing to trust it with their clients’ critical files. So you should start your effort with a pilot program that doesn’t require high risk.
4. Security is vital. Make improved security a driver for all aspects of automation. Be sure you’re hitting all of the aspects of security that are key. Statistically speaking, loss or violation of stored documents due to system failure or hacks) is far less frequent than loss that occurs during document transit. For example, think about the Brinks money truck driving out and to the location of delivery and back. The risk of theft during transmission is the piece people most often forget. So be sure your automation includes it.
In accounting, while practitioners and clients may store documents in a secure manner, they too often continue to send important data and documents through email. Even email technologies that claim to be secure and encrypted are hackable. Additionally, even the discussion in an email or instant messaging could contain information about the state or health of their business (their own or a client’s) that should remain within a secure portal. It is amazing how many people transmit patented information or discuss trade secrets in email or instant messaging. So teach your team about these risks and build the security in.
As additional advice, I urge you to think about automating the direct upload of any document containing HIPPAA information, credit card numbers, SSNs and dates of birth and holding private dialogues only within a protected workspace within a secure practice management portal.
In the end, consistent process and the administrative discipline to follow the process is vital. Any events involving unauthorized access or loss of client conversations, data and documents could be a matter of life or death.
Lyle Ball is CEO of Avii, a fast growing SaaS-based company in Lehi, UT. Avii™ provides tax, audit, advisory, management consulting and compliance organizations with an integrated suite of most-required practice management resources.