TFYW#037 What $10,000 Worth of Automation Looks Like

May 26, 2023

This week I am going to get into the details of what building a highly
automated CAS or back office service looks like.

Automation will be key for any firm to create a sustainable, scalable
model.

But first, today’s tactic


Today’s Tactic

When training newer team members, sometimes we forget that they
don’t have our experience.

To them, everything has the same level of importance. They haven’t
learned what is truly a priority. They routinely spin their wheels
chasing a document or finding a tiny difference in a reconciliation.

So how do you empower your team to make decisions and free up your
time from answering questions? You use a framework.

The CEE framework: Critical, Essential, or Enhancing.

When a team member asks you a question, ask them to
determine the priority level and its reason. If they’re wrong,
correct them. Don’t give them the priorities; teach them to prioritize.

They will start to see patterns in the work they do.

Many perceived critical items will turn out to be nice-to-haves.


Firm Automation

I am working with a client, ‘Dave’, who has invested $10,000 in new
automations and workflows in his firm.

He’s developing a new service offering in addition to his existing
services.

Currently, his team provides his established client with bespoke services that he feels could be more scalable.

He’s taking a different approach with this new service offering.

The new offer is structured and systematic. Dave’s new clients will do
things in a defined system. The offer maximizes the client’s value and
the service’s delivery profitability.

The Economics of Automation

It is easy to say that everyone should invest in automation.

It is another thing to know the return on that investment and whether it
makes sense.

With Dave, we are automating half a dozen key business workflows
from approvals for Payroll + AP payments to clarification for unidentified bank transactions.

Knowing the payback time for an automation investment makes the
upfront cost a no-brainer.

Automation can change quickly, so if your payback period is beyond
three years, consider making an adjustment to the project scope.

Defining Automation

There is a lot of out-of-the-box automation that comes with most
accounting/business software. The software usually comes with ample
documentation/videos/customer support to help with platform functions and options.

I am not going to touch on out-of-the-box automations here.

I’m talking about connecting no-code apps and tools to create unique
and efficient experiences for the internal team and external clients.

Many modern accounting firms have 20 – 30 apps that teams use at
least weekly. Most of these apps do not natively connect to each other.

Disconnected tools require app switching and repeated manual data
entry/transfer to use them together.

My favorite tool to connect apps is Zapier. Make is also a great tool

Automation connects these apps to centralized automation trigger points to reduce:

  • app switching,
  • repetitive tasks;
  • data entry errors, and
  • time-consuming client follow-up.

Your practice management (PM) software (ie the heart of managing your firm) should be your control centre for triggering your automations.

Dave uses Asana as his PM tool, and everything we’ve built is directly
connected to or integrated within Asana.

Improving Your Return on Automation

You need to have key items in place before you can optimize your return on automation.

 

If you don’t remember anything else from this week’s
newsletter, remember this:

 

There is no silver bullet when it comes to automation.
Automation does not change the value or effectiveness of your
services. It only amplifies it.

 

Planning Phase

 

1. Don’t do it alone – If you have a team, ensure that a front-line team
member or manager who is familiar with the processes is heavily
involved. At times, firm leaders are unfamiliar with routine processes.

In every meeting with Dave, he has his operations manager there. Most
decisions are made after he consults his manager and confirms viability with my team.

2. Treat it like an investment – Some firm owners want automation to
be a quick fix. To truly move the needle, like saving 100s of hours a
year, an investment will be needed. A $15/hr contractor from Fiverr won’t be the fix you need.

Dave is in a position to recoup his investment within a year if he hits his
growth plans. We’ll support Dave in training his team to complete the
ongoing maintenance and adjustments as needed.

3. Narrow down what you want to automate – “I want to automate my
firm” is not an actionable request. Start with automating workflows with
high touch points for clients.

With Dave, we have initially focused on the AP and Payroll approval
processes and support for unclassified transactions. 90% of the time,
the team waits for the client to take action in these processes.

4. Start your Documentation – It is never too early to start documenting workflows. Identify desired goals, key outputs, team members, and required apps.

Process documents have helped Dave’s team visualize how things will
work. In a few instances, we’ve identified issues and changed direction
before we started development.

Implementation Phase

 

1. Minimize data entry – Automation turns data entry into data flow. The fastest way to get data into an automation is via web forms. See TFYW newsletter #003 on web forms.

All user data for first and second-level approvers sits in a CRM. Each
trigger uses drop-down fields in a web form. This way, Dave’s team only
pulls clean data from the CRM, reducing data entry and errors.

Asana receives and passes data for each task without any manual input from the team. Task statuses are automatically updated and displayed, so the team can monitor the task’s progress.

2. Client onboarding is key – Onboarding workflows need to be
thorough. A combination of web forms and meetings ensures that all
data is collected for a seamless experience.

Don’t underestimate a strong onboarding process.

We spent some time deciding the best approach for Dave’s client
onboarding. The data collected at onboarding is used weekly in the
multiple automations.

3. Stay on top of documentation – It is easy to get buried in the build
and forget about the documentation. The documentation will cost you
hours in the beginning but will save you 10X the time later on when
adjustments are needed.

With Dave, we have created documentation for the build as well as
training for the team. The team will be able to handle minor adjustments and fixes as they come up.

4. You won’t know all the variables until you build – Parts of your
initial plan won’t work. Define your goals for the automations, but be
flexible with how it will be done.

I’ve seen many firm owners fall in love with an app and ignore better
suggestions.

At one point with Dave, we had settled on a series of steps, only to find
that another way removed two steps and reduced the chances of
operator error.

Finalization and Maintenance Phase

 

1. Know when to stop – It’s exciting to think about what automation can do for your firm. That excitement may lead to trying to automate too much. 80% now is better than 100% in 12 months.

During the process with Dave, we created a future feature document to
capture the nice to have features while focusing and finishing on
the need to have features.

2. Document the weaknesses in your automation/workflow – Nocode automation is not perfect. Many app providers constantly update
their app’s functionality which can impact API connections, website
designs or other access points used in your automations.

We used Axiom.ai for our RPA (robotic processing automation) steps, in
Dave’s build. RPA uses elements on websites, and the process will stop
working when a website changes enough. We know this is a weak point
and have recovery instructions in place.

3. Document manual workarounds if the automation breaks – Where
possible, include steps on how your team can complete an automated
task manually. In the event that an automation breaks, your team can
continue their work.

Dave’s team will have process documents to show them how to
manually complete each process.

**

I hope this helps you take on the task of automating your firm.
If you have any questions, book a Free Automation Audit, and I’ll add
value to your plans.

Build The Firm You Want.

Mark

P.S. Email Mark@FirmNexus.com with something that you want me to talk about. I’ll add it to the list. 

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