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How small businesses can leverage AI and automation to improve efficiency: inventory management, HR, payments and more

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

It seems like you can’t go a day without hearing or seeing something about artificial intelligence (AI). Even though automation, AI and machine learning have been integrated into manufacturing and fulfillment for decades, it’s the emergence of AI in white-collar — or knowledge work — that seems to be generating headlines.

It’s true that ChatGPT seems more human than any bot that has come before it. But it’s certainly not the first bot on the block. AI has performed knowledge work for almost as long as it has assembled automobiles. Accounting systems, payroll software, supply chain management and more have run on AI and machine learning for decades. Today, AI is integrated into a wide range of business processes and software solutions. And it has become an essential tool for optimization in businesses of all sizes.

So what exactly does that look like? And how can business owners like you harness the power of AI and process automation to become more efficient, agile and competitive in an increasingly crowded and noisy marketplace? Read on to learn:

Automation, AI, machine learning: what does it all mean?

So before we dive in, let’s cover the industry lingo you’ll run into most often. Understanding the subtle differences between a few terms will make planning and rolling out automation a lot easier — especially when it comes to communicating new processes to your employees.

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Automation is the use of technology and systems to perform tasks or processes with minimal or no human intervention. It involves the application of machines, software and control systems to carry out repetitive, mundane or complex tasks. Scheduling an email to promote a sale or announcement, or just to let people know you’ll be out on vacation is an example of everyday automation.

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AI refers to the simulation of human intelligence in machines that are programmed to think, learn and perform tasks. It also uses machine learning, natural language processing and more to improve its performance over time. If you’ve ever allowed a webpage to autofill a form or accepted Google’s suggestion to finish a sentence while composing an email, you’ve worked with AI.

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Machine learning happens when programs and systems learn and improve from their experiences, instead of from programmed instructions. It’s a way to train computers to make predictions or take actions based on patterns and data, instead of relying on explicit instructions from a programmer. Chatbots are a perfect example. Most of them are designed to understand human speech, adapt to different conversational styles and even learn from user feedback to improve their performance.

Here’s a little more clarity: AI and automation aren’t the same — AI is a component that makes certain types of automation possible, and not all forms of automation require AI to function. Furthermore, AI and machine learning aren’t interchangeable terms. Machine learning is just one of the techniques programmers and developers can use to create systems that utilize AI.

No matter how you slice it, increasing accuracy, productivity and growth is the goal. These types of tools can help you get there by reducing human error, speeding up processes and freeing up your people to perform more valuable, strategic and creative work.

How automation benefits businesses every day

If you’re at all intimidated by the thought of automation, AI or machine learning, remember this: its purpose is to act as your hard-working, trusted assistant — think Alfred Pennyworth. You want to use it to your advantage, and if you don’t, you might get left behind — after all, could Batman really fight Gotham’s worst each night without the help of his trusted butler?

94% of workers say they perform repetitive, time-consuming tasks in their role

Zapier report

Now let’s cover the major areas in which your business can benefit from automation. We won’t go into detail on all the possibilities, but the information below can help you decide where to start.

Marketing and communications

To understand the power of automation in marketing, let’s imagine a specific use case: Labor Day weekend is approaching, and you’re planning a big ecommerce sale. You’ve decided you want to send a special discount code to 150 of your most loyal customers via email. The message is written, and everyone’s email address is loaded into an Excel spreadsheet. So what’s next?

Your administrative assistant sits down at the computer, opens a blank email, adds the message into the body, pastes a couple of addresses from the Excel sheet into the “to” box, and hits send. Then, they do it again. And again. Until all 150 people have received an email.

Or have they? In all of that copying and pasting, a letter or number was accidentally omitted from an email address. So some customers didn’t get their discount code. Or they did, but it didn’t work at checkout because the code was copied into the email body incorrectly. Either way, you’re missing out on potential sales or worse: ticking off some of your best customers.

Sending targeted emails with the use of marketing automation software helps in generating 18 times more revenue.

Benchmark

An automated email send takes that grueling slog and turns it into a quick, one-time task. And by utilizing a comprehensive point of sale platform, you can automatically collect customer data to ensure targeted emails are sent to the right demographics and segments.

In the end, automation helps the risk of human error go way down and the productivity of your assistant go way up. They complete the task in a couple minutes instead of a couple hours, freeing them up to plan a company picnic to boost morale, or to finish that important compliance project early.

Saving time and improving accuracy is important for internal communications too. Tools like project management software, team messaging platforms and shared document repositories enable real-time collaboration, file sharing and task tracking. These tools eliminate communication gaps, improve coordination and ensure everyone is on the same page, which can mean fewer mistakes and delays, greater productivity and happier employees.

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Financial management and bookkeeping

Financial management is a critical aspect of running a small business. You need tools that can streamline invoicing, payroll and tax calculations to help reduce errors and keep your cash flowing.

Invoicing

Traditional paper invoices are becoming a relic of the past. Not only are they prone to human error, they use up valuable time for staff — and they’re expensive. In fact, research shows that it can cost your business as much as $30 to process a single paper invoice.

Automation can help you cut down on these costs and manual processes. Plus, if you choose the right provider, you can do all of the following in one solution:

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Create an electronic invoice, send it and receive payment

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Generate recurring invoices to manage subscriptions, memberships or reorders for ongoing projects

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Increase collections on outstanding balances and forego the need for manual follow-up with automatic invoicing for past-due accounts

Data entry

To take all of that one step further, you can look for a solution that automatically shares your invoicing and payment data directly with your accounting software. Bonus points if the same solution allows you to generate and collect invoices wherever you need to take payments, instead of having to do it when you get back to the office.

Payroll and taxes

Did you know that one in five payrolls in the United States contains errors? That ratio is huge, and the effects of those mistakes are detrimental to many businesses, costing as much as $291 per error.

Mitigate your risk for payroll mistakes with a solution that automatically calculates and pays wages, overtime, bonuses and commissions via direct deposit, pay card or check. Plus, take the guesswork out of tax management with automation that includes tax calculations, filing and payments to federal, state and local agencies on your behalf.

Inventory management and customer experience

While inventory tracking and customer service are different disciplines, they are inextricably linked to each other. The only way to eliminate waste and overstocking is to have a deep understanding of what your customers want and don’t want. And the only way to accomplish that is through tools rich in sales data that can help you track inventory and replenishment in real time.

AI-enabled supply chain management has allowed businesses to improve logistics costs by 15%, inventory levels by 35%, and service levels by 65%, compared to slower-moving competitors.

McKinsey & Co

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Inventory data and ordering

With the right solution, you can stop trying to keep a manual count of items across locations. See what’s selling — and where — across different stores with real-time data. Look for multi-channel inventory management solutions that make it easy to know exactly what you have on hand and on order across all sales channels.

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Purchasing and receiving

The right tech also makes it simple to set up and manage vendor profiles and purchase orders (POs) within your point of sale system. You can also rely on the right POS to simplify receiving with barcode scanning of SKUs as they arrive so you can ensure the inventory matches your POs.

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Customer experience

The same solution that delivers the data that informs demand forecasting can also offer compelling intelligence that will help you provide a personalized experience for each customer. A cohesive platform will gather all of these insights into one place, where you can make the best strategic decisions that set you apart from your competitors.

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Payments flexibility and security

In this day and age, customers crave convenience. To meet demand, aim to adopt tech integrations that allow you to securely accept all of the ways your customers want to pay, including automatic recurring payments, card-on-file, contactless and more.

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Customer satisfaction and retention

Sending a hand-written card to your customers on their birthday is special, but would be impossible to manage at scale. Instead, consider boosting customer orders with a built-in loyalty program that automatically updates and allows guests to easily see and redeem points.

Hiring and employee management

So we know that tech and automation can help improve targeted marketing efforts and optimize the inventory management process, thereby boosting customer satisfaction. But perhaps your most powerful tool for delighting customers is your employees.

Finding the right people is important and feels increasingly difficult to do. Count on technology to help you cast a wide net to find the right fit, hire and onboard employees quickly and (best of all) keep them. Here’s how:

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Job openings

Manually posting your position openings across internet job boards is a tremendous timesuck for managers and business owners. With a little automation in your hiring solution, you can post on multiple sites with the click of a button — and make it super seamless for candidates to respond with text-to-apply functionality.

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Keeping up with candidates

Many great candidates can fall through the cracks of manual interview scheduling and traditional processes. You can move fast with a system that displays job postings, schedules interviews and automatically tracks applicants in one convenient view. Don’t have time to create questions and emails for the interview process? Choose a solution with ready-made templates you can deploy in seconds.

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Hiring and onboarding

Old-fashioned onboarding or employee orientation means new staff members spend most of their first day filling out time-consuming paperwork. Automating the process in a cloud-based platform means employees can complete tasks from their mobile devices in the days leading up to their new job — and you can start training them more quickly.

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Benefits administration

If open enrollment includes a giant binder full of employee documents and reminders to send individual enrollment emails, it might be time to consider a switch. A new and improved system will help automate business decisions with robust employee data, making it easier to manage health plans, 401(k), ACA compliance and more.

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Scheduling

Your managers can say goodbye to relying on sticky notes, texts and voicemails in the quest of a fully staffed shift (and they’ll thank you). Instead, they can build and manage employee schedules in a solution with easy drag and drop technology. Then, your employees can request shift swaps or time off. Once managers approve requests, the schedule automatically updates for everyone. Who doesn’t love that?

When you put it all together, automation is a gamechanger. And not just for large corporations with thousands of employees. A survey found that 88% of small business owners believe automation allows their company to compete with larger companies. So what’s holding you back?

A word of caution

No doubt you’ve noticed a theme throughout this article: automation equals increased efficiency and more time for you and your employees to focus on the tasks that really drive your business forward. But there is one trap that’s easy to fall into if you’re not careful. And it can sap any gains you make toward streamlining major workflows for your business.

We’ve talked a lot about what the “right” tools and systems look like. So you may be tempted to go out and acquire the best-in-class provider in each category. But this is where the blessing of automation can become a curse. Attempting to combine a bunch of disparate systems or apps together can become a technological nightmare. One system updates before another, or APIs break. Before you know it, you’re an owner-turned-IT-manager, on the phone with support trying to pinpoint and fix what’s wrong.

What’s more, crunching a bunch of different systems into one tech stack can wreak havoc on reporting. Because not every system speaks the same language, you can only pull some data from certain places. Then, you or your team are on the hook for manually combining it all into spreadsheets; a laborious attempt to make some sense of your data. Most reports are needed weekly, monthly and quarterly — you get the picture. All of the time you reclaimed by using automation is spent trying to understand how it’s actually impacting your business. That’s why it’s important to consider choosing one provider to automate as many areas of your business as possible.

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The future is now

Automation holds immense potential for businesses seeking to boost efficiency and profitability in today’s fast-paced market. By adopting automation tools and strategies, you can streamline operations and financial management, ace inventory and customer relationship management, find and hire great employees, and gather important insights. These benefits make it easy for you to allocate resources effectively, increase productivity and scalability, ultimately driving sustainable growth and boosting your bottom line. Embracing automation is no longer an option, but a necessity for small businesses looking to thrive in the digital age.

If you’re interested in how Heartland can help you adopt automation, drop us a (digital) line.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this document does not, and is not intended to constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available are for general informational purposes only. Information provided may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information, and readers of this information should contact their attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular legal matter, in the relevant jurisdiction. All liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on the contents here are hereby expressly disclaimed.


Heartland is the point of sale, payments and payroll solution of choice for entrepreneurs that need human-centered technology to sell more, keep customers coming back and spend less time in the back office. Nearly 1,000,000 businesses trust us to guide them through market changes and technology challenges, so they can stay competitive and focus on building remarkable businesses instead of managing the daily grind. Learn more at heartland.us