I recently built a tool for a provider of an ERP system, to allow his clients to automatically publish inventory to their business websites and keep the sites in synch with his system. It got me thinking (again) about automation, and how business can do more with tools they're already using.
The specific use case is a system targeted to providers of heavy equipment for the construction industry: bulldozers, earth movers, pavers, cranes, etcetera. The company provides a cloud-based tool for managing accounts, contacts, sales and inventory. It's called Vizybility CRM if you're curious - an Asset Focused CRM solution tailor-made for capitol and mobile equipment sales.
The client actually came to me looking to improve the SEO value of the URLs in their system and fix an issue with image orientation. Instead, I built an integration that not only fixed those issues, but enabled a new line of business.
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Isn't technology is supposed to make our lives better?
How best to automate? To some, it's the holy grail of business systems. The problem is that there are a million different ways to automate, and umpteen providers trying to convince everyone that their product is the solution. As often as not, technology presents daunting complexity and a confusing array of options instead of improving people's lives or enabling better business practices.
It's a lot like cell phone sales, which the CRTC in Canada conducted an 8 month public inquiry on and concluded that harmful sales practices "exist in all sales channels, including in store, online, over the phone, and door to door."
The problem is that buyers are at a disadvantage because there are so many options out there and they're conveyed in ways that make it next to impossible to conduct an "apples to apples" comparison.
Everybody's selling. How do I know who to trust?
Trust yourself. Trust your own instincts. You're right to think you don't have time to sift through everything trying to find the right tool for your business. It's a mess.
Don't do it, delegate it.
To who? That depends on your budget and your timeline.
It's possible that you have someone in-house who can reliably sift through the technology solutions available and come up with something that works for you. What's more likely is that an in-house solution will cost you far more than a third party contractor or team.
Management belongs in-house. Execution you can outsource.
Facebook, Google, Amazon, eBay, Shopify, Etsy, PayPal, WordPress, SharePoint, Stripe, Wix, GoDaddy and a host of other providers offer solutions for business. What makes sense to use?
Communication with API
Your Business Website
How do I find the tools to automate my website? What should I look for?
Every major hosting platform offers what are called APIs - API stands for Application Programming Interface. These days, an API usually refers to a set of "endpoints" that programmers can use to hook into systems and perform various activities that would normally require a human being to be logged in to do.
Facebook, Google, Amazon, eBay, Shopify, Etsy, PayPal, WordPress, SharePoint, Stripe, Wix, GoDaddy and a host of other providers offer API-based solutions for business. Furthermore, there are a lot of small companies who've built their businesses on creating API-based add-ons for various software packages.
The solution I created for Vizybility CRM uses their API to allow a WordPress Plugin to create a custom post type for heavy equipment called "Machines". The "machine" posts are essentially a catalog, listing all the machines a given company has for sale or rent.
What if my business can't afford a custom solution? How do I automate?
That's a fair question and a fair concern in these days of coronavirus lockdowns and looming recession. Luckily, even if you can't afford to pay programmers and designers for a custom integration, there are a lot of companies who make their living selling "cookie cutter" solutions that tie APIs to a variety of products. Companies like Zapier make their money with inexpensive or even free automation tools that can sit between your site and a variety of APIs. Zapier calls them "Zaps".
There are hundreds if not thousands of WordPress Plugins that enable integration with sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, MailChimp, Aweber, and a growing plethora of companies whose bread and butter is helping you to automate.
As I said above though, these "solutions" are part of the problem for small business.
Isn't it expensive to pay someone to automate? Are there DIY solutions?
Yes to both questions. It can be expensive, and you can do it yourself.
I'm not going to lie to you and say custom or comprehensive solutions are cheap - you can expect to pay a fair premium for custom code that hooks into your various APIs and automates business processes or publishing tasks. There's a caveat, though: while initial development and setup are relatively costly, the return on your investment is usually far higher than the outlay. A "fair premium" is exactly that: fair.
You're not paying for the time it takes to do, you're paying for results, and results are what these tools deliver. When you consider that the ongoing cost of paying staff to manually update your website is completely unnecessary, the labor savings alone justify the cost to produce and maintain API automation.
Seriously, do the math. It's like having a staff member who works 24/7 for the price of coffee and snacks.
Can I automate in the other direction?
Yes! Chances are, your website already has an API of its own!
For just a few thousand dollars - or a few weeks of effort - you can probably enable all the same automations that impress you about Fortune 500 sites, e-commerce providers and large media outlets. You can even just add bits and pieces whenever you have a spare couple of hours, using whatever equivalent of a "Dashboard" your hosting service provides.
There's a way to automate the creation of shops on every major sales platform. Ways to automate social media posts. Ways to automate follow-up emails and chat bots.
The really great thing about all this is that there are companies like mine who can make Fortune 500 functionality accessible on "local Main Street" budgets, and who know enough to advise on what makes sense.
Sadly, I don't know anyone who's better at it than us, so I can't give you a referral. 😉
Do it yourself automation example.
There are two approaches:
Do It Yourself using pre-made add-ons, web hooks, or plugins. This seems like the less expensive approach, given that many of the tools are free, but the cost to deploy is far higher than you'd expect once you factor in the expense of having non-technical staff install and configure the tools. The labor cost alone is likely to be far higher than the cost of simply hiring an expert to do it for you. Not to mention the aggravation factor.
Hire a professional Web Developer to install the tools and write custom code for the bits that aren't freely available. In the long run this is likely to be less expensive than "free" alternatives, and far more effective for achieving your goals and getting good ROI.
Isn't technology supposed to make life easier? I recently built a tool for a provider of an ERP system, to allow his clients to automatically publish inventory to their business websites and keep the sites in synch with his system. It got me thinking (again) about automation, and how business can do more with tools they're already using.
A lot of people - even companies - that provide technical services find themselves in the unfortunate position of being viewed as "the techs" and ignored when discussion turns to policy, marketing, or other topics relating to business management and strategy - the domain of consultants. This can be the case whether the tech is a twenty-something fresh out of school, or someone who's been in the industry for decades.
It's difficult to change people's perception once you've been slotted into a role. Far better to set expectations at the beginning of a relationship than try to change mid-stride.
I should have known better, but I was hit with a wave of panic when the government announced the beginning of the corona virus lock down. I thought that might be it for my business. How would I get new clients? What about the meetings I had already scheduled? What if everybody stopped spending? Even in a digital business it's sometimes difficult to see past traditional expectations.
Viewing your website(s) as a necessary expense rather than as an investment that's expected to produce a return is a critical misstep. Business owners often have a difficult time defining the role of their Website in their online presence and marketing. People often confess to feeling overwhelmed by technology, and rather than deal with the complexity, they settle for a site that's less functional than a business card or a billboard.
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