The quest to automate business

Ever since man made fire and the wheel, technology has been meant to improve people’s lives, make production more efficient, and extend our mental and physical capacity.

Run out of fingers to count? Here’s an abacus. Tired from digging your fields, here’s an ox plough. Horse too slow? Here’s a motor car.

The quest for most businesses is about improving the lives of customers and employees while becoming more and more efficient as they do it. There are obstacles to this pursuit, and automation has helped overcome many of them. But it helps some businesses better than others. Where does automation work and where does it have some catching up to do?

Financial services

Finance can be an opaque industry. Most of us only come into contact with it through retail banks for savings, mortgages and pensions, but not much else. The big transactions in the City and Canary Wharf can be a mystery.

Everywhere in finance, automation and data play a huge role behind the scenes. But a human face is still critical to communicate and build a trusting relationship. From the personal banker on the high street to the stockbroker on the end of the phone, they are using data and technology to make their jobs easier and to make life easier for the customer.

However, there are different levels of automation. Smaller fintechs are pushing it further and faster than the big investment banks can. For instance, Zar Amrolia runs a company that seeks to automate all aspects of trading, offering institutional investors higher efficiency by using algorithmic trading. This has the twin positives of being more agile than traditional competitors and more effective for their clients.

But no matter how much technology they use, they still need people to use it and interpret it for clients.

The verdict: Automation combined with a human touch benefits both business and customer with higher efficiency and quicker, more informed customer service.

Logistics

Videos of robots moving freight in and out of warehouses has made logistics the industry with the most obvious move to automation. Efficiency and trackability are paramount for companies in this space, so it’s no wonder.

Domino’s deliveries by robot and Amazon shipments by drone are the major headline catchers. But it’s the companies in the background like Georgia Pacific in the US, who are making big changes. They partner with robotics start-up Outrider to automate their warehouse and yard operations with autonomous vehicles.

The verdict: Logistics has been at the forefront of automation for years, from cruise-control for truckers, to warehouse robotics; and with automated deliveries in the works, the infrastructure that makes the world go around is only getting better and more efficient.

Ecommerce

When automation in ecommerce works, it’s great. Digital marketing evangelist Neil Patel loves the time freed up by automating transactions, email communications and shipping. It means that even the smallest of entrepreneurs can focus on other areas of the business, like marketing and fundraising.

But at the moment, it can seem to work harder for the business, and not for the customer. For instance, with poor execution, the experience a customer receives is cold and often leaves a lot of information out.

Customers often have a lot of questions that can only be answered by someone on the other end of the phone. And since trust only comes from good relationships (there are only so many “Dear [insert name]” emails one can take), the lack of openness can damage the bottom line. Often, bad automation ends up taking more time to fix than if things were done person-to-person.

The verdict: Automation has a lot of potential here, but is often used as a replacement for people, which gives a cheap customer service and can backfire, causing lengthy problem solving.

Hospitality

Lockdown 2020 was one of the biggest and most painful experiments for the hospitality industry in its history. The bars and restaurants that didn’t have to shut down had to pivot quickly to deliveries and app-based ordering. But the key ingredient was always missing and consumers craved the human touch, i.e. friendly wait staff to take your order, rather than brisk delivery drivers, or ordering a pint in a pub off your phone.

There are, however, talks of integrating automation into hospitality when it comes to health and safety. For instance, self-cleaning hotel rooms, contactless keys and covid checks. It was always a bit awkward having a barman take your temperature anyway.

The verdict: Automation is currently limited in an industry where people are the main service. But it could solve some pain points in sanitation.

Where human contact is a priority – think healthcare and education too – automation needs to take a back seat. The selling point is always the customer, student or patient service. But if technology and data can help people do what they do, then automation will never replace people, only improve them.

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