Not Just Another Acronym

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In its most basic form, business process automation (BPA) is defined as making a piece of technology responsible for a step in a business process instead of relying on an employee to handle it. But more than simply automating specific tasks, BPA can link CRM activities through their life cycle, helping to create a holistic view of customers.

The first question, then, when implementing a CRM solution is, What processes do we automate? Do we automate individual steps like autoreply email responses to customer inquires, or large segments like an entire lead tracking system?

"In virtually any complex business process, you must have interaction across all systems and be able to enter, access, and distribute the correct data in the workflow," says Brad Wilson, vice president of marketing, CRM products, at PeopleSoft Inc. He explains that the type of data a company is dealing with will define the state of its workflow and determine how much of that workflow can be automated.

"The problem with many companies is that they don't have the proper series of steps in place to make sure vital data isn't being lost during each step of the business process," Wilson says.

According to Wilson, by removing the walls between steps in a company's business process and finding out where the disconnects are, automating steps like lead tracking, sales follow-ups, and order capturing can increase user efficiency of a CRM solution by 55 percent on average.

For many companies, automating business processes is about attempting to get the most out of the technology being used. For others BPA is about determining accountability. The most effective form of BPA solves problems like losing potential leads or mishandling important data by helping to keep track of who is responsible for what and when, says Brent Stankowski, president of Teamplate Inc. "If you establish a piece of software that tracks who is responsible for what lead, what sales call, what customer response, you can make sure all your goals continue to be met, and that you're capturing the knowledge that will help your company be successful," he says.

However, Stankowski advises, companies should only automate the steps that make sense to automate. "The challenge at the senior management level is not to become wrapped up in too much automation. You can robotize too much of your business process," Stankowski says. "It is much safer to phase in automation incrementally, mapping out and planning what you want to accomplish with each element that you're using the technology for."

Automating individual elements of the CRM strategy makes more sense than trying shove technology into every nook and cranny of a business and hope it will make things run more smoothly, says Emma Johnson, director of industry and marketing solutions for Nuance Communications Inc. "It's all about balance and explaining the need for that balance when dealing with your customers," Johnson says. "Attempting to automate too much of your business process can be like eating all the chocolates in the box at once. It leaves you bloated and unable to do anything really effective."

However, automating the right processes can help increase customer satisfaction and profitability. "If by automating how your company responds to questions your customers have a way that helps them help themselves, and provides them a method of interacting with you that they are most comfortable with, you'll increase your ROI," says Marcia Bales, director of planning for Primus Knowledge Solutions. "If they have the option to use email or the Web or an automated phone system, then only those who want to speak to a representative will, and that will save you a lot of cost."

The two keys to benefiting from BPA fully is to ensure that the project leaders have a clear idea of what they want to do with the technology, and that everyone who will be touching that technology understands those objectives as well. "The real challenge of automation," Johnson says, "is not just that everything has to integrate with everything else, but that you have to have people who understand the complexity of what you're trying to do."

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