How to automate a manual process without feeling overwhelmed

Business tutorials and tips.

This article was provided by Zapier.

We talk a lot about automating manual processes on the Zapier blog. It’s kind of our thing.

But something we’ve realized over the years is that an automation mindset is something that takes time to develop. People don’t always know where to start. Some don’t even know why they should automate in the first place. Even for people who’ve automated a task or two, it’s a big leap to go from automating their Slack status to overhauling their sales process with automation. What if something goes wrong?

I turned to two Zapier Experts—Zapier-certified consultants who help businesses automate their work—to learn their strategies for turning a manual process into an automated one.

Need help with more complex automation? Zapier Experts are certified consultants, freelancers, and agencies that can help you do more with automation. Visit our Experts directory to help you find the right Expert to work with.


Steps to follow

  1. Start with an outline

  2. Find the inefficiencies

  3. Review the decision points

  4. Dive in and start simple

  5. Stay flexible


Start with an outline

Before you start tinkering with an existing process, both of our Experts recommend you start by outlining how it currently works.

“I ask clients to tell me the story of their users,” said Paul Korman, founder of automation agency Connex Digital. “How do their users come into their sphere of influence and what is the flow from there?”

An old-fashioned paper-and-pen outline can help you break down an existing process, step-by-step. Start with the trigger—the event that starts your process, such as a new purchase in your Shopify store—and go from there.

Prompts from the automation cheat sheet (linked below in the feedback section), which is an accompanying resource to Zapier University 101.
This is from the automation cheat sheet (linked below in the feedback section), which is an accompanying resource to Zapier University 101.

“If you can do that first bit on paper or in a spreadsheet—map the start, what happens in the middle, and the end—then it’ll be much easier to go into the Zapier editor,” Andrew Davison, founder of Luhhu, says.

Audit your workflow for inefficiencies

Next, it’s time to comb through your outline and highlight areas where there are inefficiencies. Copying and pasting lead information into a spreadsheet is a process. So is automatically adding new leads from a form into a database. The difference: One is efficient and one’s not.

As you create your outline, here are a few areas to pay attention to:

Time-wasting tasks

For businesses trying to scale, inefficient processes can get in the way of that potential growth. Time is precious. And the extra five minutes it takes to manually update a database, for example, will add up as you keep doing it.

“I try to have people tell me where they’re spending their time in these processes, how frequently they do it, and how long it takes,” Paul says. “The more we automate, the more knowledge workers move to higher-level thinking and tasks.”

Risks for human mistakes

Humans can do amazing things. We can also make really silly mistakes. We forget important calendar days or tasks we’re supposed to do.

In business, those human errors can have major consequences. For example, losing a lead because you forgot to respond to them within a certain timeframe. Automation can pick up the slack where humans fall short.

“If someone tells me, ‘I keep telling Susan to do it this way and she does it wrong every time!’ That’s often a good sign we can automate it,” says Paul.

And if Susan’s a pro at converting prospects and closing deals, automating a process that’s giving her trouble allows her to spend time on what she does best.

Repeat data entry

As you review your outline, ask yourself why you’re sending information to a particular app for each step.

“If data is going to an intermediate spot that it doesn’t need to, it’s always good to cut the number of links in a chain,” Andrew says. “There needs to be a single point of truth.”

For example, Andrew and Paul often see clients using spreadsheets to transfer information to their Customer Relationship Management tool, but then don’t use that spreadsheet for anything else.

“A lot of times people do things because it worked and there was a reason for it at one point,” says Paul. “If the information needs to go straight into the CRM, then let’s skip [the spreadsheet] and make it more efficient.”

Andrew also encourages his clients to simplify as much as possible, thinking about processes as a flow of information instead of disparate places to park information. Refer back to your process outline and identify specific roles for each step.

“If everything starts at A, everything goes to B, and everything gets updated at C, the process stays more rigid,” Andrew explains.

Some tasks are perfect for automation. Learn how to identify when to automate a task.

Review the decision points

Now that you’ve created your outline and marked it up, review any steps where a choice has to be made.

Andrew and Paul say that often, people assume there are points in a process that requires a human to make a decision. However, computers are pretty good at making decisions based on conditions you set in advance.

“When it comes to those decision moments, it doesn’t have to have human intervention if it’s a defined thing,” Paul says. “For example, ‘if a project is worth over $50,000, it has to go here. If the project is under $250,000, it goes here.’ That’s a decision tree.”

While some decisions need human intervention—such as getting a signature or final approval— there may be steps within that process you can automate to expedite things. For example, perhaps when a deal has reached a particular stage, you can automate an email requesting a contract signature.

Still intimidated? Start with something simple.

Now that your process is completely outlined, it’s time to create your Zap—the automated workflow you create with Zapier.

Andrew recommends not to overthink it and just dive into the Zap editor. “If you can do that first bit on paper or in a spreadsheet, then it’s much easier to [create a workflow] in Zapier.”

Start with your trigger—the event that starts a Zap—and then take it step by step.

“Go with the simplest version of the process and build out from there,” Andrew says. “It’s super easy to build that first Zap.”

Need a simple place to start? Here are 5 things you should automate today

He also warns against perfectionist tendencies when automating a manual process.

“I’m sure there’s some people that love to see sort of big-picture perfection in what they built and it can probably be quite hard to just zoom into a specific part,” he says. “Try not to do that.”

Once you automate a manual process with Zapier, it doesn’t mean you can’t improve on it later on. As your business grows, your needs change, and your automation skills increase, you’ll spot opportunities to clean up your processes even further.

Stay flexible

It’s helpful to bring a beginner’s mind to any new Zap you set up—and to not get frustrated when things don’t work as expected.

“Problems will happen,” Andrew warns. “When Zaps go wrong or app APIs go wrong, that can be intimidating.”

However, he urges people not to panic when this occurs. Instead, put on your problem-solving hat.

“Processes are living,” he says. “Be iterative and try to fix things as quickly as possible. When Zapier is built in your process, think about the changes you might be making and the downstream consequences.”

And when you can’t quite figure out a solution? Don’t be afraid to call for reinforcements, like a Zapier Expert or the Zapier support team.

New to Zapier? It’s a tool that helps anyone connect apps and automate workflows—without any complicated code. Sign up for free.

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