A Guide to Workflow Automation for Small Businesses

By Chelsea Williams
Senior Copywriter
Feb 2 2024 read

You’ve heard the buzz about automation, seen your competitors leverage it and know it’s something your small business should embrace. But where to start?

If the concept of workflow automation makes you feel like you’re standing in the middle of a maze, we can help. Let this guide be your compass.

We’ll walk you through key questions and decisions:

What Is a Workflow?

A workflow, or workflow process, is a sequence of steps and tasks that are carried out to complete a particular business process. In other words, workflows are a pattern of behavior that you repeat to accomplish an objective.

Workflows can be found in almost every business, even if they aren’t defined. When you nurture a lead, onboard a client, manage projects or field client requests, you’re engaging in a workflow.

What Is Workflow Automation?

Workflows that consist of manual processes can be time-consuming. The solution? Workflow automation.

Workflow automation is a type of business process automation that uses rule-based logic to automate repetitive tasks and increase efficiency. By automating common workflows, you ensure that tasks are consistently completed. You also free up valuable time and resources.

Benefits of Workflow Automation

Automated workflows can transform your business in countless ways. Let’s take a look at four potential improvements that stand out.

Streamlined operations

Your business operations will see one of the most immediate impacts of successful workflow automation. There will be less need for human intervention, which reduces errors and delays. Your teams will work smarter and can devote more attention to opportunities and challenges.

By establishing a quicker and more effective daily workflow, your business can achieve profitability and remain competitive.

Improved employee productivity

Done with care, workflow automation encourages team productivity. It boosts morale by making mundane tasks easier. It also frees up time so that your employees can work on more complex and creative tasks.

Greater productivity means faster project turnaround, which is crucial for growing your business and building a strong reputation in the market.

Enhanced customer experience

While workflow automation is a direct change to your company’s internal processes, the ripple effects go beyond that. Clients will notice that your team is completing projects, communicating updates and resolving issues faster than ever before.

Thus, an investment in better workflows is an investment in customer relationship management.

Potential for increased profitability

Improving operations, productivity and the customer experience all at once can increase profitability in several ways:

  • Automated processes require very little troubleshooting or maintenance.
  • Fewer errors and corrected inefficiencies can reduce costs.
  • Accelerated task completion can increase capacity and revenue.

How To Set Up Workflows in 3 Steps

Before you can automate workflows, you need to establish what your workflows are. Building effective workflows can take some time, but there’s no need to overcomplicate things. 

Here are three steps to get you started, especially if this is your first time formally outlining a workflow.

1. Define key business processes

Pinpoint tasks that follow a consistent pattern. If you’re in consulting, this might be the process of client intake or project planning. For an IT business, it could be an initial systems assessment.

TIP: You may feel like there are endless task trails to follow. Prioritize the ones you use the most, or that will have the greatest impact when cleaned up.

2. Cut unnecessary steps

Next, write down how the process is being done now. Then, follow each series of tasks and act as the connector. Where are the inefficiencies? Are there unnecessary or missing steps?

TIP: Streamlining isn’t about cutting corners. It’s about ensuring every workflow step has a purpose. For some tasks, you may find there isn’t a lot of room for making cuts. For others, you may be able to significantly narrow down the required actions.

3. Formalize your workflow

This is the documentation phase. Your streamlined workflow will be the new standard. For example, building a new approval workflow may mean creating new internal forms that team members can use to more easily communicate with one another.

TIP: It might seem tedious to undergo a multi-step review for every task, but it’s an ironclad way to create workflows that stick. Get each person involved in reworking their team’s workflows to encourage them to evaluate their personal habits and even create their own workflows.

Learn more about implementing this iterative process for workflows.

How to Streamline Workflows Using Automation

Once you have some workflows in place, either new or existing, it’s time to think about how you can remove manual processes. Here’s how to leverage automation to refine workflows and support better ongoing business process management.

1. Identify your most time-consuming workflows

It’s not reasonable to expect that you could automate all processes at once. Instead, you’ll need to prioritize. Within some of your workflows, you may find a lot of manual tasks that take up a lot of time and can contribute to bottlenecks. If these tasks are always done the same way, they are good candidates for automation.

For example, compiling weekly reports is a prime candidate because it involves pulling information from the same places and sending the data to the same person.

If you’re unsure which tasks take the most time, track time over a period to generate reliable insights that can help you decide which workflows to focus on.

2. Take note of all stakeholders

Understanding who is involved in each workflow is vital to the success of your automation implementation. Map out the stakeholders for your list of the most important workflows to automate. This could include team members who initiate the process, those who contribute along the way and anyone who relies on the final output.

Think about a task that involves multiple approvals. You’ll want an automation tool that notifies and collects inputs from each stakeholder efficiently.

Knowing who will be impacted helps in designing an automation strategy that considers everyone’s needs and minimizes disruption.

3. List current apps or platforms

Successful automation requires the right technology, but before you add any new tools, you’ll want to inventory what you currently use. Some of your existing applications could have automation features or integrate with platforms that do. You could find that your most widely used tools, such as a CRM, are the most flexible and ready for automation. 

This will identify redundancies and further streamline workflows. It will also help you predict compatibility issues and figure out what you need before expanding or changing your tech stack.

RELATED: The 11 Best CRMs for SMBs

4. Consolidate steps and tools

Once you’ve identified tasks, stakeholders and tools, look for ways to consolidate. Automation is ultimately about making your work as easy as possible. You may find you can combine two workflows into one or that a complex workflow is not so complex when you use a single tool.

For example, if you were entering tasks into both a task management system and a project tracking tool, you can reduce your workload by choosing a platform that can handle both — and automate some steps, too.

Consolidating tools will greatly reduce your team’s risk for errors and miscommunications.

Workflow Automation Examples for Professional Services

Different industries have distinct needs and challenges, so how they automate business workflows will vary. Below is a look at some practical use cases across different service domains.

Agency workflows

Creative and digital agencies have many routine tasks that are ripe for automation. Agency teams often spend a lot of time scheduling and posting content on social media, emailing leads and reporting, for example. They might use workflow automation in the following ways.

  • A marketing automation tool triggers a series of targeted emails based on how a person interacts with a client’s website.
  • New client information is captured in a CRM, which triggers a welcome email and a set of tasks for team members to work on.
  • Tools track metrics like clicks, conversions and engagement and compile them into comprehensive reports, then send them at regular intervals to keep the team and clients informed.

Consulting workflows

Consultants often deal with complex projects requiring multiple levels of approval and collaboration. Here’s how automation could have a significant effect on leaders, consultants and clients in this industry.

  • Team members are notified when a prospective client has viewed a quote so they can plan a follow-up.
  • Automating the approval process — by routing proposals or reports to the relevant managers — drastically reduces the time spent on back-and-forth communications.
  • The team implements automated time tracking for projects and links time logs to their billing system.

Accounting workflows

Accounting firms are burdened with significant manual data entry tasks, from logging transaction details to reconciling accounts. Automation can transform these labor-intensive processes.

  • Accounting software extracts data from receipts, invoices or bank statements to reduce errors and save time.
  • Employees submit expenses through an online portal and, once approved, can be quickly reimbursed. Financial records are also automatically updated.
  • Instead of reconciling bank statements with ledger entries once a month, an automation tool can do this daily, simplifying month-end closing responsibilities.

IT workflows

IT firms benefit immensely from workflow automation, especially when it comes to improving service quality and trimming issue resolution time.

  • An IT business automates the process of checking and applying for updates and patches, which ensures all systems are up to date with the latest security measures.
  • The firm establishes a series of tasks for onboarding clients, including setting up their accounts and granting access to certain systems. They replicate this automation for new hires.
  • Incoming support requests are categorized and assigned to the appropriate team, with trigger alerts sent for high-priority issues.

Engineering workflows

Engineering teams often find coordinating between different teams and managing resources can be quite challenging. Using automation to integrate human resources and project management can increase efficiency.

  • An automated scheduler handles resource allocation to keep team availability in alignment with project timelines.
  • Change requests come through a workflow that alerts the appropriate team members to update project plans and legal documents.
  • A system monitors project parameters against predefined quality and compliance standards to improve overall output quality and build a detailed audit trail.

Top Features of Workflow Automation Tools

Despite how prepared you are with predefined workflows and ideas of how to apply automation, the most important factor is the tool you choose to put them into effect. So, how should you go about narrowing down your options?

We’re making it simple with an overview of five key features of a good workflow automation solution.

Task management

A robust workflow automation tool should, at a minimum, offer flexible task management. After all, tasks are the building blocks of a workflow. The best tools allow for task creation, assignment and tracking and enable you to set deadlines, prioritize tasks and update statuses. Your team will be on the same page, and it will be easier to move from manual to automated completion.

Project management

Project management is nearly as important as task management because tasks are often tied to projects. Having all aspects of a project — including milestones, resources, billable rates and budgets — on hand will allow you to automate a variety of project-related administrative tasks.


Templates are time-savers. Use them to quickly set up new workflows based on common processes. Whether you’re onboarding a new client or setting up a regular report, templates prevent you from starting from scratch every time. Templates also give you confidence that your team is automating workflows in a consistent manner.

Real-time dashboards

Dashboards give you a snapshot of what’s happening at any moment, and they represent a key function of workflow automation: real-time data collection. Instead of having to dig around to find the insights you need, you can immediately access the most important metrics. While dashboards aren’t a replacement for in-depth reports, they’re an efficient way to auto-compile the information you care about most.


An effective automation platform should send notifications when a task is assigned, due or overdue. They’re essential for making sure tasks aren’t overlooked. The best platforms have customizable notification settings to suit your needs and preferences.

Comparing Workflow Automation Software

There are lots of different types of workflow software, some more complicated than others.

You may choose a platform that’s only made for workflow creation and integrate it with your project management software or other work management tools, or go with an end-to-end solution that allows you to create workflows for various stages of work and connect them.

Here, we’ll cover features, pros and cons for three platforms: Accelo, Kissflow and Zapier. At the end of this section, you’ll find a link to a more thorough list of workflow management tools.


accelo logo

Accelo is a cloud-based client work management platform that combines all of the above areas that require workflow management: sales, project management and billing, plus additional products for ticketing, reports and retainer management.

Designed to help professional services firms improve efficiency and profitability, Accelo gives teams the power to manage client relationships from prospect to payment in one unified space.


  • Custom workflows to automate and streamline business processes
  • Centralized client database connecting client records to projects, tasks and billing
  • Project management tools, including automated time trackers, useful project templates and resource management  
  • Retainer tools, including contract management and recurring work automation


  • Not limited to one industry or stage of client work, so it’s customizable for all service businesses
  • Open API allows for flexibility in building advanced and custom integrations


  • The platform may be too robust for small businesses seeking only one or two functions
  • Not the best fit for teams of under five people


Accelo offers four pricing plans that scale with your business. The Business, Professional and Advanced tiers provide a range of features to help growing businesses manage client information, tasks, communication, retainers, tickets, workflows and more. The Elite tier provides access to the full suite of client work features, premium support and more.

Book a demo to see how Accelo could be the workflow management software you’ve been searching for.


Kissflow Logo

Kissflow is a business process management and low-code application development platform that empowers teams to build workflows. Teams can use logic, customizable rules and formulas to set up key processes that save time and reduce paper-based transactions.


  • Document management
  • Form creation
  • Ticketing
  • Internal chat


  • Users appreciate the intuitive UI
  • Templates for common use cases


  • May be too complex for teams with limited IT staff or knowledge
  • Cost can be out of reach for small organizations


Kissflow offers two pricing tiers: Basic and Enterprise. Basic starts at $1,500 per month and Enterprise requires custom quotes.


Zapier Logo

Zapier is an automation tool built to help teams reduce busywork. Users build “Zaps,” or automated workflows, using logic, paths, conditions and filters. Teams in many industries apply Zapier to manage leads, drive marketing campaigns, triage customer requests and more.


  • Activity logs
  • Can be connected to nearly any app via webhooks
  • Schedules for when automations should run
  • Error notifications


  • Advanced roles and permissions
  • AI chatbot, databases and other new products in the works



Zapier’s five pricing plans are as follows:

  • Free: up to 100 tasks per month
  • Starter: $19.99 per month
  • Professional: $49 per month
  • Team: $69 per month
  • Company: Custom quotes available

READ NEXT: 12 Best Workflow Management Tools for Service Businesses


3 Tips for Finding the Right Workflow Automation Tool

  1. Evaluate user experience: The best software is the one you’ll use to its fullest potential. Look for a tool with an intuitive interface and user-friendly design. It should be easy to learn and navigate, minimizing the need for extensive training. Check out reviews that speak to this functionality. If possible, involve your team in the evaluation process to get their feedback on usability.
  2. Test for compatibility: Ensure the tool integrates seamlessly with other software you need and use. Incompatibility can lead to disruptions and inefficiencies, defeating your aim to streamline. Many platforms offer free trials, so take advantage of these to test how well a tool works in your existing ecosystem — and if it can help you consolidate to save money.
  3. Check for robust support and training: Even with the most intuitive software, questions and issues will arise. Ensure the provider offers implementation and training resources, plus comprehensive customer support. Strong support offerings are a sign that your automation goals will be easier to achieve.


Workflow Automation Today

Basic workflow automation is about getting more things done in less time, but the benefits of automation continue to evolve. Recent advancements are helping teams across every industry reimagine how they complete work. The current wave of innovations is setting new standards for efficiency, accuracy and flexibility.

What is hyperautomation?

Hyperautomation is the application of advanced technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, to expand automation capabilities beyond what was previously possible. It often involves using no-code or low-code platforms, so that even those with little to no programming knowledge can design and implement solutions. By making automation more democratic, businesses become more agile and responsive.

Opportunities to boost productivity with AI

AI helps systems make intelligent decisions, reduce human errors and learn from outcomes. Because AI can analyze data much faster than humans, it can predict trends and make real-time adjustments to workflows.

For example, AI might prioritize tasks based on urgency and complexity. In a consulting firm with many concurrent projects on deck, an AI platform can run in the background cross-referencing deadlines, task duration, client importance and team availability. It can reshuffle tasks, pause workflows and edit assignments without overburdening the team.

The Best Way To Optimize Your Workflows

Given the above, what’s the best and quickest way to benefit from the power of automation?

For service businesses, it’s smart to choose a multifunctional platform that can pinpoint which workflows have the most measurable impact on your day-to-day — and your bottom line. You don’t just need to automate individual tasks; you need the insights and controls to improve efficiency and productivity across your entire business.

Ask us questions about what this could look like when you use Accelo for client work management. Book a demo to speak with a product expert today.


About the Author


Chelsea Williams is Senior Copywriter at Accelo, where she shares unique insights with service professionals and tells user stories via blogs, eBooks, industry reports and more. She has over 15 years of B2B and B2C writing experience — primarily in tech, sales, education and healthcare. Chelsea is an AWAI-certified Master Copywriter trained in brand storytelling and microcopy.

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