Workflow: The Ultimate Guide

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1. What is a workflow? A Quick Introduction

If you are a small business owner or even a business leader in a mid sized business organization dealing with a million things every day, you migh often feel automation is one of the good things everyone talks about in conferences and in publications but never really makes it to the top of your priority list. You are not alone. In the daily ‘busy-ness’ and ‘fire fighting’ mode, taking a step back to drive automation can be difficult and so lots of companies just live with the pain.

In a report titled ‘2021 state of SMB automation’ by Zapier, 44% of SMB employees said that they're not highly efficient or productive in their day-to-day work, and 94% said they perform repetitive, time-consuming tasks in their role.

In this study and others, the reasons for why SMBs don’t focus on automation vary from a perception of complexity, resource constraints in terms of time and money you feel needs to be invested. Some might even feel that the change might disrupt your existing processes too much and is irrelevant for the scale you are at currently.

  • Despite these common reservations, automation and workflows can offer significant benefits to small businesses, including improved efficiency, reduced operational costs, enhanced customer relationships, and increased competitiveness. The same study noted that “92% of knowledge workers agree that automation has improved their lives in the workplace. Specifically, 2 out of 3 are satisfied with their role because they use automation at work
  • 63% say using automation has helped them fight work burnout
  • 65% say that using automation at work makes them less stressed

Now those are awesome metrics and every business leader would love to see that playing out in their business.

CRMs manage a lot of the critical customer data with sales, marketing and support teams using it to track and manage customer acquisition and post sales support and revenue enhancement. Well thought through automation can dramatically enhance productivity, customer and employee satisfaction and drive sustainable growth.

But things can get hairy and snowball into an unmanageable mess very fast if you just go all out without thinking it through in the specific context of what works (and does not work) for your unique business. It's essential for small business owners to understand the potential advantages and consider starting with simple, manageable automation solutions before gradually expanding their use of these tools.

So in this CRM 101 basics guide, we will review what a workflow is, what the best practices to keep in mind while designing workflow automation for your business, and we will even look at some great examples that will help you get started with identifying possible use cases for you.

This guide is written with no assumptions on where you are in the automation journey. If you have no idea whatsoever, read all the way through the sections in sequence. If you have already dabbled in automation and have some idea on what you need to do feel free to jump to the more tactical sections.

2. Workflows: Some Core Concepts

A workflow is essentially a sequence of tasks, activities, or processes that are organized and executed in a specific order to achieve a particular goal or outcome. So except for the first and last step in the flow, every other step will have a step prior to it and following it.

Workflows are commonly used in various fields and industries to streamline and optimize complex processes. They help ensure that work is performed efficiently, consistently, and with a clear structure.

Here are some key characteristics and components of most workflows. There are exceptions to these but let's stick to the basics for now.

The following three are absolutely essential - there literally is no workflow without these.

  • Sequential Steps: Workflows involve a series of steps or actions that are performed in a predetermined order. Each step typically depends on the successful completion of the previous one.
  • Inputs and Outputs: Workflows have inputs (such as data, information, or materials) and outputs (results or products). These inputs are transformed or processed during the workflow to produce desired outputs.
  • Rules and Conditions: Workflows may include rules, conditions, or decision points that guide the flow of the process. These rules determine which path the workflow follows based on specific criteria.

Now, well designed workflows will go a step further and also have the following:

  • Defined Roles and Responsibilities: Workflows often assign specific roles or responsibilities to individuals or teams involved in the process. This helps in clarifying who is responsible for what.
  • Automation: In modern contexts, workflows are frequently automated using software tools and systems. Automation can help reduce manual intervention and speed up processes.
  • Monitoring and Tracking: Workflows often include mechanisms for monitoring and tracking progress, allowing for performance measurement and optimization.

One can use simple visualization tools like flowcharts or process maps to design workflows and design the relationships between various steps in the flow.

Workflows can vary in complexity and scale. They are used in a wide range of applications, from business processes like lead management, customer onboarding and order processing to creative processes like content production and software development project management. Effective workflows can help organizations and individuals improve productivity, reduce errors, and ensure consistency in their business operations.

Now that we have a birds eye view of what workflows are, let's dive deeper into workflows in the specific context of CRM. Before jumping into the fun part of designing workflows and best practices for it, the bigger question you might have is - what are the benefits of having workflows? Is it really worth it?

3. What are the benefits of CRM workflow?

While it might seem that automation only makes sense for large enterprises with global operations and hundreds of complex intertwined business processes, that is just not true. Implementing CRM (Customer Relationship Management) workflows can offer a wide range of benefits for businesses and organizations of all sizes. These benefits are related to increased efficiency, improved customer relationships, and streamlined processes.

“44% of SMB employees say that they're not highly efficient or productive in their day-to-day work, and 94% say they perform repetitive, time-consuming tasks in their role.”

Let’s go over some of the key advantages of using CRM workflows in SMBs:

1. Process Automation: CRM workflows automate routine and repetitive tasks, even those involving pulling data from external data sources, reducing the need for manual data entry and administrative work. This increases efficiency and frees up employees to focus on more valuable, strategic activities. 

2. Consistency: Workflows ensure that processes are executed consistently, following predefined rules and criteria. This leads to a higher level of quality and standardization in customer interactions and data management.

3. Improved Productivity: By automating tasks and guiding employees through processes, CRM workflows help boost productivity. Employees can complete tasks more quickly, and fewer errors occur due to manual data entry.

4. Enhanced Customer Relationships: Workflows help manage customer interactions and engagements effectively. By automating follow-ups, nurturing leads, and tracking customer communication, businesses can build stronger and more personalized relationships with their customers.

5. Lead Management: CRM workflows can help with lead scoring, lead assignment, and lead nurturing. This ensures that leads are properly prioritized and moved through the sales funnel efficiently.

6. Better Data Management: With workflows, data can be automatically updated and cleansed. This ensures that customer information is accurate, up to date, and reliable.

7. Task and Time Management: CRM workflows can include time-based actions and task assignments. This helps employees manage their time effectively and ensures that important tasks are not overlooked.

8. Streamlined Sales Processes: Sales workflows help streamline the entire sales process, from lead generation to deal closure. This reduces the sales cycle and leads to increased revenue.

9. Marketing Campaigns: CRM workflows can automate marketing campaigns, enabling businesses to send personalized messages to leads and customers at the right time, improving the efficiency of marketing efforts.

10. Cost Savings: Automation reduces labor costs associated with manual data entry and repetitive tasks. Additionally, more effective lead management can result in cost savings by targeting high-potential leads.

11. Data Analytics: CRM workflows provide data on the performance of various processes and customer interactions. This data can be used for analysis and decision-making to further improve operations.

12. Customer Satisfaction: By automating support ticket management and responses, CRM workflows can lead to faster issue resolution and improved customer satisfaction.

13. Compliance and Audit Trails: Many CRM systems provide audit trails, ensuring that activities and changes are logged. This can be important for compliance and security requirements.

14. Scalability: As a business grows, CRM workflows can adapt to accommodate increased data and customer interaction volumes. This scalability allows organizations to maintain efficiency as they expand.

15. Competitive Advantage: CRM workflows enable businesses to respond more rapidly to customer needs and market changes, giving them a competitive advantage.

16. Customization: CRM workflows can be customized to match an organization's unique processes and industry requirements, ensuring they are a precise fit for the business.

Overall, CRM workflows empower organizations to manage their customer relationships more efficiently and effectively. They help deliver a consistent and high-quality experience to customers while optimizing internal processes and reducing operational costs.

So now that you have a good idea of what benefits workflows can bring to your organization, let us address some of the common misconceptions and also get under the hood of some of the top use cases for CRM workflows in SMBs.

First up - the difference between a specific action or event and a workflow.

4. What is the difference between workflow and action in CRM?

In the context of CRM systems, "workflow" and "action" are related concepts, but they serve different purposes and are typically used at different stages of managing customer relationships and processes. At a very high level you can think of workflows as a set of actions strung together with some logic that decides which action is triggered when.

Here's are some core differences between the two to get a better idea:

In summary, workflows are used to define and automate multi-step processes and decision-making within a CRM system, while actions are individual, user-initiated or system-performed tasks and activities. Workflows are more about managing the flow of work, whereas actions focus on specific interactions and activities that contribute to managing customer relationships. Both workflows and actions are important components of CRM systems and can work together to improve efficiency and customer engagement.

Further Reading: Actions: Your Personal Digital Assistant

5. What are the features of CRM workflow?

The features of a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) workflow vary depending on the CRM software you're using, but generally, CRM workflows have several key features that help streamline and automate various business processes. Here are some common features of CRM workflows:

Trigger Mechanisms: CRM workflows can be triggered by specific events or conditions. Common triggers include the creation of a new lead, changes to contact information, a lead reaching a specific score, or the submission of a support ticket. What is a Workflow Trigger?

Sequence of Steps: Workflows typically consist of a sequence of steps or actions that are executed in a specific order. These steps can include sending emails, updating records, assigning tasks, and more. 

Conditions and Rules: You can define conditions and rules within a workflow to guide decision-making. For example, workflows can have branching logic based on criteria like lead score, industry, or purchase history. Multipath Workflows

Automation: Workflows are designed to automate routine tasks and processes. This helps reduce manual effort and ensures consistency in the execution of tasks.

Integration: CRM workflows often integrate with other systems and applications. For example, they can connect with email marketing tools, calendar systems, or data enrichment services to enhance functionality.

Task Assignment: Workflows can automatically assign tasks to specific users or teams based on defined criteria. This ensures that the right people are responsible for specific actions.

Time-Based Actions: You can set up time-based actions within a workflow. For instance, sending automated follow-up emails after a certain period or escalating a support ticket if not resolved within a specified timeframe. Creating a scheduled workflow

Communication: Workflows can facilitate automated communication with customers, leads, or team members. This includes sending personalized emails, SMS messages, or in-app notifications. Automate Outgoing Emails

Reporting and Analytics: CRM workflows often include reporting and analytics features. You can track the performance of your workflows, monitor the progress of leads or opportunities, and assess the efficiency of your processes.

Customization: Many CRM systems allow you to customize workflows to fit your specific business needs. You can define custom fields, actions, and rules tailored to your organization's processes.

Notifications and Alerts: CRM workflows can send notifications and alerts to users when specific events occur. For instance, a notification might be sent to a sales representative when a lead reaches a particular stage in the sales pipeline.

Version Control: Some CRM systems offer version control for workflows, allowing you to track and manage changes to workflow designs over time.

Security and Permissions: CRM workflows often come with security features that allow you to define who can create, edit, or execute workflows. This helps ensure data privacy and compliance with your organization's policies.

Documentation and Training: CRM workflows can be documented for reference and training purposes, making it easier for team members to understand how they work and how they should interact with them.

Error Handling: Workflows may include error-handling mechanisms to manage situations where actions or conditions fail to execute as expected.

These features make CRM workflows a powerful tool for automating and optimizing a wide range of business processes, from lead management and sales to marketing campaigns and customer support. The specific features available can vary depending on the CRM software you're using, so it's important to explore the capabilities of your chosen CRM system.

6. What are the Best Practices for designing a CRM workflow?

Using workflows in a CRM is a valuable way to automate and streamline various processes related to managing customer relationships, sales, marketing, and customer support. Workflows in CRM tools can be used to ensure consistency, reduce manual tasks, and improve efficiency. Here's how you can use workflows in a CRM tool:

Define Your Objectives: Clearly define the objectives of the workflow. What specific process or task do you want to automate or streamline? This could include lead nurturing, sales follow-ups, customer onboarding, support ticket management, and more.

Identify Triggers: Determine the triggers or events that will initiate the workflow. Triggers could be actions such as a new lead being added, a customer submitting a support ticket, or a sales opportunity reaching a specific stage.

Map the Workflow Steps: Create a visual map of the workflow steps. Determine what actions should be taken in response to the trigger. For example, sending automated emails, assigning tasks to sales representatives, updating contact information, or creating follow-up reminders.

Set Conditions and Rules: Define conditions and rules for decision-making within the workflow. For example, if a lead's score reaches a certain threshold, it may trigger a different set of actions compared to a lower-scoring lead. 

Automate Communication: Use the CRM's email automation capabilities to send automated emails at various stages of the workflow. Personalize messages and use merge fields to include customer-specific information.

Assign Tasks and Responsibilities: Assign tasks to specific team members within the CRM tool. This ensures that responsible individuals are aware of their role in the workflow.

Time-Based Actions: Incorporate time-based actions into the workflow. For instance, send a follow-up email one week after an initial contact, or escalate a support ticket if it remains unresolved after a certain period.

Testing and Validation: Test the workflow to ensure it works as intended. Verify that triggers activate the workflow, and actions are executed accurately. Make adjustments if necessary.

Monitor and Analyze: Continuously monitor the workflow's performance. Use analytics and reporting tools within the CRM to track the results. This can help you identify bottlenecks, areas for improvement, and opportunities to optimize the workflow.

Iterate and Improve: Based on the data and feedback, make necessary improvements to the workflow to enhance its effectiveness. This might involve refining messaging, adjusting trigger conditions, or modifying task assignments.

Documentation and Training: Document the workflow for reference and training purposes. Ensure that team members are aware of how the workflow operates and how they should interact with it.

By effectively implementing workflows in your CRM tool, you can automate routine tasks, ensure timely follow-ups, provide better customer experiences, and ultimately boost your efficiency and productivity in managing customer relationships and sales processes.

7. How to use workflow in CRM?

Workflows in a CRM tool can be applied to a wide range of business scenarios to streamline processes, improve efficiency, and enhance customer interactions. 

Here are some common business scenarios where workflows in a CRM tool can be highly beneficial:

Lead Management: Automatically assign leads to sales representatives based on criteria such as geographic location or lead source.

Implement lead nurturing workflows that send follow-up emails and reminders to engage with leads over time. What is lead management

Sales Opportunity Management: Automate sales opportunity progression, moving leads through sales stages and assigning tasks to sales teams. Trigger alerts or reminders for sales reps to follow up on opportunities at key milestones. Effective Sales Funnels

Customer Onboarding: Create onboarding workflows for new customers, guiding them through the setup process and providing helpful information and resources. Schedule follow-up calls or emails to ensure customer satisfaction. Best Practices to Improve Customer Onboarding

Customer Support Ticketing: Automatically assign and prioritize support tickets based on criteria like issue severity, customer type, or service level agreements (SLAs). Send automated updates to customers regarding the status of their support requests. Managing Tickets 

Email Marketing Campaigns: Automate email marketing campaigns to segment and target customers based on their behavior, interests, or past purchases.

Schedule email delivery at optimal times for increased open and click-through rates. Drive Conversions with Email Marketing 

Renewal and Upsell Opportunities: Set up workflows to identify and alert sales teams about upcoming contract renewals or potential upsell opportunities.

Automate the sending of renewal reminders or product recommendations.

Customer Feedback and Surveys: Automatically send post-interaction surveys or feedback requests to customers. Trigger alerts when negative feedback is received to address customer concerns promptly. Creating and Sending Surveys

Data Quality and Enrichment: Use workflows to validate and enrich contact data by integrating with data enrichment services. Cleanse and update contact records regularly to ensure accurate information. Clean up “Dirty Data”

Cross-Department Communication: Create workflows that facilitate communication between sales, marketing, and customer support teams.

Share information and updates about customer interactions and needs. Collaboration (Comments and Mentions)

Inventory Management and Order Processing: Automate order processing workflows, including inventory checks, order confirmation emails, and delivery tracking updates. Notify teams when inventory levels reach certain thresholds or when items are back in stock. Automating Inventory Management

Event and Webinar Registration: Automate registration and follow-up processes for events and webinars. Send confirmations, reminders, and post-event surveys or content to participants. Automating WebForms

Contract and Document Management: Streamline contract approval workflows by routing contracts to the appropriate stakeholders for review and signature. Automate document version control and tracking. Approval Automation

Customer Churn Prediction and Retention: Develop workflows that analyze customer behavior and trigger alerts when signs of potential churn are detected.

Implement retention workflows to engage at-risk customers with offers or support.

Partner and Affiliate Management: Use workflows to manage partner onboarding, tracking of partner-generated leads, and commission calculations.

Automate partner communication and reporting.

Custom Scenarios: Tailor workflows to address unique business processes and requirements specific to your industry and organization.

The flexibility and customization options of CRM workflows make them valuable for improving various aspects of customer relationship management, from lead generation to post-sale support and beyond. Adapting workflows to your organization's specific needs can lead to greater efficiency and customer satisfaction.

We have covered a lot of ground from understanding the concept of CRM workflows, exploring the components of workflows, and going over the best practices and business use cases of where workflows can be used in your organization. 

To wrap up this guide, here is a more granular look at some of those use cases we covered and how a workflow might be designed for it.

8. High level Mapping of some CRM workflow use cases

a) Customer Onboarding Workflow

  • Scenario: A SaaS (Software as a Service) company wants to ensure a smooth onboarding experience for new customers, guiding them through account setup, training, and initial product usage.
  • Workflow: The CRM system is configured with a customer onboarding workflow. When a new customer signs up, the workflow triggers a series of automated onboarding emails and sets up tasks for the customer success team. It includes interactive tutorials, resource links, and personalized follow-ups to help customers get the most out of the product.
  • Benefits: This workflow accelerates time-to-value for customers, reduces churn rates, and improves product adoption. Happy customers are more likely to renew their subscriptions and recommend the product to others.

b) Lead Scoring and Assignment Workflow

  • Scenario: A B2B company receives a high volume of inbound leads, and the sales team wants a system to prioritize and distribute leads based on their quality and potential value.
  • Workflow: The CRM is equipped with a lead scoring and assignment workflow. When a new lead is created, the workflow assigns a score based on predefined criteria, such as job title, company size, and engagement history. High-scoring leads are automatically assigned to the most suitable sales representatives, while lower-scoring leads receive additional nurturing through marketing campaigns.
  • Benefits: This workflow ensures that high-value leads are promptly engaged by the right sales reps, increasing conversion rates and revenue. It also prevents the sales team from wasting time on low-quality leads.

c) Renewal and Upsell Opportunity Workflow

  • Scenario: A subscription-based business wants to proactively manage customer renewals and identify opportunities for upselling or cross-selling additional products or services.
  • Workflow: The CRM is configured with a renewal and upsell opportunity workflow. It monitors upcoming subscription renewals and automatically sends reminders to both customers and the sales team. It also analyzes customer usage data to identify potential upsell opportunities and triggers automated offers or recommendations.
  • Benefits: This workflow increases subscription renewal rates and revenue by identifying and capitalizing on upsell opportunities. It improves customer retention and lifetime value.

d) Marketing Campaign Management Workflow

  • Scenario: A company conducts various marketing campaigns across email, social media, and other channels and needs to coordinate and track these efforts effectively.
  • Workflow: The CRM system is set up with a marketing campaign management workflow. It automates the creation and execution of marketing campaigns, including email sends, social media posts, and ad placements. The workflow tracks and analyzes campaign performance, allowing for adjustments and optimizations in real-time.
  • Benefits: This workflow ensures that marketing campaigns are executed consistently and efficiently. It provides valuable insights into campaign effectiveness and allows for data-driven decision-making to improve ROI.

e) Partner Relationship Management Workflow

  • Scenario: A company collaborates with external partners, such as resellers or affiliates, and needs to manage partner relationships, lead generation, and commission tracking efficiently.
  • Workflow: The CRM is equipped with a partner relationship management workflow. It automates lead distribution to partners, tracks lead status, and calculates commissions based on deals closed. The workflow also provides partners with access to necessary resources and updates on their leads' progress.
  • Benefits: This workflow streamlines partner collaboration, ensures accurate commission calculations, and encourages partner engagement. It leads to increased sales through partner channels and better partner relationships.

These examples showcase how CRM workflows can be tailored to address specific business needs and processes, leading to various tangible benefits, including improved customer experiences, increased revenue, better lead management, and more efficient and organized operations.