Approval workflow automation: what everyone needs to know

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  • 9 min read

Very often, companies avoid automation. It’s considered expensive, unnecessary, and only significant for big enterprises.

Business owners sometimes postpone automating any workflows until the process is so tangled that trying to introduce automation would take too long to prove itself profitable.  However, we beg to differ. 

What you don’t need to start automating: 

  • $20M budget
  • Thousands of employees
  • A year of your time
  • Hiring special people to implement the automation software solution
  • Hours of corporate training

Instead, you need:

  • Understanding of your business processes and their flow
  • To get to automation BEFORE the current workflow becomes unsustainable 
  • A team of people whose time would be better spent dealing with creative and challenging tasks rather than repetitive and brain-dead ones. 
  • A simple tool that will easily integrate into your software kit

How does it all look in practice? Read on. 

Article’s content:

  1. Approval workflow and approval request: what are they?
  2. Criteria of a well-tuned approval process
  3. How to approach approvals automation
  4. How to choose the proper software that suits you
  5. Tips on implementing an approval automation solution

What is an approval workflow? 

A workflow is in essence a sequence of actions that brings a business process to the desired result. 

For example, you need to book a ticket. You ask your assistant to do it. First, she goes to any flight aggregator to find the most attractive offer and enters your destination, number of passengers, and the date you’d like to depart. She chooses an acceptable option and sends the detail to you for approval. After you approve of the arrangements, she completes the purchase on the website and sends an email to you with the tickets and other details you might want to know about. That was a workflow of purchasing tickets for your business trip. 

An approval workflow is a process of gathering necessary permissions and clearances from key team members along the way of working on a task. 

Following that logic, we can say that an approval request is a message that contains all the necessary information for the responsible team member to be able to grant the requestor those permissions and/or clearances. 

The most common case is to just send this kind of message via email.

However, it creates certain blockers on the way:

  • Misdirected requests. 
  • No guaranteed response. 
  • Delayed response.
  • Not enough information in the request.
  • No good way of organizing the approval process.
  • No access to approval history across your organization. Who approved? When? How?
  • Complete chaos, if the approval process is not linear and involves several departments. 

These issues make the approval process inefficient and draining, which encourages businesses to search for a better approval solution.

Before we jump to fixing those issues, let’s define

The main criteria of an efficient approval process:

  • Transparency. Who approves of what, how to get something approved and where to see approval history: those questions need clear straightforward answers. Everyone who needs the information contained in the request should have access to it. 
  • Safety. Approval history should be unchangeable and constantly recorded. Information in the approval requests should be only visible to those who need it and have the right to view it. 
  • Uniformity. Approval requests should come to the approvers through one communication channel in standardized forms so that no information is missing or lost. Also, it should be clear that an incoming message is actually an approval request, and not something else. 
  • A certain degree of automation. Anything that can be automated in the process, should be. 

For example, Approveit allows you to automate: 

  • Choosing the right approvers to approve/reject requests (instead of requestors doing it manually every time, the admin of Approveit only does it once when setting up the workflow, and requestors don’t have to set approvers at all)
  • Reminders (in case the request wasn’t processed right away, Approveit will automatically remind the approvers of pending requests)
  • Post-approval actions (build-in integrations with XERO, Jira, QuickBooks and FreshBooks and no-code integration with the software of your choice will help with that) 
  • Continuity.  The approval process has to be smooth, without any blockers or obstacles, easy to go through, and repeat.
  • Flexibility.  Teammates should be easy to add, replace, or remove from the approval workflow. Approval request forms should be easy to adjust and customize. 
  • Simplicity.  Creating and approving requests has to be simple. All the information needed for approval should be easy to submit in the request and easy to process by the approver. Approveit allows for creating simple approval forms that are easy for the requestor to fill, and the approver does not get lost in the request details.

Approaching your approval process automation

Before you start doing anything, you should clearly understand why you’re doing it and what are you looking to accomplish. Following these simple steps will help you find the answers:

  • Evaluate your current approval workflows. It may turn out that you don’t really need any changes! The criteria we’ve listed above might be of help to you with this.
  • Look into your business processes and find those that include repetitive approval requests. Automating an approval workflow that is only active once a month might not be worth your while. A new automation solution is best to apply to routine repetitive processes first. 
  • Define your goal. Generally, everyone implements automation solutions to minimize costs by cutting down on manual work. However, it’s a little more complicated than that. Maybe, you need to export your access approval history for compliance. Or your company is trying to minimize spending at a certain manufacturing step. Your specific requirements will define the list of features you will be looking for in the automation software.
  • Find appropriate software. Once you’ve completed the previous steps, this should be easy enough. Our advice is to find at least 5 options that might potentially become your solution and book demo calls. Since you know what you’re looking for, you’ll have the list of questions ready to go and calls will be productive and brief. Collect a price list that will contain rates of different approval software providers and define the value each approval solution has for your business.
  • Set KPI and calculate expected ROI. In the end, it’s all about efficiency, and numbers are the best thing to prove it. 

The examples of KPI you might want to track:

  • The overall number of approval requests/mo
  • Response time to the approval request
  • Completion time of an approval cycle
  • Share of approval requests left unresponded for over a month
  • Share of requests rejected due to mistakes in provided info
  • Share of approval requests send to the wrong apporver
  • Share of lost approval requests

By calculating your expected ROI you’ll clearly see if the process is worth it.

Now let’s talk a little more about 

Choosing the approval automation software

The simpler the solution, the more cost-efficient it will be: to implement something complicated into your software kit you’re going to need training, onboarding specialists, and a lot of time, and the quicker your team grasps the new concept, the sooner you’ll see your targeted ROI. So, when you’re choosing the approval automation software try to focus solely on the features you actually need and will use. Complex big products can bring a lot of value to your business but you have to be 100% sure you need them. Starting simple is generally a good idea. 

Choose user-friendly software where your admin only needs to spend a few minutes to set up an approval workflow. Look for companies that offer easy onboarding (like guides that you can send to your team members so they could easily start using the app).

Most products on the market, including Approveit, have a Free Trial period. Use it to the max. Contact support, ask questions, and test all the features the software has to offer. Experience the quality of the product and its user support. Even if there’s an occasional bug here and there, but the support team is quick to react, helpful and nice, it can be totally worth it. And if the support is not very effective and it takes forever for them to reply, you might want to make sure you won’t have to talk to them very often. 

Value is also a factor here. Value is not what you pay for the product, but more the case of “do I get what I’m paying for?”. That’s why testing different solutions is a good idea: two vendors can be offering you more or less the same spectrum of services, but the value for you will be different due to their rates, support team efficiency, and even the personality of the CEO or the manager you’re dealing with.

Implementing an approval automation solution

Here things mostly depend on the software you land on. But there is some general advice we can give you. 

Track KPI for at least a month before you implement approval automation software. This approach is great to see the efficiency of your approval software in numbers. If you won’t see any real results after 2-3 months of using your new approval app, it might be worth trying a different one. 

Don’t expect to see results the next day. Your team has to get used to the “new order” in your approvals approach, give them time to adjust. You also might want to tweak some settings now and then before you reach an optimal functioning of your automated approval process. 

Take your time to set everything up correctly; it will save you a lot of extra effort in the long run. Make sure the workflows are set up in the most efficient way and all key team members understand and follow a new approval process. 

If you have any doubts, concerns, or questions about approval automation, let’s talk! Book a demo call with us and we’ll help you in any way we can. 

Enjoy your automated approval workflows! 

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