If you've been in business for a while, you may have heard of business process management, or BPM. Perhaps you've discussed it with colleagues or advisors or come across the term when evaluating business automation tools.
As a term, business process management has gained more popularity in the last ten years as digital software solutions have become increasingly prevalent. But the idea of BPM has been around for much longer. Ever since humans realised they could exchange one good for another, processes have defined how we work and live.
Let's look at what people mean when they talk about business process management and how it's more than just BPM software.
Small business process management
Processes are the building blocks of small business operations, but those processes are only as strong as the interdepartmental relationships that facilitate them. Here's an example.
At Zoho, we develop and sell software products. The company's success depends on multiple departments doing their work consistently and successfully while also operating together as a cohesive unit. Having an excellent product development team is useless if the testing team is too small or the marketing team is trapped in a bubble with no collaboration tools. The process of getting a product from the ideation stage to the digital 'shelves,' so to speak, is dependent on our teams working together effectively. You'll need effective communication and teamwork between departments to propel your business forward.
Process management helps you identify slip-ups that are costing your organisation, fix those issues, and work more efficiently. But it's not a one-time task; process management is an ongoing exercise across the company's entire structure—a constant push toward improving how you operate.
What does a process look like for a small business?
Every business has multiple processes across its operations. Administration, sales and marketing, quality assurance, product/service development, and accounting are just some of the core activities that BPM touches on.
Administration may involve hiring employees, evaluating and investing in technology for daily use, and addressing employee grievances. You can break each of those processes further and further down until you end up with a series of tasks that achieve a single goal—for example, an employee requesting a day off and their supervisor approving it. Enterprises usually have dedicated departments and teams to handle these processes. However, it can be more challenging for a small business with fewer than ten employees.
Consider a financial advisory firm. The owner, Julia, may have one employee to help with digital marketing activities and another part-time employee to consult on legal matters. Here, roles aren't as clearly defined as in a larger company. Julia will oversee activities, visit interstate clients, and deal with expense management and business finances. Her marketer might handle customer support, organise Julia's travels, and take sales calls. Suppose Julia books the air tickets and her marketer finalises accommodation. Unless there's clear communication between them, the marketer may not be able to verify her arrival and driving times, resulting in an erroneous reservation.
Mistakes like this happen all the time in business. One isolated incident isn't a big deal, but if a business encounters ten different slip-ups like this every day, it adds up to a lot of wasted time and potential revenue loss.
Our marketer only has to contact the hotel and move things around to fix a booking mistake. But even if that call only lasts 20 minutes, that's 20 minutes spent fixing a problem that shouldn't have arisen in the first place.
When one person works across many processes, streamlining and managing them becomes critical.
Business process management vs business process automation
Automation is only one part of process management, and it's useful to take advantage of it if it helps improve your process. For instance, it may be helpful to set up automated notifications for your bookings. However, it may not be as helpful to invest in automated access cards if you only have one full-time and one part-time employee, both of whom can work remotely.
Managing a process is about breaking down each task within the process and making it clear and easy for those doing it. But that doesn't mean BPM needs to revolve around or even involve technology. It could be as simple as setting up a policy or standard operating procedure (SOP) to help your employees know who to contact and what to do if they run into issues. If you manage a restaurant, for instance, you may give your kitchen staff a checklist of things they need to do before closing the kitchen. You could laminate it and stick it on the wall to make sure everyone can see it, or you could send automated texts with each employee's daily tasks at the start of their shift. Either way, it's process management.
As you evaluate each process, you'll identify more areas you can improve. Sometimes, that means automating them, such as setting up text updates, implementing a chat app for internal communication, sending push notifications, or even designing custom portal for regular clients to raise questions and schedule appointments. Being strategic about which processes you automate can help you save money when it comes to tech solutions, giving you a larger budget to target issues that impact your business in a much deeper way.
There are three steps in process management:
2. Defining your goals or KPIs
3. Analysis and revision
Step 1: Document your processes in detail
Moving from one task to another within a process is called a handover. Most miscommunications and misunderstandings happen in the handover stage. This is why mapping (or documenting) your processes is the first step in process management. When you write it down or map it as a flow chart, you can instantly notice handover points that might need extra attention.
Let's say you run a grocery store in Bendigo. A new Thai restaurant in your locality approaches you for bulk orders. This is good for you—you'd get a considerable discount when you order in bulk from your vendor, and you'd get to pass on a bit of those cost savings to your customer as well. So you agree. The restaurateur orders 10 kilos of rice, which you note down, and later email to your ordering manager. The following week, your ordering manager places the order, but the rice supplier says they're facing a shortage. The two parties agree to a partial delivery—the supplier would deliver 10 kilos of rice within the week and the remaining at a later date. The manager allocates that initial delivery for in-store sales and the rest for the next delivery.
The manager may be thinking that he can provide the Thai restaurant with a partial order or a delayed order depending on the time frame, but they don't communicate this to other managers or the cashiers. When the restaurateur shows up ten days later, your cashier is at a loss. There's not enough rice to fulfill the order, and that new customer's first impression will be disappointment.
A consistent lack of communication and transparency among your employees could cost you your customers' trust. That's why documentation is crucial. In this example, the handover stage is between your manager and cashier—they should've discussed the details and conditions of delivery.
Step 2: Define goals for your processes and metrics you need to measure
Once you map your process, you can find ways to optimise it. Define the purpose of each process and note down your criteria for measuring its success. This is our second step: defining your goals and Key Performing Indicators (KPIs). Let's break that down:
2.1. Design goal-oriented processes, not process-oriented goals
In the example above, the main goal of your process is to cater to customer requirements and maximise satisfaction. At the end of that process, you'd expect to earn a long-term customer, a loyal advocate, and a success story that'll help you expand into accepting more bulk orders.
There are various touch points you can optimise for better customer experiences. For example, you can:
• Set up a central database for cashiers to record/accept bulk orders
• Define a policy for bulk orders so that all order managers have a standard operating procedure
• Establish a priority ordering system for large and regular customers
• Implement automated notifications to update customers about their order status and communicate delays
• Enable cashiers to access all orders and their status
• Have a single, transparent communication channel between order managers and suppliers to track and verify orders
• Ensure order managers can regularly communicate any expected delays or irregularities to all cashiers and managers
Once you know what you need to implement, you can explore how. For instance, accepting online orders or sending emails/texts to acknowledge purchases can drastically improve bulk order processes. Even a periodic newsletter can help inform customers about how the weather has affected crops recently or whether lockdowns are delaying deliveries.
All this will help manage customer expectations. Automation can be handy here—find ways to automate tasks within your process after identifying how to improve them. Most importantly, when assessing an existing process, put yourself in the customer's shoes and think about whether a new feature (or a new process altogether!) may be required to achieve your goals.
2.2. Measure the success of your improvements
Once you know what upgrades you're going to make or what new features you'd like to implement, define KPIs so you can measure their impact. Here are some possible KPIs for the bulk order process:
• Customer satisfaction over how you handle bulk orders
• Number of bulk orders you've received and the rate of increase of those orders
• Cashiers' level of confidence to accept, manage, and process bulk orders
• Order managers' satisfaction with your bulk order processing protocols and tools
When you track these metrics over time, you'll know how much improvement your fixes make. After ten months, for example, if customers are happy but your managers are spending too much time manually updating bulk order details in your inventory app, it's time to revisit the software and perhaps find one that's better suited to your new style of operation. This leads us to the third step of process management: analysis and revision.
Step 3: Analyse your processes and identify ways to improve them
Process management is a circular activity. Once you've documented and optimised your processes, you should then analyse the costs and benefits of your changes. Sometimes, every update you make to your process is beneficial. Other times, the update itself may reveal additional bottlenecks or inefficiencies that need to be resolved.
For example, having managers update orders in your inventory app might help you maintain an accurate inventory, but it may also be extremely time-consuming. This third step helps you isolate repetitive tasks that you can and should automate so that your teams can focus on operations that must be optimised in other ways.
In this case, integrating your point of sale (PoS) system with your inventory app would allow managers to recognise bulk orders automatically. That way, when they record inventory, they don't mix that stock in with regular retail sales.
Using BPM software to manage your business processes
Business process management software helps you navigate the three stages of managing your processes. Most tools offer a drag-and-drop interface for you to map out your processes, for example. They might call it a workflow diagram, process mapping, or flow charting feature. Regardless of the name, it's about visualising how something works to see where you can make improvements. Once you map processes in a BPM tool, you can monitor them, make changes, and discuss their performance from within your BPM software. For example, the tool may offer:
• Forms and surveys to collect feedback from your team
• Instant messaging services to communicate in real time
• Reporting functionality to gather data and assess progress
• To-do lists and notes to manage projects relating to a specific process
• Documenting and charting options for you to publish guides, protocols, and policies for internal consumption
When you use BPM software, you'll add all employees into the system so they can access documents, share feedback, approve suggested changes, suggest modifications, access previous versions to analyse process evolution, and more.
As more business operations move online, BPM software is becoming an essential part of process management for organisations of all sizes.
Choosing a BPM software vendor
When you evaluate BPM software vendors, you'll see that some tools offer more features and functionality than others. Zoho Creator, for example, allows you to map your processes and create applications that you can fit into a process to make it more efficient. In our grocery store example, you could create a Zoho Creator application to collect bulk orders online and update them in the inventory tracker within your PoS. The application will integrate with your PoS and your website, so you don't have to add online bulk orders into the system manually. This will make the application the centrepiece of your overall process management techniques.
Alternatively, you can also have only the blueprint of your processes on Zoho Creator. It's a less comprehensive approach, but it might be all you need. If you link these blueprints to your PoS, inventory manager, and CRM apps, you can build periodic progress reports right from the app.
Other companies offer similar process mapping and management functionality, including Kissflow, Oracle, IMB, Appian, and ProcessMaker. Evaluating BPM software is tricky—they're all engineered differently. Shop around, try a handful, and then find one that matches your style of operations best.
Before choosing BPM software, we suggest discussing it with a business consultant who understands your business. Picking a good BPM software vendor is important. It's equally important not to over-complicate a simple process by shoving unnecessary software into it. A consultant will tell you if the return on your investment is truly worth the cost of implementing and learning a new tech solution.
At Zoho, we have a team of business consultants who'll talk to you and learn about your current processes first to decide whether you need software to manage a process. If so, they will then walk you through your options. It's a complimentary service we offer to business owners—no strings attached. Send Zoho Concierge a message, and we'll be in touch.