I've always been a fan of automation.
In fact, I probably spend more time trying to automate something that I'll only ever do once in my life than actually doing the task itself.
But more frequently, my automation efforts are starting to make commercial sense, rather than being moderately 'cool' - something I otherwise don't know a lot about.
And while you might imagine me, as a developer (of sorts), I might be found after midnight, in a dark room dimly lit only by my screen, frantically hammering my keyboard; churning out swathes of indecipherable code, in reality, it's a fairly simple, user-friendly endeavour.
Zapier acts as the hub for my business - sending information from one application to another, resulting in less book-keeping, customer support & management and order processing headaches.
I also use Google Apps (or G Suite, as it's now called) for documents and email, and it forms a very nice partnership with Zapier.
Let's take a look at some basic examples of how I automate my own, and client's businesses.
Keeping my Accountant Happy
Any letter from the HMRC fills me with me with absolute dread. Those guys scare the crap out of me, and so I tread very carefully when dealing with finances.
Fortunately, Alison, my super-amazing accountant who's been with me since the very start, protects me from them - but she needs me to give her information, so she can fight my battles for me (while I hide under my desk until they go away).
And perhaps if you are a freelancer or a small biz owner you go through the same routine:
Either at year end, or as quarterly VAT returns become due, you find yourself scrabbling through your inbox looking for invoices for transactions you can barely recall, before forwarding a zipped file of 73 PDFs to your Alison equivalent (YAE), hoping that you're now 'done'.
Only you're not, because you've missed some. And so you have to start logging into various SaaS applications or emailing certain suppliers to request invoices, before sending those too to YAE.
This was all a bit too painful for me, and Alison.
Yet the 'fix' is incredibly simple.
So first, let's setup a generic email account that will help us with some Zapier stuff later on.
Setting up a "Utility" Email Address in Google Apps
- Head to G Suite's admin console at https://admin.google.com
- Either create a new user account, or edit an existing (you can use your own which will save a license fee, but I like to keep stuff very separate)
- Click on the 'Account' tab, and look for 'Aliases'. Inside there, you will see 'Add an alias', where you can attach new email addresses to this user account. In my case, I have firstname.lastname@example.org (among a number of others!). This email address only accepts email from senders within the smarter.uk.com domain.
- Log into Gmail using your generic user account, click on the 'cog' icon, and head to 'Filters and Blocked Addresses'.
- Ok, that's it for now - you're all set - but remember you can attach many different email addresses that can all serve a different purpose.
Setup a Shared Folder
Dropbox will suffice, as it too works with Zapier, but I tend to keep business 'stuff' in G Docs.
Create a new folder, and simply share as you see fit. I personally set 'Anyone who has the link can view', but you could share this specifically with YAE, should you feel that more necessary.
And now you're ready for the fun part!
Chaining Stuff Together with Zapier
Now, of course, at this stage, you'll need a Zapier account - and you can do that completely for free. There are some limitations on the free account, but it's more than sufficient for this example. I'll explain more later.
The basic premise of Zapier is that you create rules based on a trigger (something that happens) and actions.
- Once you're setup and logged in, simply hit 'Make a Zap' to get started. You'll be presented with this screen:
- So in our case, the trigger is going to be our new Gmail account that we set up before. Gmail is listed under "Popular Apps", however you can easily search for it using the search field at the top.
- There might be many ways to achieve this workflow, but I use the trigger "New Attachment"
- You'll then be asked to connect a Gmail account. Note from my screenshot, you'll be able to connect many accounts - helpful if you work in multiple organisations
- You'll now be prompted to select a label or use a search string to 'capture' the relevant emails to apply this rule to. If you recall earlier, we applied the 'Purchases' label to emails sent to the purchases@ email account. You can do this using the search string too, so feel free to play around with it
- At this point, it would be worth sending your new email account an email with an attachment, because in the next step, Zapier will test the connection. Once you've done that, continue.
- So now we have the trigger setup. Now we must set up the action to happen once the trigger is detected. Continue until you are prompted to choose an Action App, and then look for Google Drive
- When prompted to select an action, we want to 'Upload File'
- As before, we're now asked to connect an account, and again we can attach multiple if we need to.
- Now we are asked where we want to place the new file, and also add some further information, such as the name of the file we want to use. Firstly, to select the target folder, it's necessary to click on the dropdown field numerous times to 'drill down' to the folder you want.
- To specify the file, you'll be presented with data from the previous step. We want to select 'Attachment'
- Lastly, I specify the file name to be the subject - filename - more on the email subject shortly
- And then you're done! You'll be prompted to test this out, so open your Google Drive folder in a separate browser tab, and then click 'Create and Continue' - with luck you'll see your attachment from your test email magically appear!
Using the Workflow
Although this looks like a long process, once you're used to Zapier (and once you've got various accounts connected to Zapier), it's an absolute breeze. In fact, to do the above to refresh my memory in preparation for this blog post, it took all of 60 seconds to do.
So now you have options.
I personally forward any email with an invoice attachment to purchases@ and prepend the subject with the date. This is preferable to me, as quite simply I don't have to download the file, manipulate the filename and then find the Google Drive folder to put it in.
Although it's only perhaps a minute of work otherwise, with the new method it's about 5 seconds, which makes it much less likely that I'll skip doing it, and with lots of invoices to manage it really does save time.
By having it under control over time, my end of year/VAT returns are complete in a matter of minutes (from my perspective anyway... let's not forget poor Alison!), rather than having to allocate an entire day.
Alternatively, you could use your primary email address as your trigger, and when you manually apply a Gmail label, it can kick off this workflow.
With a few tweaks to the above, you could even use your new email address as the invoice recipient address for whatever purchases you make, and then for ANY email that comes through, put the attachment in Google Drive.
There's lots of ways to improve what I've done here, but Zapier gives you that freedom to be creative.
When I worked with a business partner, we would chain another Zapier action to this workflow to send a notification to a 'management' Slack channel, so we could keep an eye on various purchases as they happened.
So while this very basic workflow might be enough to wet your whistle as to what Zapier is capable of, let's see how I've reduced a 45 min daily order processing task into 10 minutes/week.
Simplified Order Processing
This Zapier workflow is a little longer than the example before and requires a premium account to be able to chain multiple actions together.
It's something I put into place for an e-commerce business I am involved in.
The situation before Zapier was the following:
- Shipping is handled by 6 shippers across the globe
- Fortunately, they all use Google Docs, but require columns manipulated, some concatenation of data and even some formatting of telephone numbers
- Each day, orders need to be processed and details sent to each shipper.
The process for order processing was as such:
- Each day, an export of orders was done from the WooCommerce website into CSV format, opened in Google Sheets and sorted by country
- As multiple countries are handled by a single shipper, the person doing the order processing would have to cross reference the countries with a shipping table
- Once a country's shipper was ascertained, they'd then be copied and pasted into a temporary spreadsheet, so columns could be rearranged, and data manipulated (eg. concatenating first and last name, ensuring zip codes didn't remove leading zeros)
- Once the data had been manipulated, it would then be copied into each individual shipper's shared Google Sheet
- Finally the shipper would be emailed to say the day's orders had been included in their sheet
Now the process is very lean:
- Once an order is confirmed as paid, WooCommerce will trigger the Zapier workflow
- The phone number from the billing order is formatted by Zapier, using the very useful 'Formatter' app/action (provided by Zapier) to ensure a consistent format, and then stored for a future Zapier action
- The order date is also formatted to be DD/MM/YYYY and then stored for a future Zapier action
- The necessary data from the order is then added to a new row in a 'Master' spreadsheet in Google Sheets - all data is added that collectively all shippers need. Unneeded data for a shipper is discarded by Google Sheets later.
- The Master sheet will then do a VLOOKUP to the shipping table, to ascertain the correct shipper for the order country
- A tab within the Google Sheet exists for each shipper.
- Using a Google Sheet QUERY, it will pull out the orders for that particular shipper, as well as collecting on the necessary data for that shipper, and in column order (my new favourite thing ever)
- So up until this point, no human interaction is required. At the end of the day, the person doing order processing simply has to copy and paste from each shipper's tab to the shared spreadsheet with that particular shipper, and then send an email.
- Weekly, an export of the orders from WooCommerce is done, and the count of orders compared to ensure accuracy, although Zapier hasn't missed a beat as of yet.
Of course, the time-saving benefits are incredible, but another huge consideration is the reduction of human error, which costs the business hundreds of dollars a month alone.
But on top of the above, we also do the following within the same Zapier workflow:
- Send a message to Slack, our chat platform of choice, which we all have open - so we can cheer when an order comes in!
- Add the customer to our Mailchimp list
- Check a second mailing list that exists for 'general' newsletter subscribers, and remove them from there
So one single action does ALL of that.
Here it is, in all it's glory:
In fact, it becomes quite addictive... you want to try and add more and more things into the chain.
No code required - if you can click a mouse, then you can start zapping your business into a complete model of efficiency!
Any questions or comments - drop them below!