As a fast-growing SaaS startup, business incentives and rewards provider Tango Card is constantly looking for ways to refine its processes. Like many of those taking part in last week's Business Systems Magic conference in San Francisco, its internal operations rely on a collection of SaaS applications across CRM, ERP and other functions, including NetSuite, Salesforce, HubSpot, DocuSign, Intercom, Zendesk, Box, RingCentral and more. Adam Cole, Senior Manager, Enterprise Applications, heads the team looking after this landscape. Speaking in a session on back-office automation, he explains:
We have a lot of applications and our challenge is, how do we get the most out of each of them? How do we leverage an integrated environment and have recognized sources of truth throughout?
Cole described three examples where his team had been able to introduce automation that made significant time savings and opened up new opportunities to improve the customer experience. Whenever a business requirement comes up, it's important to sit down and discover the full story, he says. There may be hidden constraints or opportunities that can be unlocked. Often the process has developed as an ad hoc response to circumstances, with little attention paid to process design or robust data storage.
I want to have the discussion about what you're trying to do, the value of what you're trying to do, and how it's going to [help you] moving our company goals forward.
One of the things that we like to do is to sit down with the stakeholder, in a room, for a brainstorming session, where you actually just write down your process mapping.
In a lot of cases — we're a startup, we're in a growth phase — some things don't really have a defined process.
Building a rapport with business counterparts is important, says Cole, because transparent communication and a collaborative approach are key to discovering what's really happening. Often people are holding key elements of the process in their head, which obviously isn't scalable in the long-term.
The questions are really crucial. How do you know what you know? Where is it stored? A lot of these questions, when you think about automation, especially in a start-up environment, the answer is probably, 'I just know it. I've been doing this for three years, or three months, I know it.'
Automating finance improves front-office experience
Tango Card's mission is "to make rewards easy to send and awesome to receive." Customers can select from a choice of gift cards, reward links, non-profit donations or cash payments and distribute them to consumers, employees or other recipients. Delivery methods include email, embedded web links, or by connecting Tango Card's Rewards-as-a-Service (RaaS) API into the customer's own application, loyalty platform, or other system. All of this is handled through Tango Card's core Reward Delivery Platform (RDP).
The end-to-end nature of business processes in a fast-moving, digital business are such that changes in back-office functions such as finance can often have an impact on the customer experience, says Cole:
Something that may start as a problem that it looks like you're solving for your finance team really is probably more upstream.
One example is a project to calculate revenue sharing payments to rewards partners. This had been a manual process that had taking an analyst four days to complete as part of the monthly close process. Cole sums up:
Four days of real pain, of poor visibility — we had to scale it.
The team built a solution based on a custom object in the NetSuite ERP system. The automation not only saved four days of the analyst's time each month, it also meant the process could run daily instead of monthly. This back-office project now became very relevant for the front-office, because it made it possible to report revenue share to partners on a daily basis.
Free up FTE roles from mundane tasks
Within 24 hours of it going live, Cole got an email from another team with a very similar issue, asking to clone the solution. This demonstrates the importance of sharing what the business systems team is doing, says Cole:
One of the great things I love about what I do in particular is, every time we release something, we announce it, we talk about it, we want feedback, and it inspires five more things.
Another project helped automate the process of passing transactions from Tango Card's RDP system into NetSuite and the GL. With hundreds of companies issuing rewards — including big names such as Boeing, Citibank, H&R Block, Intuit, Microsoft and Salesforce — thousands of transactions pass through the RDP each month for card issuance and redemption. Loading this data into NetSuite every day had been a time-consuming process, says Cole:
We had folks in our finance operations who were spending an ungodly amount of time really, somebody spent half of their day, every day, just going through a bunch of manual steps.
Cole's team initially looked at using an external automation tool, but found the NetSuite API didn't allow them to include the end-user configuration they wanted as part of the solution. Instead, they were able to use NetSuite's built-in Suiteflow automation tool to achieve the result they wanted. This project freed up half a full-time employee (FTE) role.
Better visibility of a customer-facing process
When people see others being released from manual processes by an automation project, it sparks similar thoughts, says Cole:
This open people's minds to say, 'Well, if we can do this, what else can we do? What other processes am I working on right now that I do like that, every day, that I don't like, that don't feel high value?'
The third project described by Cole also freed up half an FTE role. This was a project to automate the fulfillment of bulk orders, where customers would upload a CSV file containing the details of a set of incentive awards. Dozens of these orders were arriving every day and the manual handling meant there was poor visibility of a critical customer-facing process.
The team used Workato's workflow automation tool to build a process triggered whenever a new file was uploaded. The automated workflow now ensures that each new order arrives in real time and is properly coded, says Cole.
This was taking one person half of their day, every day, as we scaled the business, to just do coding. That was a waste of time. I can tell you, they didn't miss that.
One of the advantages of using an intermediary tool like Workato is that the automation is kept separate from the underlying applications, says Cole.
We're abstracting as much as possible. It focuses on the business process. If the business process changes, you're going to make a lot of changes, but if the endpoints change, you can just put in the new endpoint.
As with many of the sessions at last week's conference, the role of business systems specialists like Cole comes across as highly focused on business goals — quantified FTE savings, more accurate and timely reporting, better customer experience. This means going beyond simply acting on requests from the business and taking a wider view that aims to build a strong foundation for future progress.