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The dangers of automation: When to automate and when to be human

4 min read


I love automation. I love the productivity it brings. I love working smarter, not harder. I even founded a company all about automation. However, there’s a trend of trying to let automation take over what should be human interaction; this is a disease, and I am not a fan.

There are a few areas where automation makes sense:

  • Back-office tasks: Whether it’s automating the creation of follow-up tasks for new customers or setting up a new consulting project, there are plenty of ways to automate.
  • Internal reminders: Automation is great for setting up reminders for recurring tasks within a company. For example, if you host a periodic Google Hangout, have your bot post a message to Campfire 15 minutes prior to the meeting so people know they need to wrap up what they’re doing and jump into the hangout.
  • Research: Companies need to know when they, or their competitors, are mentioned online. You can easily set up automated alerts to keep you up to date on the latest news that relates to your business.

As a general rule, critical communications should never be automated — this is when things get dangerous.

Relationships are the foundation of your business. You need to build partnerships, and you can’t do that if you come off sounding like a robot. Whether it’s automated DMs on Twitter or an automated support follow-up message, communication automation has a way of taking a friendly medium and turning it into an impersonal one.

Look at Bank of America’s recent Twitter fail to see how automated messages can transform a simple tweet into a viral social media exchange: Bank of America’s Twitter account responded to a conversation regarding a user being chased by cops after using chalk to write negative statements about the bank with tweets like, “We’d be happy to review your account with you to discuss any concerns. Please let us know if you need assistance.” One person’s act created a social media event that was fueled by the brand’s poor investment in automation.

That being said, there are some areas of communication that can be automated because they’re relatively unimportant to developing relationships. Automating things like password-reset e-mails, payment receipts and registration e-mails doesn’t harm the relationships you’re trying to build, but it doesn’t really help, either. Far more valuable are the ways you can use automation to assist, and even improve, communication. Here’s how you can use automation to build meaningful relationships:

  1. Use e-mail snippets: Often, you will repeatedly answer the same types of questions over email. Use a tool such as TextExpander to create and store template text snippets; then, make sure to personalize the message. This strategy is especially good for account management and sales support-team members.
  2. Queue up sales calls: It would be a real drag if your sales agents had to do all the legwork. Use automation to tell a salesperson who to call next and provide him with contextual information about the consumer he may need on the call. This frees your sales team up to do what you really hired them to do: communicate and build relationships with your customers.
  3. Respond to overwhelming interest: It’s not uncommon for a service to have so much inbound interest that it’s not humanly possible to follow up with everyone manually. In that case, an automated e-mail stream is better than no communication at all. Potential customers aren’t expecting a human touch, which dampens the automation blow.

These kinds of automation are designed to enable personal communication, not replace it, allowing you to devote your communication time to the things that matter most. What it really boils down to is this: If the person you’re communicating with expects a human touch, give it — no amount of time saved can replace the relationships that genuine communication build.

Wade Foster is a co-founder and the CEO of Zapier, a Web app that gives you Internet superpowers to automate tedious tasks and integrate your Web apps. Wade is also an entrepreneur-in-residence for Office Depot’s Connect with Foster on Google+.