The coronavirus pandemic has sent shockwaves through the global economy. Businesses of all sizes are reeling from a crunch on both supply and demand. Staff members off sick or having to look after small children, disruption to supply chains, a significant drop in revenue due to lockdowns and a reduction in consumer spending have presented challenge after challenge.
Whilst most big corporations can swallow a relatively short period of inactivity, research ‘OECD Coronavirus (COVID-19): SME policy responses’ suggested that as of April, over half of UK SMEs had three months of cash reserve or less.
The same report details a ‘low level of digitisation and difficulties in accessing and adopting technologies’ within the SME sector. In the UK however, we have seen thousands of agile SMEs pivoting, creating new business models and embracing digital channels in order to keep their businesses afloat.
But what does ‘embracing digital’ mean for an SME and what more can small business owners do as the uncertainty rumbles on with a potential second lockdown on the horizon?
THE NEW NORMAL
The pandemic has made us even more reliant on technology. With almost half the working population operating from home offices in April (virtually all of which was due to COVID-19). Remote working tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom have seen a huge spike in users.
The UK Government called for workers to return to offices from the 3rd of August, but initial figures suggest that this is not happening. Many businesses do not expect to see their staff return to the office until 2021. This means that for many of them, particularly those at the end of a commuter route, working virtual is here to stay.
THE VALUE OF DATA
At the centre of our digital economy is the data we use. Traditionally, data has mainly been used by big corporations such as supermarkets, using loyalty cards and big data analytics to generate customer insights. The value of these initiatives is something I saw first-hand whilst working for Nectar, helping to develop and incubate new propositions, such as Local Loyalty.
The Fintech Alliance recently hosted a fireside chat where Virgin CEO, David Duffy gave a great example of leveraging data. When a consumer takes out a mortgage with Virgin, you will automatically be connected to a removal company with a preferential rate and then offered a discount at the Virgin gym next to your new house. Using data, Virgin has extended its ‘Virgin family’ to the customer by offering an efficient service and good value.
However, it’s not just the larger corporations that should be taking advantage of consumer data. In a physical environment, the customer relationship is cut short when they leave your shop or restaurant ‘after the transaction’. With an online purchase and by creating online customer communities however, businesses of all sizes can start a long term direct relationship with the customer and data building can begin.
As well as using data to build a better relationship with a customer, there is still a huge opportunity for small businesses to use data insights. The technology is there to give businesses better understanding of their employees, sales trends, supply chains and customer service for example.
Business development decisions in big business are always insight-driven and there is now no reason smaller companies shouldn’t adopt a similar approach. In uncertain markets particularly, data means knowledge and knowledge means better decisions.
THE SPEED OF DIGITISATION
The speed at which some businesses had to get online was one of the greatest challenges many faced at the start of the pandemic – despite e-commerce growth over the last 20 years. Weekly online retail transactions made in the home and leisure categories have seen a 200% increase since the start of the year.
In the first two months of lockdown, there was a 300% increase in online searches for the term ‘contactless payments’. Consultancy firm, McKinsey & Company, reported this year that COVID-19 has caused a decade of transformation in just a matter of months.
A number of the new innovations available in the market for both consumers and small businesses have been enabled due to ‘open banking’ legislation. This legislation has brought competition to the finance market and means that banks can share customer information such as transaction data via Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). There are hundreds of use cases for open banking technology.
Pollinate uses the open banking infrastructure to create Payit for NatWest, which helps businesses collect and settle e-commerce payments in close to real time, without the use of a debit or credit card. For businesses, cash flow is at the forefront of their minds, now more than ever, which is why products like this are vital in helping streamline the cash collection process for businesses during the current crisis.
For restaurants, pubs and cafes adhering to social distancing guidelines, they had to quickly turn on online order management for their customers. In response to this, Pollinate Orders was developed and deployed in five weeks by a team working 100% remotely, helping businesses easily adopt online channels.
It offers the rapid upload of menus, workflow management tools, pick-up and delivery options – a vital service that ensures businesses retain customers, even if they are spending and interacting in a different way.
SMEs contribute hugely to communities across the UK. After the financial crash in 2008, there was no dip in the number of small businesses despite the increase in administrations. Entrepreneurs know how to adapt and pivot in order to benefit from the shift in demand. What’s different this time round, is that many businesses that launched to meet demand after 2008 were still effectively serving the demand of a high street.
With COVID-19, that community is now online. While a restaurant may not wish to operate purely via Deliveroo, and personal trainers are unlikely to remain entirely committed to their webcam, as lockdown eases it seems likely that some changes will stick. An added benefit to moving online is that through social media and digital platforms such as Zoom and by moving to e-commerce and home deliveries, small businesses have been able to expand their immediate geographic location to a national or even global scale.
The pandemic forced the hand of thousands of SMEs to digitise. For those that have survived or even thrived since March, the battle is not over. With a looming recession and a significant change to our normal day to day lives for the foreseeable future, they need a medium-to-long-term game plan beyond meeting the monthly payroll.
Recessions often bring about a 360° review of business efficiency – a closer look at costs and staff effectiveness for example. I would urge small business owners to also look at their providers and service partners – don’t settle for ‘making do’ – particularly when it comes to banking partners, which should act as a vital part of a business’ ‘team’ in good times and bad.
The small business market is potentially hugely lucrative for banks and there are large gaps between those that do it well and those that don’t. In times like these, SMEs will be actively looking at the innovative products and services available in the market – and there is much more to a business bank relationship than just a current account.
Digital Solutions All SMEs Need
As mentioned previously, SMEs are having to adapt to survive and very quickly. SMEs that have relied on face-to-face contact are now having to re-think their entire business model in order to survive this crisis, and the uncertainty that is coming with it — adaptability, agility and flexibility are vital.
Most businesses are now less face-to-face if not, potentially, 100% digital. While we can’t have as many companywide in person meetings, it is important to keep the same type but digitally. This is where all modern digital tools come in handy.
Not only have the communication methods changed, but also the way projects are managed. There is no more ‘please could you just do this’ because that level of interaction currently doesn’t exist. Being transparent is a key factor of successful project management when working digitally — what needs to be done, when does it need to be done by?
It is well-known that keeping existing customers is cheaper then acquiring new ones whether in person or digital. Email marketing campaigns are a great way to keep connected to existing customers and to remind them of a business’ digital presence. This is one of the easiest and straightforward tools to keep customers updated with the ever-changing government requirements and the way a business is changing its operation.
SOCIAL MEDIA MANAGEMENT
Social media continues to grow and flourish, and it is often a vital ingredient to digital SME success. Social media allows SMEs to connect with their audience, raise awareness of the brand and convert traction to sales. Consistency is key. But social media is a two-way street — it allows businesses to also hear from their consumers and it is also one of the best places to engage with your local area and to support them.
HUMAN RESOURCES MANAGEMENT
This links back to communication and how difficult it can be when you’re completely digital — some of that pressure can be lifted with HR and Accounting Software and ‘remove something off your plate’. HR is a huge role in any business so by having a software that can manage this consistently, when communication styles may not, is a great benefit. As an example, Tyl by NatWest uses Clover terminals, that have a range of supporting apps, helping from managing inventory to sales insights, it gives business owners access to a wealth of handy reports. One of the apps is the Employee App, which helps business owners to manage their time with employees, handy for managing shifts.
One of the most time-consuming aspects of running a business is financial bookkeeping. SMEs often rely on complicated webs of non-integrated systems to power their day-to-day operations. In addition, bookkeeping and reconciliation often requires a level of accounting understanding which many merchants do not possess. By integrating accountancy software into our latest release, Pollinate continues to reduce the day-to-day burden of running a business by automating the manual entry of data and the risk of human error that is often a consequence.
Co-Founder, Group Chief Marketing Officer