What did a small business look like 20 years ago? Small business owners marketed themselves by word of mouth, by taking out advertisement space in the local newspaper, by printing business cards, or via flyers on the corkboard at the local community center.
When they needed to track their list of customers and pay their bills, they used a spiral notebook. When they wanted to reinvest into the company, they socked away money a little at a time to get to the next big thing.
In those past two decades, the business world has gone digital, and the speed and technology formerly reserved for large-scale operations are now within reach of every small business in the world.
Bringing your small business into the digital realm is not an overnight process. It takes lots of work, plenty of research, and a constant application of leadership to keep things on point.
However, the reward is a bountiful one. Done correctly, your business’s transition to the digital realm can:
- Decrease costs
- Increase revenue
- Make all sorts of infrastructure tasks much more accessible
- Produce analytics that will drive your future decisions
- Allow you to focus more and more on big-picture challenges like expansion while the day-to-day functions are done easily or even automatically.
Here’s a look at how six ways your small businesses can become digital.
Defining your Digital Needs
Before the transformation can begin, you need to break down your business and decide what problems going digital can solve. What are your most significant challenges? What are your most time-consuming tasks? What processes cost the most to finish? The worst thing you can do at this point is to invest in technology just for the sake of having it. That’s the equivalent of buying a 10,000-square foot warehouse when your company makes postcards. One of the best parts of digital technology is that it comes in all shapes and sizes to meet the needs of different size companies. Understand what areas of your business need help before rushing headfirst into the market.
Identifying Key Areas of Transformation
There are a few areas of any business that you can upgrade significantly. These include:
- Customer Service
- Human Resources
For the blog, we’ll use an imaginary firm that sells dog treats and accessories called Regal Beagle’s Treats and Toys (RBTT). The business operates in the suburbs of Houston. After starting the company in their garage, the owners expanded to a small workshop for manufacturing, packaging, and delivery. They’ve also invested in a couple of part-time salespeople and a part-time accountant. They feel like there’s an opportunity to expand into other markets in Texas, across the US, and perhaps even overseas.
Let’s break down the components of their business and how going digital could best aid their endeavors.
According to a report by Blue Corona, 66% of all small business owners say finding new customers is a top concern. When you have a traditional brick-and-mortar business, you are generally limited in sales to the people you know and people that see your advertisements in print form. When you go digital, you open your business to a marketplace as large as the entire world if you desire. The first step RBTT would take would be developing and designing a website for advertising its wares to the rest of the world. By incorporating a payment platform like PayPal, RBTT can suddenly take orders over the Internet from anyone in the world and collect the money for those sales almost instantaneously. RBTT’s marketing campaigns enter a whole new layer of client bases. The company can start by creating social media profiles on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. A little market research on key search terms can have them tweeting out pictures of their favorite treats and toys and telling customers that doing likewise can earn them 20% off their next order. The ability to interact with customers and prospects on social media is a game-changer for any small business.
As their business has grown, the owners of RBTT have struggled with organization and with keeping all of their staff members on the same page. Everybody has at least one other job, so it’s not always easy to get them on the phone or let them answer emails right away. Keeping all their customers’ names and shipping information on their home office desktop in an Excel spreadsheet isn’t cutting it either; other staffers need to access it on their schedules.
The answer comes in investing in an Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). An IaaS is a Cloud-based platform where you can keep all of the “guts” of your company. Anyone with the proper credentials can log onto the IaaS at any time. It typically contains your email system, tools of collaboration, software packages you might use, and databases of information vital to your business.
With an IaaS, you can access the back end of your business whether you’re at the actual office, at home, traveling, or in a completely different country. It works with any Internet-capable device, which can be great for part-time staffers who want to check out what’s going on during their lunch hour on their smartphone.
Having access to the same system cuts down on wasteful things like the use of paper and can significantly improve efficiency and productivity as everyone has the same look at the same information 24/7.
As your business grows, it’s more likely you’ll bring on more staff, which can necessitate the need for a human resources function of your business. A digital HR component to your business can automate tasks such as:
- Paying employees
- Allowing employees to request days off
- Provide employees with training and onboarding when they are hired or promoted to a new position
- Store employee information for tax and insurance purposes
- Automation through a back-end portal can eliminate the need for an employee to handle these functions, freeing up time and capital to invest in other things.
Customer service and customer experience might be the areas of business that have changed the most over the past 20 years. Two decades ago, having a less-than-perfect experience with a small business put customers at a crossroads. Did they laborious research to figure out another store that offered the same goods or services as the first one, talk to friends, check out Better Business Bureau ratings, and try the new store when they needed the products or services again? Or did they shrug their shoulders and admit it wasn’t the best service, but it was convenient and known?
In 2018, when a customer has a bad experience, they can punch a few keywords into Google and have an entire host of potential replacements lighting up their screens like a Christmas tree.
Small businesses like RBTT have to keep an ear close to the ground to understand what their customers are thinking, saying, and posting to keep them happy. Part of this is through customer relationship management (CRM) applications like Salesforce, which ensure that companies stay in contact with customers. The second component of this is the use of data analytics. Data analytics occurs when your company collects as much pertinent data as possible about your customers, things like:
- Their age
- Where they live
- What products they buy
- How much they spend
- What days of the week or months of the year they buy on
- What areas of the city, state or country they live in
Compiling these bits of knowledge allow businesses to use software that will collect and analyze data to derive analytics on which markets a business should focus on, which products are selling, who is buying them, and so on. These insights can provide valuable insight into how a company should go forward for a profitable future.