Technological innovation is happening ever more rapidly, and the changes will transform every industry. Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) can benefit from these innovative technologies but must strike a balance between using technology and being overwhelmed by it.
The prevalence, power and scope of new digital technologies is increasing at a remarkable pace with the potential to transform every industry.
Artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning, cloud computing and storage, big data, the internet of things (IoT), smart wearable devices are now widespread and coming down in price. Adoption of such powerful technologies can cut costs, increase productivity, inform business strategies and enhance the consumer experience.
For SMEs, adopting such technologies can bring massive benefits and help close the gap on better resourced and larger competitors. However a balance must be struck between technological advancement and maintaining the human heart and personality of the company.
Here we outline some critical considerations for SMEs when looking at these technologies to enhance efficiency and improve the customer offering.
Enhancing human resources
Very simple technologies are available to aid human resources. Being digitally connected allows a company to tap into a global talent pool.
Apps are available to link SMEs to potential employees all over the globe; sourcing candidates globally leads to a strong candidate pool and can generate a more diverse workforce and higher rates of productivity.
Importantly, these connections are facilitated by technology but not defined by it; the focus is connecting the relevant people.
Using digital tools to facilitate productivity can help create a positive working environment where people feel they are using their time in the most valuable way.
Wearables and wellness
Wearable devices to track health and fitness levels are increasing in prevalence and coming down sharply in cost; many businesses are providing them to employees as a well-being aid even if it does not directly influence their work.
Equally, this simple but innovative scheme can help present your company as an employee-focused employer. As such devices become mainstream, opportunities and employee expectations will rise.
There are low-cost partnership solutions emerging in response; SMEs can collaborate with fitness tracker manufacturers and use online tools to provide their staff with health and wellness programs.
Engaging in such collective health tracking challenges can increase motivation and team building – who did the most steps this month, which group did the best on maintaining a healthy diet etc.
Cutting costs and saving time
Technologies can be used to reduce overheads and cost. A range of low cost online Software as a Service (SaaS) applications are available encompassing cloud data storage, HR management, sales, marketing customer service, logistics management and delivery tracking.
Remote access can be enabled on phones and tablets, for both staff and clients. This can extend reach, allowing SMEs to maintain presence over all devices.
Equally, cloud applications and storage can facilitate mobile working, giving flexibility to staff. Firms can experiment with these tools at relatively low cost and scale up and down in what they use in a more flexible manner as opposed to purchasing the software licences outright. Such SaaS models mean you also tap into upgrades and new functionality easily and cheaply.
Time can also be saved using ever smarter tools for management of email and computer files. Google has already applied AI to create tools to generate inbox replies, promising to consistently return your inbox to zero.
Other tools help order and search your internal files so you can access key information faster. These applications simplify time consuming administrative tasks – allowing freedom to develop more in depth customer relationships.
Over time, the range of time saving AI applications will grow – for example, compiling and filing tax returns, managing supplier payments, allocating surplus funds to saving accounts, and ensuring regulatory compliance.
The time savings can either be used to reduce overall costs or reinvested in training devoted to developing new propositions, improving quality and enhancing face to face services.
Streamlining core processes
With so much choice, and a lot of vendor hype, it is important for SMEs to focus the use of technology on areas of critical importance to the next stage of business development.
Here it is essential to have regular conversations with key stakeholders e.g. staff and customers – where are their key pain points or unmet needs?
For example, if there is continual call for faster enquiry responses, user-friendly online AI chatbots can be used to handle common questions online – learning from experienced staff and freeing them up for complex queries and other customer-focused activities.
Such chatbots can learn quickly as customer issues evolve over time, and use language colloquialisms specific to your customer’s location, maintaining effective personalized communication. In some cases, over 80% of enquiries are being handled in this way.
Using such tools to replace your staff may be some ways off and lead to some resistance. However, using the tools to manage the back-end processing of a customer support team, accounts payable, contracts management, and appointment scheduling could increase efficiency.
These smart algorithms also learn and adapt over time – enhancing your offering by analyzing previous interactions, developing new insights and supplying suggestions and solutions to staff to enhance their face to face conversations – as they are happening.
Having information about their entire customer history, this AI will know your customers more deeply than some of your staff.
For example, a member of staff may never have encountered a situation before, but the system can scan all past enquiries and find similar cases and their resolution – all in a matter of seconds. This can enhance conversations and help build better relationships.
An AI need not replace your customer services, but merely support them.
Prioritizing technology decisions
Understanding a new technology well enough to know it is not right for you is just as important as finding those that would be of benefit.
Massive global corporations can take up the latest technology seemingly overnight, but this is neither a viable or realistic option for many SMEs – even given the SaaS option.
Many customers and competitors are in a similar position; they will not expect or demand that you transform into a global tech enabled corporation overnight. They will expect you to listen and make good choices that keep enhancing your offering.
They can also compare you with their other suppliers and tell you what they expect and value most and what makes no difference. So ask yourself:
- What’s going to help differentiate your business?
- What will take away tasks and unnecessary pain for customers?
- What could enhance your customer relationships and business model, protect existing revenues and grow new ones?
- What are competitors doing?
Using tools and technologies that are appropriate to your individual business will help you harness technology without being consumed by it.
It is important to routinely invest time to understand emergent technologies and their potential impact on your business. Encourage managers and individuals beyond your IT team to spend time scanning the horizon looking at upcoming trends to assess emergent developments.
It is key to liaise with vendors, other similar business and consultants to help discern what technologies would benefit your business. Regular slots can be built into management meetings for updates on current technology projects and to hear from different departments on possibilities they are seeing in their area.
Having small amounts of time allotted consistently to exploring possibilities will allow SMEs to stay abreast of developments without getting swamped.
Collaboration and networking
SMEs can join industry associations; liaising via professional bodies in your industry can accelerate learning and provide insight into what other tools and technologies similar firms are using.
Networking offers the chance to learn from other companies’ previous experience and hopefully short cut past some of the common errors straight to the good stuff!
Encourage your people in IT, marketing, sales, production and distribution to liaise with peers in the sector and related ones.
Low-cost, innovative approaches are key to upping your technology game – for example, recruiting interns from local STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) degree courses or business graduate schools to support your investigations in return for practical professional experience.
Having a researcher, industry professional or incubator start-up come in and talk to your staff can help share knowledge quickly and provide networking links. Make use of the extensive array of online materials to help accelerate learning – videos, podcasts, slide decks, articles and Q&A sites can all help fast track the acquisition of insight.
A willingness to experiment and a conscious decision to learn from all avenues explored will instill a drive in your company to embrace technology while maintaining the enterprising core and human face of the business.
For SMEs, there’s a fine balance between embracing technological advances without being overcome by the scale and scope of such applications or losing the human side of your business and becoming a commodity.
The simple tools and strategies outlined here should help determine how to research what’s coming and available, decide what to adopt, and deploy it effectively to help your business stay relevant whilst maintaining the differentiating human edge.