Helping SMEs compete with brands

Inflation and supply chain disruptions have had a cascading effect on bottom lines, particularly impacting small to medium businesses (SMBs).

With the cost of operating in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2022, updating technology is probably the last thing on SMB owner’s minds, but if approached correctly, doing so could save time and money in the long term.

With immediate pressures such as energy costs, and with customers spending less due to the cost-of-living crisis, what can SMBs do to compete with big brands in the short term?

Talent retention

There are a lot of challenges in the workforce this year. Small business owners want to keep employees trained and supported, but it becomes a challenge when internal resources and morale are decreasing. It doesn’t help to see that some big-name brands have already pulled-back on flexible work arrangements, including Disney, which cited a hindrance to creativity, connection, personal growth and engagement as reasons for the reversion.

But UK citizens have made no secret of the fact they prefer hybrid work. In a 2022 study by McKinsey & Company, 40% said workplace flexibility was a top motivator in whether they stayed in a role, barely behind salary (41%), with 26% saying a lack of flexibility being a major factor in why they quit their last role.

Optimising the employee experience is key, and modern digital capabilities hold enormous power when it comes to easing workloads and improving experiences. Many SMBs could do more with their digital strategies to better suit the needs of their employees. For example, when remote work was mandated, many businesses rolled out off-the-shelf video-conferencing software but have since stalled in optimising hybrid work arrangements. Whenever simple solutions are shoe-horned into environments to address scenarios and processes they were never designed to handle, the job completed is mediocre at best.

Staff should be equipped with cloud-based unified communications (UCaaS) to empower them to work across locations from personal devices in a way that integrates naturally with their lives. This should allow them to collaborate with colleagues before, during, and after meetings, without the worry that ‘Big Brother is watching’.

Application burnout

Business owners should also avoid deploying multiple apps for staff to do their jobs. Not only does this lead to application overload, but it often results in them reverting to unsophisticated workarounds to get their jobs done. The knowledge exchanged through these apps invariably leaves the business when turnover occurs, and already time-poor employees are forced to do additional training to get up to speed.

We saw the unfortunate consequences of this arrangement play out last year when an HSBC employee was fired for using a messaging app to communicate with a colleague. With UCaaS business communications, one number reaches all colleagues and customers via text, chat, message, voice, video or conference call, helping employees avoid both this kind of costly mistake and app overload in general.

Automation and AI

SMB owners should also leverage automation to free employees from laborious tasks such as transcribing meeting minutes or compiling routine reports, and from taking on the work of multiple employees. SMBs often don’t have the resources, head count or budgets to dedicate hours to low-value administration work. This time could be better spent developing new services, engaging with clients, and ultimately boosting the bottom line.

AI capabilities offer unique productivity-boosting benefits that elevate hybrid working. For example, it can add a textual transcript of a conference call conversation in real time, which is particularly useful for hard of hearing, and/or anyone that has to be on mute/silent for any period of the call. Automated conversational AI also improves a voice call experience by cutting out background noise, so if you are on a call in a noisy location – and the point of UCaaS is that you don’t have to be tied to an office where it’s quieter – everyone is heard clearly in real-time. AI virtual backgrounds provide professional backgrounds for employees to use when they may not have the best space for conducting a meeting or presentation. Also, whether at home, in the office, or elsewhere, AI-infused immersive presentations can help create an engaging virtual experience via screenshare. This technology overlays speakers on top of presented material, providing a sleek, seamless viewing experience.

Innovate to compete

Many SMBs understand that they would benefit from new communications capabilities delivered via the cloud as it would give them the agility and flexibility to accommodate ever changing preferences for ways of working as well as utilising AI automation to help drive down costs. However, digital prioritisation doesn’t necessarily require a huge upfront spend and overhaul of existing processes and systems – a reality that might not be possible in the current environment. Innovation can be done at a pace that fits a business’s needs.

Choose a technology partner that offers a range of cloud technologies from on premises to hybrid cloud to full cloud so that they can create a tailored pathway that delivers what is needed when it is needed without having to rip out and start from scratch.

SMBs are being confronted by a seemingly unassailable series of roadblocks, but by reviewing their technology roadmaps, business owners can begin navigating immediate challenges and set themselves up for future success.