One of the thrills of owning your own business is the fact that the challenges and rewards never stop coming. Things always change, and you can never tell exactly what will be around the next corner until you get there.
Of course, that also perfectly describes the potential stress and difficulty that comes with owning your own small business. The main difference between business owners who thrive on these facts and those who stress about it comes down to how well they embrace change.
So, are you the type of business owner who is always looking for ways to maintain the status quo? Or are you willing and able to stay a step ahead of your competition however you can?
This article is speaking to the latter American small business owner. The former isn’t going to like what comes next.
Embracing change today means embracing digital
While the above subheading would have technically been accurate as much as 30 years ago, it’s only relatively recently that embracing technology has become an absolutely mandatory part of running a successful business.
Throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, although things started evolving rapidly around computing, networking, the Internet, and other sea changes, it was still possible for well-established, successful businesses to essentially ignore those changes and continue to succeed. In fact, for more than a decade after the “World Wide Web” became a household phrase, digital experts were still actively trying to reach small business owners with the mantra, “you need a website!”
Of course, these days (finally) no one is arguing that point anymore. The same argument has been fought and won regarding social media, mobile technology, and a host of other digital tools and resources that have become ubiquitous in the American small business landscape.
Still, some business owners have wholeheartedly welcomed these advancements, while others have been dragged into the modern digital age kicking and screaming. But, at this point, pretty much everyone has a website, a Facebook page, and at least a concept of the value that these things add to modern commerce.
Now, the question is: What’s the next step? Here are seven valuable tips to help you move from where you are to where you need to be:
- How to modernize your small business digitally
- Commit to the customer experience
- Love the cloud
- Prioritize security
- Think mobile first
- Educate, entertain, and engage
- Automate everything
- Explore AI
- Commit to the customer experience
One of the key impacts of the entire digital revolution has been the shift in power from the business to the customer. From comparing prices to verifying information and conversing with friends and family throughout the buying process, your customer has far more power, flexibility, and choices than ever before.
Businesses that fully support this new reality and gear their digital offerings toward creating the best possible experience for customers and prospects with modern expectations, are the ones that are going to profit from this role reversal. Using technology to improve customer experience is now an essential part of business that will improve processes and make your business more efficient. Excellent customer experience and personalized attention are some of the main reasons consumers choose businesses to begin with. If you’re ignoring the tech tools that can help you meet goals and missing opportunities to strengthen your ongoing customer experience.
Love the cloud
“The Cloud” was a buzzword just a few years ago, but today it’s the common and expected means of housing anything and everything your customer needs in order to do business with you.
Whatever you’ve developed or subscribed to in way of apps, Web platforms, and the like, if your customers want and need to interact with it, they’re going to expect they can do so anytime, anywhere, from any device, no matter what. And that requires cloud-based access.
Take stock of any and all interactions your business has with customers and identify any that could be streamlined or enhanced by incorporating or expanding your integration with the cloud.
Hand-in-hand with all the benefits and conveniences of a cloud-based, digital customer experience comes the looming specter of cybercrime and security breaches. Without fail, every company — large or small — that gets hacked and exposes sensitive customer information suffers for it. They take a financial hit, lose loyal customers, and endure a stain on their reputation — all of which can take a long time to recover from, if they can recover at all.
While it’s impossible to ensure your systems are 100 percent unhackable, there are a number of measures you (and the services you rely on) can take to keep customer data as safe as possible. Even if that requires some additional investment, it’s worth it to maintain solid customer relations and trust.
Think mobile first
Americans are now a mobile-first society with very few exceptions. The majority of Web searches, ecommerce transactions, media consumption, and conversation across the country takes place on mobile devices, either in whole or in part.
If your company website — or any other digital tool or service your customers use to do business with you — isn’t optimized for ease of use on any mobile device, you’re making it harder for them to choose you over your competition. This principle also supports investing in marketing opportunities that exploit mobile-first behavior, including location-based push notifications, map-based review sites, and mobile search ads.
Educate, entertain, and engage
Today’s customers have come to expect businesses to provide them with valuable digital content, in a range of formats, that is designed to educate them about the products or services being offered. For better or worse, they also expect that content to be entertaining and engaging. And, they expect to be able to interact with it instantly, via sharing, commenting, and conversing directly with the business.
All of these expectations put the responsibility on businesses to figure out how to effectively produce, distribute, and monitor an increasing volume of digital content. Without it, your business appears out-of-date, out-of-touch, and even uninterested in the wants and needs of your customer.
Unlike the previous tips, automation is strictly for behind-the-scenes streamlining to improve your internal processes and boost profit margin. Ideally, the customer will never even realize it’s happening.
Some examples of areas where modern automation can boost efficiency and make your business more competitive are:
- Digital marketing
- Social media sharing
- Email marketing
- Accounting/POS/Inventory integrations
- CRM/Sales data entry and follow-up
The key here is to take full advantage of the digital tools available to make running your business as easy and efficient as possible, so you can concentrate on maximizing the customer experience.
Although the concept of artificial intelligence (AI) is decades old, it’s only in the last few years that true machine learning and AI have become available to the masses through practical commercial applications. Some examples of AI used as a true business tool include:
Augmented customer service
AI-powered business management applications
An excellent example of this practical application of AI and machine learning can be found in the SmartAssist customer service solution, which can be applied to a range of business types and industries.
Where traditional call centers and customer support teams rely on long lists of pre-published macros and scripts when answering customer inquiries, machine learning apps like SmartAssist reduce the time it takes for customer support representatives to locate the right responses, allowing them to concentrate more fully on helping customers.
AI technology accomplishes this by constantly reviewing previously completed tickets, and using language recognition, identifies similar inquiries and circumstances, and suggests a selection of responses the rep can choose from. Machine learning kicks in as the reps choose and quickly edit or personalize each response, allowing the app to “learn” its job more fully, and ensuring greater speed and accuracy in future attempts.
With these seven opportunities in mind, it’s time to start looking at your current tools and processes and figuring out where the addition of one or more digital tools can help modernize your business, differentiate it from your competition, and impress prospects and customers going forward.