If you’re keen to grow your business this year, a few things will be essential: ambition; investment; and a business plan. But a further route to success could be technological innovation. More entrepreneurs are turning to the internet, the cloud, new payment systems, and other digital developments to achieve their expansion plans. Technology in no longer perceived as an expensive luxury preserved for the big players. Smaller company bosses are realising it can give them a competitive edge, and help them provide better customer service, too.
- Almost four out of ten business owners say the availability of better technology will have a positive impact on company growth in 2015, according to research from Barclays.
- A quarter thinks having a digital presence will boost their enterprise.
- About 16 per cent are pinning their hopes on new payment technology.
Technology can be a way for smaller firms to do things more quickly, and efficiently, and to reach a wider customer base. But how might your company use new developments in the digital world to be at the forefront of the 21st century, soaring ahead of your business rivals?
Look to the cloud
Even the most laggard company owners have cottoned on that a fast internet connection is essential these days, but some are still suspicious of more recent technologies, such as cloud computing. Things are looking up – it’s predicted that half of all SMEs will use cloud accounting services by 2016, the International Data Association says. But too many have yet to learn that keeping files and company data remotely can give bosses and staff greater accessibility in the office, at home, and on the road. The cloud offers greater flexibility in terms of data capacity, and what operations the virtual infrastructure can handle. And it’s possible to tap into a far superior technological offering than that which most small businesses can afford in-house. All in all, embracing the cloud could streamline processes, and make your enterprise faster, and more productive, driving growth.
- Try before you commit. Most cloud services allow users a trial period, or take payment monthly, so it’s possible to give something a go without committing for the long-term.
- If you currently have an in-house server, moving it to run virtually via a resilient cloud provider could avoid maintenance problems, and minimise risk of down-time due to system crashes.
- Be wary of free services. They may be adequate for a micro business with minimal needs, but for anything larger, you need adequate support, and functions, so be prepared to spend some money – not a lot necessarily, but something.
- Choose a reputable provider. Some cautious business owners fear their vital business information will be ‘lost’ or shared via the cloud. This shouldn’t happen, particularly if you use a well-established cloud service, so check for recommendations.
Choosing the right technology
It’s important to develop a digital strategy, asking yourself what you want tech to do for your company, and where there are current gaps in terms of function, and efficiency. If you need outside help to understand which software and services may be best for your company’s size, industry, and day-to-day needs, seek it out, but also make sure you know what you’re getting, why, and how it works – in broad terms.
Only 17 per cent of small and medium businesses look for advice about information technology, according to recent research from the Open University. When you’re looking for an external expert, consider:
- Seeking advice from someone who isn’t trying to sell you something.
- Finding a vendor who understands your business, and its sector. You also want to see they have experience of working with firms of your size, rather than just bigger operators.
- Contacting the National B2B Centre, a Government-backed SME support service, which offers information about IT advice nationwide, much of it for free.
Know what your tech is doing
Too many SMEs set up a website or a social media account, then fail to harness the useful information that these channels provide. You can learn about your customers, potential future trade, and what the world at large thinks about your business if you learn to understand your firm’s analytics. Mine the data you already have by asking yourself:
- How are people gaining access to your website or social media feeds? If it’s via mobile devices, you should be thinking about enabling your business for these channels more broadly.
- Are visits repeat customers, or are you being browsed by new viewers? You can tailor your content, and marketing once you know who you’re addressing.
- What content do people like, and when are they looking at it? Scrutinise traffic patterns, and consider why some information is more popular. It could give you a clue to what your customers want – and the times of day they seek out your services
- Are you jumping to conclusions? Don’t make assumptions. Keep analysing both long and short-term data to see if there are any changes in customer behaviour. There could be day-to-day spikes in traffic for various reasons, but a six-month view will give you a clearer idea of possible lasting trends.
Think about electronic payments
SMEs can be a bit old-fashioned, and, for many, cash or cheques are their preferred currencies. But the world is going mobile with the use of smartphones and tablets rocketing, and more people shopping and ordering services on the move. To keep up with this shift in consumer behaviour, smaller businesses should be mobile-enabled, too, in terms of payment, as well as marketing content.
- Decide how you will take payment. If you’re settling bills online, you’ll need a payment gateway, such as WorldPay or SagePay, and an internet merchant account – which you can get from a separate provider, so look for the best deal. These will ensure you can encrypt credit card information, and guarantee secure transactions. You could also offer PayPal to give customers a choice.
- Fast payment means more working capital. Small firms can invest in software to produce instant quotes and invoices that can then be sent to customers by email. These state-of-the-art payment systems not only encourage faster payment, they can also issue reminders, meaning you can chase outstanding bills more easily.
- Research e-wallets, and mobile payments – the next wave of electronic ways to pay that will allow for money to leave customers’ accounts in real-time via their mobile devices. Google, Amazon, and PayPal are moving into the area of digital wallets, and it’s the next big thing in payment terms. Contactless payments through smartphones are also on the increase, so look into whether your firm should invest now in processes that will be standard in the near future.
Finally, we have talked about the need for SMEs to maintain security on this blog before, whether it’s how they manage their social media presence, protecting against external cyber attacks, or even preventing rogue members of staff tapping into computer systems to rip them off. The truth is that many business owners are lax when it comes to security issues, always trusting it won’t happen to them – until it does. Don’t set back business growth by failing to put the necessary safety measures in place. You need to make sure that your business and its customers are safe from any malevolent actions. Shore up your defences, invest in security to protect your digital infrastructure – and you should be in good shape to grow your business through technology in the months, and years ahead.