By Jonathan Kini, Head of Small & SME Business at Vodafone UK
Without question, SMEs remain vital to the UK economy, representing 99 per cent of UK businesses and employing most of the private sector workforce. With a combined turnover of £1.6 trillion (according to the ONS 2014 report), SMEs contribute substantially to the country’s overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Therefore it is important that under the new government, SMEs are supported and get the tools they need to deliver sustained growth and success.
Some progress was made to support SMEs over the last five years under the coalition. Taxes have been lowered, red tape has been reduced, employment law simplified and banks have been encouraged to approve loans. However changes in government can cause an air of uncertainty amongst businesses as they wait to see what new policies will be implemented, and whether the momentum behind driving investment and the development of effective schemes like Growth Vouchers and Business in You will continue.
One area which has featured prominently in previous government schemes for SMEs is helping them to make the most out of technology, since it plays a major role in enabling SMEs to be more cost efficient, get products to market quicker and deliver better customer service. These success factors are key for the 600,000 new businesses that the coalition said it would like to see started every year, as well as helping existing small businesses survive in the longer term: currently only 45 per cent of SMEs in the UK are able to survive for more than five years (ONS 2014).
In order to protect the growth of SMEs and lengthen their lifespan, it is crucial for both government and UK plc to do more to educate SMEs on how to best leverage technology to streamline operations, improve customer engagement and drive success. This should include guidance on assessing where technology could make the most difference to the bottom line: so businesses can make smart investments which optimise their often limited cash flow.
With the new Conservative Government now in place, businesses won’t have to wait long to find out what support will be available to them in the coming years. But SMEs should also remember that, regardless of who’s in power, there are certain business fundamentals that they can focus on to be more efficient and drive success:
1. Unify your communication tools – By making all your communications channels work together (landline phone, mobile and online) SMEs can easily direct calls to the most appropriate contact first time. Their staff can therefore be contactable by customers, partners and colleagues from anywhere and on any device, ensuring no customer call or email is missed. This in turn allows them to have an ‘always on’ approach without breaking the bank and live up to the levels of responsiveness expected by customers today. Not only will calls not be missed, research has also shown that allowing staff to work from anywhere at any time (mobile working) improves employee productivity, work/life balance and overall happiness of your staff.
2. Protect your biggest assets – Whether it’s intelligence on customer preferences and behaviour, details of your latest product launch, or email exchanges, data is one of your organisations biggest and most sensitive assets. The loss of that data - whether via cybercrime, a stolen laptop, system failure or otherwise - can have a big impact on a variety of things from business processes to the trust of your customers. It is important, therefore, that businesses have a robust and resilient framework in place to protect their data and ensure privacy. This should encompass technology solutions, allowing IT managers to easily manage the security of employees' devices such as laptops, tablets and smartphones for instance – as well as policies which educate staff on the vulnerabilities of their devices and promote a culture of accountability in the event of data loss.
3. Improve customer relationships – Winning new business is an important part of growth, but retaining customers is also integral to success. In the connected world, customers interact with businesses via a number of channels. Research by First Direct found that 44 per cent of consumers now use the web to share grievances about products. Businesses that empower their staff to interact with existing and potential customers over any channel at any time, via mobile devices and securely managed businesses applications for example, will not only be able to build better, longer customer relationships, but will also have more influence over their brand perception in the outside world.
4. Work as a community – Networking is important in developing relationships and meeting new potential customers, no matter the size of the business. However, for SMEs in particular, networking opens-up the opportunity to exchange ideas and share knowledge, experiences and best practices that could help business performance. If business owners and employees cannot afford to leave work, video conferencing is a great alternative. It is not only a way to get more value from your communications but it allows staff to stay at work without missing-out on the opportunity to engage with peers.
Whatever new policies and support the new government puts in place there is one thing that will remain consistent - the importance of technology and its role in supporting the success of SMEs.
Rather than waiting for a growth scheme to be introduced by the new government, there’s an opportunity for SMEs to take control by using technology to maximise their existing assets to achieve greater business performance and success.