By Tom Craig, Global Director of Vodafone Business Services

As we face the threat of a prolonged economic slowdown, the whole of Europe continues to look toward small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to pull us out of the recession. Yet with government austerity measures constraining commercial and consumer spending, SMEs have to dig deeper to achieve growth. Sadly there is no simple solution to this, other than a commitment to work smarter and harder than the competition. However, out of this necessity, we are increasingly seeing these businesses embrace new technologies in very innovative ways.

In a challenging economic environment, SMEs are having to focus on the most basic elements of their business — the need to cut costs, grab every single opportunity to sell to and serve their customers. Having effective communications is not only vital for them to be competitive and grow, but critical for each of their survival. Yet historically these businesses tell us that they have been underserved by the telecoms industry. Increasingly customers don't want to have multiple solutions from multiple providers - they want one stop for everything.

There are now signs of a real sea change. Trends such as the growth of cloud services, in increasing power of smartphones and the emergence of tablet devices, are forcing the industry to deliver services that bring mobility together with fixed features. Not only are these services now more available, we are also seeing that SMEs are now using these services to improve their competitiveness more than ever before.

Simple things — such as a single number for increase responsiveness and ease of contact, a single voicemail for fixed and mobile lines all through a single supplier — are having a huge impact on the service SMEs are able to deliver to their customers. It sounds very basic, but it is surprising how many of us still give out two or three telephone numbers — be they personal, fixed, private or mobile.

The uptake of these practical and simple services is also leading to a fundamental change in the competitiveness of these businesses. Unconstrained by legacy equipment and with smaller workforces to equip and train, SMEs are now in numbers exploiting the benefits of these unified communications solutions to deliver a more personal and responsive service to the people who matter the most — their customers. At the same time they are able save both time and money.

Historically, services like this were only available to large corporations with significant IT departments, who could manage and deploy these services within their businesses. Now the tables have turned, and SMEs are actually in many cases ahead of their larger rivals.

Of course technology is not the whole answer. The sentiment that “work is something you do, not a place you go” will remain an ambition for many SMEs. For many, cultural issues on the integration of mobile working practices into the mainstream are a barrier to adoption.

The SMEs that have been successful in stealing a march are the ones that have combined the technology solutions available with a shift in working culture. Reliable and affordable services are enabling dispersed employees to call one another on their mobiles for a fixed monthly price, and simple benefits like these are accelerating the adoption of flexible working practices.

The increasing numbers of SMEs who are buying into these services are out manoeuvring their larger, slower rivals. They are truly becoming more agile and customer focussed, by enabling customers to reach the person they want to talk to, when they want to talk to them.

Many SMEs across Europe are already feeling the benefits of technology that is easier to maintain, more reliable, more scalable and more affordable than ever before, leading to a much more responsive businesses which can only help support SME’s to truly become the engine of economic recovery. With hard times drawing close, we should hope that these enlightened small businesses who are embracing simple, more responsive ways of working will both grow in numbers and fuel the sustained economic recovery.