How can we predict the future after such an unpredictable year? As challenging as it is, we must try. SMB leaders could use the help. A good place to start is looking at what we already know. Customers had no choice but to become increasingly digital-first in all facets of their life. Customer behaviors changed, expectations evolved, and so did their preferences and values.
The pandemic and all of the struggles, disruption, and accelerated forces it brought with it are, for the optimists out there, inspiring SMBs to renew their focus on evolved customers. Despite a challenging economy, Salesforce research found that a full third (34%) of small businesses said they’re prioritizing developing customer relationships over one-time transactions.
The changes businesses are making now — and the new customer expectations those changes are creating — will inform, not the new or next normal, but instead, what I call the Novel Economy. After COVID, when businesses are able to fully reopen and operate safely, some of what we’ve recently adopted will stick. Thriving in the Novel Economy will require businesses to reimagine how they manage these new expectations and their customer relationships.
What does this renewed focus on customers mean for 2021? Here are four predictions (aka waypoints) for SMBs this year and in 2022 — trends that every small-to-medium-sized business needs to keep top of mind — followed by some concrete steps small business leaders can start taking now to thrive in the Novel Economy.
1. SMBs not only become more digital, they become digitally transformed with a purpose for change.
Going digital is no longer aspirational — it’s table stakes for small businesses. Your customers are increasingly digital-first, becoming digital natives, beyond Millennials and Centennials. So, why wouldn’t your business share their mindset?
SMBs get it. Over half surveyed by Salesforce last year say technology drives their customer interactions. Growing businesses are 65% more likely to have accelerated their pace of tech investments during the pandemic.
For 2021, the trend towards all things digital continues to gain momentum. Nearly half (45%) of the growing businesses surveyed say they plan to adopt technology to help digitize customer interactions in the future. But “more digital” won’t be enough on its own. SMBs need to embrace digital transformation with a purpose. Ideally, that purpose is a combination of a few factors both internal- and external-facing:
- The pursuit of operational excellence
- Development of new products/services
- Adoption of customer-centered CPIs (customer performance indicators)
An easy-to-grasp example is curbside pickup, something we all became familiar with during 2020. The innovation is how curbside pickup changed to meet expectations of the digital-first customer.
Curbside pickup customers want dedicated parking, they want to pull in, pick up, and be on their way in 2 minutes or less, and they want the whole experience reimagined for the digital-first (mobile-first, really) distracted brain.
Imagine picking up your phone to place an order, follow turn-by-turn directions to the store, and get notified when an employee is ready to load your purchases into the trunk of your car as you idle in a dedicated parking lot. That’s the digital-first curbside experience customers are looking for.
Same thing goes for in-store pickup, really. If customers have to go into the store, they want a dedicated experience for them — an analog experience to compliment the digital-first experience of ordering from home, being alerted when their goods are ready, and so on.
2. SMBs play a stronger role in society and our communities and customers too, pledge their support.
2020 was rife with turmoil in local communities and society at large. The pandemic created and exacerbated economic hardships, food and housing insecurities, and issues around health and safety. That COVID hit during a year marked by political and social unrest only underscored the importance of our shared social fabric.
Complex as the forces shaping our outlook may be, the upshot here is actually quite simple and profound: People want businesses — local businesses, especially — to play a stronger role in society.
SMBs need to step up in 2021 when it comes to making a difference in their communities, ensuring employee and customer safety, and generally playing more active and positive roles in society.
The pandemic encouraged people to pay more attention to how businesses work, and how they treat both employees and customers. Trust has become a bigger concern in consumers’ minds: 31% of customers say they now trust certain companies less because of how they behaved during COVID-19.
This prediction isn’t about brand activism, specifically, but rather a visible commitment from businesses to being committed forces for good in our neighborhoods and societies.
A good example is the 1% model, in which many companies pledge to donate one percent of their time, equity, product, and profit to worthy causes.
3) SMBs prioritize #IgniteMoments for digital, hybrid, and physical touch point innovation.
With loyalties up for grabs, and consumers saying experiences are more important than products and services, businesses need to find ways to capture customer attention and hold on to it. All in the span of a moment.
Traditional journey maps show the steps a customer takes en-route to making a purchase. They search for relevant solutions, maybe hit your website, look around, and eventually search or navigate to a certain page to find what they’re looking for.
Several years ago, I helped develop “micro-moments” with Google as a means of measuring and then redesigning mobile-first customer journeys. In the delicate, but exciting times following a pandemic and social unrest, one where digital-first behaviors were now mainstream, “ignite moments” aimed to reimagine touchpoints to deliver integrated, intuitive, and even magical digital and analog experiences.
The “Ignite Moment” perspective focused on desired outcomes? How can we give that to the customer super fast, instead of pulling them along through this traditional nurture model?
Example: A customer wants a webcam so they can look more professional working from home. So they search online for, “Best webcams for work from home.” You want to give them the answer in the most efficient, engaging, contextually relevant way possible based on who you’ve assumed your customers and prospects are.
Maybe it’s an influencer video that shows webcam comparisons, and recommends which one is best for working from home. And then there’s a one-click button to purchase. That’s it, that’s the journey. Seize the moment, ignite it, and give the customer what they want, quickly and by way of an engaging experience.
This goes for employee experiences, too, by the way. Employees are your business’ internal customers, and their experiences matter, too. How can your business make their experiences better and show them that they matter?
4) High performing SMBs become practicing futurists.
2020 is over, thank goodness, but uncertainty — and progress — is not. All of the trends we’ve been talking about that were in play before the pandemic only accelerated, more profoundly, and are only going to pick up more steam in the Novel Economy.
Digital transformation, ecommerce, the mobile-first consumer … combine these trends with the continued reality of disruptions (climate change, wildfires, the next pandemic), technological advances (Artificial Intelligence, 5G, AR, quantum computing), and the always looming unknown, and this last mega-trend becomes clear: The highest performing SMBs will become our new business futurists.
Planning for the unknown is the name of the game in 2021 and 2022. You may not know what force majeure will next disrupt your small business, or when it’s coming, but it’s safe to assume it’s imminent.
High performing SMBs will make themselves as disruption-proof and future-proof as possible, investments in digital transformation, innovation, infrastructure for digital CX and EX, supply chain backup plans, and so on. . In fact, growing SMBs accelerated their investments in technology during the pandemic. The top three areas digitized are 1) Customer interactions, 2) internal communications, and 3) workflows.
Same goes for what we might call positive disruptors. How will new technologies further change customer behaviors? How will those in turn change business behaviors?
They’ll get ready by developing the skill sets and expertise internally to understand what we’ll need for whatever comes next. Like scenario planning, a strategic methodology for making flexible long-term plans designed to quickly adapt as new realities unfold.
This isn’t making predictions about the future and hoping they come true. It’s scenario planning for the unknown so you’re better prepared for whatever might be around the bend.
Double Down to Trend Upwards
This year promises lots of change, promise, growth, and unexpected developments as we all continue to battle the pandemic while vaccinations take root. Remember, while some of your customers are more than ready to get back to in-person shopping, dining, and entertainment, they are also forever changed. Others will also continue to embrace the home-first lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to over the past year.
All of which makes right now the optimal time to invest in the technologies and business practices best suited to carry your SMB into our post-COVID future. The businesses best suited to grow in 2021 are already investing in increased customer focus, and use technology to enhance experiences and relationships.
We can’t predict the unpredictable, but we do know that businesses of the future will be customer-centered. From #IgniteMoments to business as a platform for positive change in your communities, these four trends will carry the day for successful small businesses this year and next.