Challenging times can present opportunities to reassess. Even as they preserve cash and scale back, SMBs need to double down on customer service and the customer experience. Call center software can be a key driver—and a bridge to the other side of the crisis.
Nearly six months in, time tends to naturally divide itself into “pre-pandemic” and “pandemic.” “Post-pandemic,” on the other hand, looms somewhere ahead, a blank slate on which our next chapters, still unknown, will be written.
No one it seems, neither individual nor organization, will have escaped the effects of the coronavirus. But for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), the losses are staggering—and ongoing. For SMBs struggling to stay afloat in these toughest of times, however, re-evaluating and refining customer connections—customer service and the customer experience--can be an important long-term survival tools, And whether you have a “call center” or “contact center,” use a business process outsourcing (BPO) or haven’t yet established any of the above, taking a fresh look at your customer connectedness now could be the best move you’ve ever made.
The importance of SMBs
“What creates two out of three net new American jobs; produces close to half of the nation’s goods and services (nonfarm private GDP); and can be found coast to coast, in every small town, big city and rural enclave? The answer to this question—posed by former Small Business Administrator Marla Contreras-Sweet—is the 30.7 million small businesses (SBA 2019) that drive the economy and provide goods and services across the nation. These 30 million-plus small businesses in America account for 99% of all businesses and 54 % of all U.S. sales. (SBA 2019)
Over the past decade, having finally put the last recession in the rearview mirror, SMBs were booming. According to the SBA’s 2019 Small Business Profile, from 2000 to 2017, they accounted for more than 65% of net new job creation in the U.S. , reinforcing the well-deserved title of “the backbone of America.” SMBs also were also stimulating local economies: According to the AmEx 2018 Small Business Economic Impact Study, roughly 67% of every dollar spent at a small business stays in the local community. Larger businesses are influenced by SMBs, too, in that they are “pushed to be better” by the ingenuity, innovation, agile management, customer service, and workplace culture and diversity of SMBs.
SMBs in the age of COVID-19
The SMB landscape is being altered immeasurably. But even before the coronavirus hit, all was not sunny for all SMBs, many of which face chronic challenges, from cash flow challenges, thin margins, stiff competition and resources stretched to the breaking point.
A Goldman Sachs survey in March 2020 found profound impacts to small businesses even as the pandemic was beginning to unfold:
96% participants had already been impacted by COVID-19
Three-quarters reported fewer sales
Over half said their employees didn’t have the ability to telecommute
A continuing bright spot for SMBs
Although SMBs are in a life-and-death struggle now, it’s important to remember that they’ve always enjoyed some distinct advantages, too. First and foremost is SMBs’ hyper-responsiveness to customer needs and their agility to adjust course and act quickly. Besides keeping a pulse on what consumers want and being able to adjust their strategies accordingly, SMBs are perhaps best loved for their personalized customer experiences.
Customer service and customer experience have long been crown jewels for SMBs, key drivers in their success. Forty-three percent of SMBs have said that improving customer experience (CX) and retention is their top strategy to improve revenue growth. That doesn’t need to change. While cutting back is necessary in difficult times, scaling back on customer service and/or the customer experience should not be on the table. It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s exactly now when SMBs should consider doubling down on their commitment to customer connections and to CX.
SMB advantages endure; strategies are evolvingAccording to survey results reported in Small Business Trends, 91% of customers say they prefer small businesses when it’s convenient to do business with them. What’s more, 74% search for opportunities to support small businesses even when it’s not convenient!
Along similar lines, Business News Daily also describes customers’ desire to support SMBs. Nothing against Walmart (for example)—customers do like one-stop convenience— but customers don’t feel the personal connection that they do with SMBs. The publication reports that 86% of consumers say they are willing to "pay a little more to work with a small business” and that nearly 95% of respondents describe feeling “trust and loyalty” toward SMBs. The reasons? Three out of the top five revolve around customer service or CX: Consistently excellent service; a more personal experience; and an accumulated understanding of customer needs or interests.
The best time to fine-tune your customer connections? Right now.Customer service isn’t just a strategic differentiator for small and medium businesses. It’s an essential function that must be performed correctly and consistently. The impact of even a single customer service fail can be devastating. With social media and online reviews, mistakes can follow businesses into the future and are sometimes hard to shake off.
More important than errors to avoid is what exceptional service/experience have the power to build. Writing in Forbes, CX Guru and Chief Amazement Officer at Shepard Presentations, Shep Hyken, says that CX doesn’t just enhance a brand; it IS the new brand. Gartner and others, Hyken says, have found that today, upwards of 90% of businesses are competing on customer experience; in 2010, just 36% were. But he also cites findings that while 80% of companies believe they deliver “superior experiences,” less than 10% of customers agree. So while many businesses may have a long way to go in the CX they offer, this also means there is unlimited opportunity to disrupt competitors or gain market share.
The silver lining: customers are ‘up for grabs’In a July 2020 article, US small-business recovery after the COVID-19 crisis, global management consults, McKinsey & Company, builds the case for the opportunity that’s emerging from the pandemic-induced disruption:
“For small retailers, a refreshed business model could help with adapting to changing consumer behaviors. Millions of consumers are up for grabs. Disruption in the marketplace, whether driven by supply-chain challenges or by changes in shopping behaviors, have led 15 to 20 percent of consumers to switch stores… To compete, smaller companies may need to find new ways to differentiate their value proposition: focusing on “hyperlocal” demand trends, competing on service quality instead of price, or building customer loyalty through marketing campaigns that engage the local community.”
The article goes on to describe the new normal of “contactless experiences,” the need to leverage digital technology to survive and the changes small businesses will need to make in the course of the “necessary digital shift.”
It’s a no brainer: the power of technology in CX
When it comes to technology, customers are already there. They’re using digital devices all day long to work, to learn, to shop, for entertainment. They expect businesses—even SMBs—to offer those same digital alternatives, from email and chat to all forms of social media—for doing business and communicating with them.
SMBs have traditionally been intrepid about technology, for all kinds of reasons, real and perceived—cost, resources, expertise, and others. But the democratization of technology has impacted SMBs as it has consumers. In fact, SMBs now have access to the same technology as larger enterprises—and on their own terms.
That accessibility combined with the disruptions and change ushered in by the coronavirus has accelerated both the need for and ability of SMBs to raise the bar on customer service and CX by incorporating and optimizing the right technology solutions.
Businesses appear to be getting the message, as the focus continues to shift from more traditional approaches to more modern digital strategies to improve the customer experience. According to pyments.com, in response to changing consumer behavior, seven out of 10 SMBs have either added new digital capabilities or enhanced their existing digital services during the 10 weeks since the COVID-19 pandemic began—and, in fact, many more changed the way they operated to reduce costs and mitigate the cashflow crunch following the outbreak.
What next?Take the opportunity to reevaluate—and be open to retooling multiple aspects of your customer connections based on new insights. Start with a fresh look and deeper understanding of your customers. In A Way Forward for Small Businesses, Harvard Business Review delves into the current business landscape and makes five key recommendations to small businesses for navigating it. Among them:
Don’t rush your decisions but do make plans. Don’t panic and make costly mistakes.
Figure out how your customers have changed.Many of the new habits they’re building will persist after the pandemic.
In its Small Business Customer Experience: How to Get it Right , the nation's largest network of volunteer, expert business mentors, SCORE, offers a critical first step for small businesses in improving their customer experiences: Move beyond the usual demographic data to understand your customers’ real needs and desires. Specifically, SCORE advises businesses to learn:
What customer challenges can your business solve now?
How will your service or product change their lives?
What keeps them up at night? What worries them?
Put yourself in their shoes to get thoughtful answers to these questions. Imagine their daily struggles, challenges, and the decisions they make every day. As what Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said, “Start with the customer and work backwards.”
Once you’ve answered these questions, there’s no room for your small business to leave any stone unturned in providing value to your customer.
The role of call center software in exceptional CX
While physical contact with customers remains a question mark for many, the need to remain in close contact with customers to nurture relationships and build new ones—is not in question for any SMB. Regardless of where you are on the technology spectrum, it’s still a critical time for evaluating—or reevaluating how you’re leveraging CX software solutions—or could be. Remember:
Customers are “up for grabs now,” establishing (lasting) new habits.
Customers have expectations high expectations for their interactions with businesses.
You need to meet customers where they are—with a choice in channels that includes digital options.
Customers have an established desire to support and do business with SMBs—who need to make it easy for them and add value wherever possible.
You’re competing on CX with other SMBs and larger businesses, too.
Customer relationships can be strengthened—and new ones built—with frequent, meaningful interactions.
Reaching out to customers is important, too—don’t wait for them to contact you!
All this and more with the right CX solutionChoosing the right CX solution enables SMB to deliver the kind of CX customers expect—top quality, efficient, consistent, seamless—with little effort and cost-efficiently. But that’s just the beginning. We’re biased, of course, because our CXone integrated cloud CX suite of solutions has been a game-changer for SMBs of every size, across every sector. Here’s how our SMB clients are able to bring together people, processes and technology to boost CX, build customer relationships and thrive:
The flexibility and scalability of the cloud - An integrated cloud CX platform offers flexibility and scalability, both important in uncertain business conditions.
Brand differentiation – Competitive advantages are a must on an increasingly competitive landscape.
Building customer relationships - Offering the omnichannel choices customers expect—not just voice but self-service and digital channels like SMS text, chat and a host of social media platforms—will keep them coming back, time and time again.
Business continuity & recovery – The ability to quickly transition to working remotely, especially work-from-home, when the need arises.
Security – PCI compliance that enables secure customer payments and more
Expandability - It’s easy to add features and functions as you need them.
Ease of use - You don’t have to be a tech wizard, with easy-to-use interfaces and all the support you need.
Cost effectiveness - SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) let you pay for only what you use, and there are other options to suit SMB budgets.
Valuable insights through metrics – Key analytics will inform your decision-making
Employee performance and productivity – Giving employees the right tools enriches their experiences, too.
The list goes on… while SMBs everywhere adapt to new norms to survive—and thrive once more. The businesses below are as different as night and day but share an important link: They’re among NICE inContact SMB clients who continue to respond to their customers’ needs with exceptional CX—pre-pandemic as well as currently. Click the links to read their stories.