In the fifth edition of the SMB Trends Report, thousands of SMB leaders shared some of their biggest challenges from the past year, along with the support and solutions that helped them navigate those challenges. Their responses revealed that engaging customers and keeping up with new expectations continue to be front and centre.
From expanding communication channels to adding contactless services, SMBs have been working hard to cater to rapidly shifting customer needs and to return some of the good will from local communities. But what does that look like on the ground?
Four Trailblazers have shared some of their favourite highlights and customer outcomes from the past year, and each one has a lesson to carry forward in the new year.
It’s been a big two years for health education company Medcast and their customers: hospitals and healthcare professionals looking to retrain or keep up with new evidence.
Along with adapting almost all of their in-person learning according to pandemic restrictions and scaling to accommodate massive spikes in web traffic and customer support needs, the Aussie startup also partnered with the federal government to deliver the SURGE Critical Care project. This vital work helped address potential staff shortages in critical care, resulting in 400,000 hours of learning in Critical Care or High Dependency Nursing.
While this work began in early 2020, Medcast leaders point to ongoing project benefits as a standout memory from this past year.
“When we ran a follow-up survey with the nurses, we were able to demonstrate a change in the knowledge and confidence of those nurses in terms of their skills to manage patients. They also reported that there was a significant change in the quality of patient care as a result of the training,” explains Kate Clutton, Medcast’s Chief Operations Officer – a crucial accomplishment considering 2021’s delta surge and the ongoing demand for critical care staff.
Both Kate and Luke Kean, Chief Technology Officer, say customer feedback to the SURGE project has been excellent, but that 2021 was also a great year for hearing positive customer feedback more generally and seeing evidence to back it up.
“We’ve heard feedback from clients that our education is really making a difference in terms of outcomes. So it's not just about, ‘Did they learn something?’ It's also, ‘Did they implement it in their practice?’” says Luke. “And we increasingly have data to back up that this is actually making a difference and there are benefits to the patient, and also to the budget in terms of government spending in these areas.”
The takeaway for 2022: With an online learning platform and customer relationship management (CRM) solution in place, Medcast had the digital foundations in place to scale up during an unprecedented public health crisis. In fact, 89% of SMBs say they moved a portion of their operations online over the past year and 63% saying they’ve made operational changes in the past year that they expect to provide long-term benefits. Digital solutions may not be the only focus in 2022, but it’s clear that SMBs will need to invest in technology that helps them navigate whatever surprises might come next.
Auckland-based hospitality technology company STAAH offers distribution technology and digital marketing solutions to more than 10,000 accommodation providers in 90 different countries. And the pandemic sent most travel and hospitality industries screeching to a halt. Even this past year, as some countries began to lift travel restrictions, the impacts to STAAH’s customers have been varied, ongoing and unpredictable.
So how can a business give back to communities and customers while protecting its revenue during an uncertain and challenging period? For starters, STAAH’s Regional Manager, Oceania, Edwin Saldanha says the business has been offering fee relief to its most impacted customers and is looking forward to being able to participate in more community initiatives again in the future. Nearly a quarter of SMBs (24%) in Australia and New Zealand say the pandemic has spurred them to focus even more on prioritising relationship development rather than one-off transactions.
However, STAAH has been busy looking for other ways to make customers’ lives easier, too. Before the pandemic, STAAH had already started to consolidate some disjointed systems and digitise processes. This helped establish a single source of truth across internationally dispersed teams serving very different markets, giving the business a better finger on the pulse, enabling data-informed decisions and improving forecasting.
But these changes haven’t just benefited the business, they’ve also helped the business build out ways to make customers’ lives easier. For instance, their CRM solution is giving them deeper insights into regional changes in domestic travel and empowering a smoother reactivation process.
“We can easily pull out accounts that are in suspended mode, and teams can start reactivating and re-training them on the system, and it just makes all of those processes quite simple,” says Tony Howlett, STAAH’s Chief Operating Officer. “And the minute that we change the status to live, automated processes kick in and make it easier to reactivate.”
The takeaway for 2022: Circumstances can shift rapidly, and no one can control which industries or regions will be impacted disproportionately. STAAH’s focus on long-term relationships and the savvy use of digital technology to connect a dispersed team are great examples of how SMBs can set themselves up for success even in a challenging environment. In fact, 63% of SMBs say operational shifts they’ve made over the past year will benefit their business long-term.
Another SMB in a disproportionately impacted industry has been co-working space leader CreativeCubes.co – there’s a clear need for flexible, creative approaches to working spaces, but lockdowns and restrictions created immediate hurdles for the business and their members.
“Since its onset, our business has had phases of growth and stagnation directly correlated to the length of lockdowns and ongoing workplace restrictions,” says Shardae Mazzeo, Head of People and Culture. Shardae explains that what stands out from this period is the way CreativeCubes.co navigated challenges: they haven’t just navigated the pandemic with their values intact, they were able to navigate the pandemic because they doubled down on those values.
This included providing substantial financial relief to their members, as well as distilling digestible information from ever-shifting government notices and mandates. Shardae notes that they “went deep into best practices” for cleaning and sanitation, along with policies and procedures that their members could adapt for their own businesses. This people-first focus, – blending practical solutions and empathy – included CreativeCubes.co employees, with the business leveraging digital solutions like Slack to engage and connect with their people.
“It was a combination of the strong value proposition, community, relationships and people-first offering that has resulted in no deterioration in our membership base. This ultimately meant high demand and retention rates for our offering which has seen us power out of the pandemic in a strong way,” says Shardae.
“At the end of the day, we stayed true to our values and continued to execute our mission despite heavy headwinds. The standout was we did it as a team and led a community to safer, happier days.”
The takeaway for 2022: Shardae reiterates that putting their members, community and people first has been a priority for years, but CreativeCubes.co successfully adapted this approach during unprecedented challenges. It’s a critical achievement because 90% of customers say how a company acts during a crisis demonstrates its trustworthiness. In other words, even as circumstances change around your business, there’s a commercial imperative to ensure your customers and your people trust your business to stay true to its core values.
For AWS consulting partner Itoc, a standout moment has been the help they’ve provided to businesses in impacted industries like retail, travel and hospitality, but also the connections they were able to facilitate between fellow SMBs.
Itoc’s Head of Sales and Customer Growth Simone Longden says they’ve provided flexibility to existing customers, as well as even free guidance for other SMBs – even if they weren’t already a customer.
Simone says this involved making sure that impacted customers’ mission-critical IT projects could go ahead regardless of financial uncertainty, in yet another example of SMBs prioritising relationships over transactions. But something they didn’t anticipate was how many relationships they would broker between their customers.
“We work with hundreds and hundreds of smaller businesses and vendors that were looking for engagement with other small SMBs,” says Simone. “So for us, we started building a bit of a marketplace in a marketplace, and it worked really well from outside.”
Like many other SMBs, Itoc’s people-first focus on customers and communities isn’t new. But digital solutions have played a supporting role in making sure employees had the time and resources to focus on fostering relationships through flexible, no-strings-attached help, including a smart use of Slack, the right CRM solution and an earlier HR transformation that cut down on manual admin even when employees were fully remote.
The takeaway for 2022? Building trust with both customers and employees will continue to be crucial, but how you build trust can look different as expectations shift. While SMBs in Australia and New Zealand say that they’re focusing on transparent, two-way communication to build trust with employees, it will be important to consider Itoc’s approach as well: backing up a culture of relationship-building with the tools needed to focus more energy on customers and less energy on manual tasks.