The COVID-19 pandemic rocked business operations worldwide. But that doesn't mean every region has the same idea about what recovery looks like. A recent survey of SMEs in five EMEA countries – Poland, Denmark, Finland, South Africa, and UAE – has highlighted some fascinating inter-country differences. 

While all SMEs surveyed are finding financial growth (and, therefore, future expansion) challenging, there are significant differences in how optimistic they feel about their post-COVID recovery.

Nine out of 10 SMEs in Denmark are optimistic about their future, followed by 79% in Finland and South Africa. Polish SMEs are the least optimistic, with only 67% feeling confident about the future of their business.

 

The countries most optimistic about their future are different in significant ways. Clearly, they learned and changed during COVID-19 by keeping a close eye on customers and pivoting. We think their optimism is well-placed and holds the key to emerging stronger than ever.

In this post, we’ll be using the Small and Medium Business Trends report to highlight the priorities and perspectives associated with greater confidence about the future. We’ll also look at what businesses like yours must address to thrive and survive.

 

SMEs are (definitely) not going back to the way things were

It can be comforting to assume that following the pandemic, everything will return to how it was before. But this is a potentially damaging mindset – and unfortunately, one that many businesses subscribe to. 

In fact, 50% of SMEs surveyed in Poland believe that they’ll be returning to ‘business as usual’ after COVID-19. A significantly higher count than the 29% in Denmark and 31% in Finland.

Their assumption that nothing much will change – or needs to change – must be challenged. For example, in its recent report on the trends that will define 2021 and beyond, McKinsey described the changes ahead as the beginning of a new era:

“… just as the terms ‘pre-war’ and ‘post-war’ are commonly used to describe the 20th century, generations to come will likely discuss the pre-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 eras.

The next normal is going to be different… There’s no going back. The great acceleration in the use of technology, digitiation, and new forms of working is going to be sustained.”

The winners in this generational shakeup will be those who accept that change is inevitable – and seize the opportunity to reconfigure and transform their business operations accordingly.

 

Committed customer relationships (supported by the right tech) will be key to recovery

According to the survey, the top concerns of SMEs in Poland are acquiring new customers and meeting customer expectations. This contrasts with those in Denmark and Finland who are more focused on freeing up time and assessing and implementing technology.

 

While Polish SMEs are right to focus on new customers, they’re also experiencing more challenges in this area. For example, more than half of them – the highest percentage among all EMEA SMEs surveyed – say they’ve prioritised developing customer relationships instead of relying on one-time transactions.

During the 2008 financial crisis, the companies that emerged strongest were those that weighed their priorities carefully and were strategic about their IT investments. They were also – as might be expected – incredibly customer-focused.

This brings us to the crucial issue of IT and its role in equipping SMEs to adjust to, and create, the new normal.

 

The pace of tech investment needs to accelerate – not slow down

Growing SMEs are 50% more likely than stagnant or declining SMEs to be investing in tech. This is particularly worrying for Polish SMEs: more than 50% say they’ve slowed their tech investments. Again, the highest figure among all countries surveyed.

 

We believe adopting a modern CRM system is a crucial aid to recovery, and it’s here where Poland once again lags behind other EMEA countries. And given the challenges Polish SMEs face around customer acquisition and satisfaction, CRM system adoption in Poland is worryingly low –  in fact, it’s the lowest among the countries surveyed.

 

CRM is a critical differentiator when it comes to confidence about the future: SMEs that use a CRM system are significantly more likely (84% vs. 67%) to say they’re optimistic about the future of their business. More than half mention better/faster customer service as a benefit, and many also report faster deal cycles.

The use of a CRM system is also particularly established among SMEs in Denmark and Finland (who shine in terms of confidence about the future). Almost a third have been using a CRM system for two years or more.

 

Moving ahead in Poland

The vast majority of SMEs across EMEA expect to be in business once the pandemic subsides. (77% are optimistic, and 1 in 4 are very optimistic.)

It’s important to note though that success in the new normal will depend on prioritising the right technological investments and using them effectively to transform business operations. As the authors of the report put it, Technology sets SMEs apart and equips them for success.

For more actionable insights into the experiences, goals, and challenges of SMEs in Poland – and elsewhere in EMEA –  get your copy of the Small and Medium Business Trends report now.