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How SMBs can compete with big brands amid small market frustrations

Small to medium businesses (SMBs) across Australia and New Zealand have been one of the hardest sectors hit by current economic and job market pressures.

Inflation and supply chain disruptions have had a cascading effect on bottom lines, with almost every component of operating a small business steadily increasing. Energy costs, for instance, are slated to double over the next two years.

Customers, meanwhile, are spending less on goods and services to manage the cost of living crisis.Additionally, the skills shortage dominating headlines, and the Houses of Parliament  shows no signs of abating. A recent KPMG study found that recruiting, retaining and upskilling employees will be the top concern for business leaders this year.

Small business operators want to keep employees trained and supported, which becomes challenging when internal resources and morale decrease. They also want to nurture innovation and refine their offerings to keep customers happy, and ultimately expand and diversify.

Sadly, the image of a small business entrepreneur eager to innovate and succeed against big players is being replaced by one forced to constantly raise prices, train a revolving door of staff and swallow profit margins to stay afloat.

In the current climate, updating technology might be the last thing on their minds. But if approached correctly, it could be the golden ticket out of this mess.

Modern digital capabilities hold enormous power when it comes to easing workloads and improving experiences.

On the talent retention challenge, consistent research and my interactions with customers prove that optimising the employee experience is key, and Australians have made no secret of the fact they prefer hybrid work.

The first national study of workplace policy in Australia confirmed workers with the most flexibility ranked the happiest. Beyond this, Forrester’s latest report found that four in 10 hybrid working companies will try and undo work-from-anywhere arrangements and fail.

Some big-name brands have already reneged on their flexible work arrangements, including SnapDisney and Uber, which cited a hindrance to creativity, connection, personal growth and engagement as reasons for the reversion. SMBs should follow that lead if they wish to remain competitive in the jobs market.

Indeed, many could do more with their digital strategies to better suit the needs of the modern employee. When remote work was mandated, many SMBs rolled out off-the-shelf video-conferencing software and have since stalled in optimising hybrid work arrangements.

Whenever simple solutions are shoe-horned into environments to address scenarios and processes they were never designed to handle, the job completed is mediocre at best.

Staff should be empowered to work across locations from personal devices in a way that integrates naturally with their lives. This should allow them to collaborate with colleagues before, during and after meetings, without the worry ‘Big Brother is watching’. 

Leaders should also avoid deploying multiple apps for staff to do their jobs. Not only does this lead to application overload and burnout, but it often results in them reverting to unsophisticated workarounds to get their jobs done. The knowledge exchanged through these apps invariably leaves the business when turnover occurs, and already time-poor employees are forced to train even more to get up to speed.

We saw the unfortunate consequences of this arrangement play out last year when an HSBC employee was fired for using an encrypted messaging app to communicate with a colleague.

Leaders should also leverage automation to free employees from laborious tasks such as transcribing meeting minutes or compiling routine reports, and from taking on the work of multiple employees. SMBs often don’t have the resources, head count or budgets to dedicate hours to low-value administration work. This time could instead be spent developing new services, engaging with clients and ultimately boosting the bottom line.

Automation can also improve experiences for customers. For example, in a customer service setting, an AI-enabled digital sidekick can transcribe a call in real-time while the employee gets straight to the heart of the query. This both saves time and lets customers feel understood – a key concern in the current climate.

An SMB that recently realised the benefits of these allocations was McCarthy Durie Lawyers (MDL), a law firm with 80 employees that operates out of Brisbane. Tasked with rolling out hybrid work in a way that suited employees’ lives, MDL set employees up with the ability collaborate in one place, and work reliably across locations from their personal devices.

Proper hybrid work allocations also meant staff could train themselves from their own laptops and smartphones, and meant all sensitive client information was kept securely in one place, allowing staff to easily pick up a case if an employee left the organisation. 

In the months since making these digital investments, MDL has reported record staff and customer retention, has onboarded and trained employees outside Brisbane, and embarked on growth plans in regional Queensland. Its ability to serve clients across a vaster area means it’s capable of taking on much larger competitors.

Digital prioritisation doesn’t also require a huge upfront spend and overhaul of existing processes and systems – a reality that might not be possible in the current environment. The continued growth of Australia’s cloud industry gives organisations the ability to start small by investing in features designed for a specific purpose before expanding that solution more broadly.

SMBs are being confronted by a seemingly unassailable series of roadblocks. But by reviewing their technology roadmaps, leaders can begin navigating immediate challenges and setting themselves up for success in the future – without going back to square one.

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Dino Beverakis

Dino Beverakis

Dino Beverakis has extensive experience in the technology and telecommunications industries. He recently took on the role of Managing Director for Avaya in Australia and New Zealand, where he is responsible for driving business growth, developing and executing go-to-market strategies, and leading the company's operations in the region.

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