Cloud-based services have levelled the playing field for smaller businesses by bringing them the kinds of tools that typically only larger corporations could afford. We take a look at some of the most useful
In the early days of the web, even the smallest and most niche businesses found themselves able to discover customers who had previously been out of reach. But capitalising on the new opportunities still required time, money and person-power. Sure, some once-small startups have succeeded in disrupting entire industries and grown into corporate behemoths. But for companies that have remained small, the web didn’t quite refashion them as digital Davids winning against Goliaths.
More recent developments, however, have allowed small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to genuinely punch above their weight when it comes to back-office functions. Cloud-based software services and management and finance apps have empowered companies by giving them access to the kind of tools and top-notch computing powers that have typically only been affordable for larger corporates.
This revolution for SMEs has crept up on us so gradually, though, that it can be easy to lose sight of just how transformative it has been.
“Technology has changed everything and today small firms can compete with larger ones by making use of powerful applications and platforms,” says Emma Jones, founder of Enterprise Nation, a network of small businesses and business advisers who mentor emerging businesses.
In 2019, you can take virtually any aspect of running a business – customer service, purchasing, recruitment, HR, accounting, marketing, analytics – and find a technological solution that streamlines the process. We’re even seeing total automation of some of those repetitive labour-intensive admin tasks that can get in the way of the more important aspects of running a business.
AI chatbots respond to customer enquiries, while smart replenishment software systems cut the time needed to order supplies – as well as helping companies forecast what to order. Employee self-service software helps reduce the HR burden, and e-learning portals make it possible to roll out training programmes to staff faster, onboarding new starters and upskilling the workforce with a less hands-on approach.
“When firms really make the most of the digital world, they can reap benefits by controlling and capturing the time they spend on each client,” says Jones – who recently helped to launch Heads Up!, part of the government’s Business Basics Programme to test if encouraging small businesses to embrace existing digital technologies can make a positive impact on productivity levels.
Web-based or app-enabled solutions also extend into SMEs’ financial engine rooms, with accounting services to help companies keep a closer eye on cashflow and take the pain out of managing expenses and payments. The result is an environment in which managers and entrepreneurs can spend less time on soul-draining back-office admin and more time running their business.
Automating financial processes, for example, by using software packages such as SAP Concur, can help ensure that everything you need to know – for instance about your invoices, expenses and travel costs – automatically flows into one system, making it easier to manage, analyse and figure out how to improve your business’s cashflow. Another part of the software package, Concur Budget, takes a holistic view of employee spend, enabling companies to make cost-saving and purchasing decisions in the moment, which is particularly relevant for SMEs who have to be nimble.
Moreover, SMEs are increasingly better placed than big companies to benefit from the innovative solutions that are hitting the market. Without the constraints of legacy systems to transition away from,
it’s often easier for more nimble businesses to test out and adopt these new systems.
Affordability is also a key factor. “It’s a bonus that many of these large-scale technologies, such as Amazon Web Services and cloud accounting, enable small businesses to have access to the same tech as much larger firms, but on a budget they can afford,” says Jones.
Small businesses have also historically struggled to match the buying power of larger enterprises – making it hard to provide the right goods at competitive prices. Businesses such as Amazon and Tesco have been built on the principle that purchasing in high volumes offers leverage on price and preferential treatment, but few small businesses have the capital – or the need – to buy in the kind of bulk that unlocks these benefits.
But technology is helping here, too. Group purchasing organisations – which have been around for decades in some sectors – are now using new connectivity tools to make it increasingly simple for SMEs to combine resources, get preferable prices and contract terms, while also saving time on negotiating and drawing up contracts.
But this network effect isn’t just being used to boost buying power. Efforts by SAP Concur to better understand the needs of its SME customers have resulted in new ways of thinking about their collective clout. To that end, it is developing what is called the SAP Business Exchange, a global online hub designed to pool together SMEs’ knowledge, insights and advice – alongside offering events and group discounts.
Ryan Demaray, vice president of the SAP Business Exchange, explains how the idea grew out of an examination of the ways its SME clients were interacting on its customer community website. It turned out that they were using the online forums to ask each other about more than just SAP Concur products, demonstrating a genuine hunger for shared knowledge and experiences. “One thing that kept coming up was that they wanted to know what other companies were doing – they were asking each other questions such as: ‘What other opportunities are out there? Where are you spending the most money?’ Particularly when it came to shipping and parcel costs,” he explains. “Basically, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. So with SAP Business Exchange we’re trying to create something where SMEs are able to add value to each other. We fulfil the infrastructure and they fulfil the value.”
The plan is to expand the hub to incorporate group purchasing platforms, widgets and apps, deeper collective data and analytics, and customised spend management solutions – and, of course, a further expansion of tools to enable SMEs to have conversations with each other and share best practice.
Demaray notes that the impulse is similar to the way people use technology in their social lives. “The nature of today’s technology has driven individuals to seek out validation and information about purchasing decisions.”
David Alexander, senior vice-president of marketing and market development at SAP Concur, who was responsible for the original strategy behind SAP Business Exchange, adds: “It’s a new way of thinking about our relationship with our customers, over and above asking what can they buy from us. It’s about helping companies grow and helping our customers to be their best.”
SAP Concur can provide solutions to help your business automate finance processes, such as expenses and invoices, giving you the visibility you need to run your business more effectively – and freeing up your time and energy so you can focus on punching above your budget. To find out more, visit concur.co.uk