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As a result of the global pandemic, the six months from March to September 2020 saw more digital transformation occur than in the decade prior, according to a technology trends analysis by Forbes.
If the urgency to keep pace with the fourth industrial revolution has not kicked in yet, businesses are flirting with disruption and uncompetitiveness, says Retail Capital CEO Karl Westvig
2021 will see more of the same as rapid advancements in cloud computing, big data, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, 5G and quantum computing fundamentally change almost every aspect of our world and what we thought possible.
This has huge implications for business, says Westvig, adding that instead of trying to keep up, businesses should be proactively building the power of technology into their strategies.
This thinking is echoed in the Deloitte Tech Trends 2021 report, which poignantly asks the question: “Emerging technologies are reimagining how we organise, operate, and strategise. How can you embrace technology to augment human decision-making, rethink your workplace and customer experiences, and bolster equity initiatives?”
The trends Deloitte discusses ultimately look at how businesses can improve their strategies, reignite their core capabilities, reconfigure and reimagine supply chains, invest in technology to support operations, harness the power of data, and much more. Westvig says these trends are equally vital for small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
“In our experience, and among our client base, those that are showing the most potential are already well on their way towards embracing the strategic advantage that digitisation presents. But beyond this, looking at the pandemic and the rapid pace at which the world is evolving, failing to digitise risks making the business uncompetitive,” says Westvig.
He says, however, that all decisions to digitise need to be underpinned by a solid strategy. “There is no point in ‘going digital’ for the sake of it. An entrepreneur needs to ask a few questions. How can I improve operations and therefore efficiency? How can I improve customer experience? Can technology take over menial tasks so that the brains in my business can focus on core activities? Have we considered the true potential of e-commerce and are we able to reach customers more effectively?”
“No industry will escape digitisation, especially as consumers rely more on digital channels. Whether you run a gym, a restaurant, an accounting practice, manufacturing plant, or retail outlet, be sure that the leaders in that industry have digital transformation firmly entrenched in their business strategies and plans,” says Westvig.
He says there are various digital solutions to business challenges and SMEs are already rapidly investing in future-proofing their businesses. “We are seeing an ever-increasing uptake of funding from SMEs on our books that are investing strategically in digitisation,” he says.
Westvig shares some areas that SMEs could look at transforming in their businesses:
Cloud-based accounting software
“One of the biggest complaints from entrepreneurs is that they just don’t have the time to focus on the business of running their business because they, or their key staff, are tied up in time-consuming administration tasks,” says Westvig.
Cloud-based bookkeeping and payroll software offer an automated solution, most of which come with state of the art digital security, which frees up the time of key staff members.
Automation of processes and CRM
Various IT vendors offer services ranging from data management to real-time monitoring of business applications. “These services give business owners a bird’s-eye view of the business while the software does the actual work, red-flagging any issues in real-time,” says Westvig.
He says numerous reports in the IT sector flag human error as one of the biggest causes of business downtime, and by automating these processes, businesses can greatly reduce this risk while optimising their processes.
Any business that harvests personal data will be subject to the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) this year. “The top software-as-a-service products will come with compliance built into the way they manage data,” says Westvig.
Westvig says that one of the most exciting developments is the democratisation of technologies such as AI. Many of the automated software solutions already have a degree of AI and machine learning built into their automated processes.
However, says Westvig, increased affordability, and proliferation of newer, more competitive vendors, means that chatbots to handle queries, immediately respond to social media interest, channel and manage sales leads, among much more, are far more accessible than ever before. These chatbots can live on the website or on social media platforms.
“A chatbot can deal with exponentially more queries – even simultaneously – than a human. Imagine now shifting your human to a value-added role, where they can both upskill and grow while providing more value to both your business and your customers,” says Westvig. “This is where technology can augment, and not replace, human capital.”
Similar to the previous trend, Westvig says that smart and automated systems, which can be managed as a service reducing the need for businesses to hire expensive in-house experts, can give the business a real-time view of inventory and the sales pipeline for optimal management.
e-Commerce is no doubt a vital component of the future of commerce, says Westvig. An investment in e-commerce is more than just setting up an online store, he says.
“This is a crucial point, and the reason we at Retail Capital have built an extensive e-commerce gameplan for our customers. An investment in digital commerce involves the right platform, payment gateway, choosing to run a warehouse or to outsource warehousing, picking and packing, and deliveries. The e-commerce strategy needs to be well thought out, but is probably one of the most important investments a company can make to remain competitive,” he says.
Digital collateral and marketing
By now most people have dabbled in social media, says Westvig. “However, the potential for building a comprehensive stakeholder map and understanding the behaviour of customers is huge. Beyond this, companies are able to segment the audiences they desire and literally go to their devices with a call-to-action,” says Westvig.
“This has never been more important as we plan for a ‘cookie-free’ world, necessitating that business owners deeply understand their consumers, without the help of third-party Cookies,” says Westvig.
This is achieved with a solid social media plan, mobile-optimised website, search engine optimisation, owned content, programmatic advertising, and much more. “Entrepreneurs need to weigh the pros and cons of investing in their own digital teams versus investing in the services of specialist agencies and consultants,” he says.
The future is now
Technology enables innovation, says Westvig. “Beyond the areas, we are already seeing our customers invest in, we can rest assured that digital innovations we have not yet imagined are around the corner.
“The take-home for every entrepreneur as much of the country heads towards their financial year-end is: make sure technology and digitisation form an integral part of your business strategy for the coming year and beyond.
“Don’t do this for the sake of doing it – rather see it as the strategic advantage that can help rejuvenate and amplify your success now and when we finally get beyond the global pandemic,” he says.
Featured image: Karl Westvig, CEO and founder of Retail Capital (Supplied)