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Following the pandemic-accelerated digital shift, what's the next step businesses will need to take to succeed if the pandemic lasts significantly longer?

Following the pandemic-accelerated digital shift, what's the next step businesses will need to take to succeed if the pandemic lasts significantly longer?

Prioritizing the customer experience, focusing on differentiation and merging front-end and back-end systems are more important than ever for SMBs, according to members of Protocol's Braintrust.

Ruslan Fazlyev

CEO at Ecwid

This spring, we saw "Main Street" migrate online. The small businesses that were able to shift online quickly and efficiently at the start of the pandemic are now in a place where they can consider their next move. Before thinking of the next big tech implementation, they need to focus on customer retention.

During the pandemic, many shoppers grew accustomed to buying online, so SMBs didn't need to convince consumers of the benefits of ecommerce. Even if a business was flooded with new customers, there's still work to be done to keep that traffic now. The cost of customer acquisition in ecommerce is very high, so consumers will need to make a couple purchases before the costs pay off.

So, what's next? SMBs have to exceed their expectations on the customer experiences. It's really the little things, and a lot of them happen offline as much as online. Think: a handwritten note thanking them for their patronage or an artful way to package shipments. Those details will convert quarantine necessities to long-term shopping habits.

As in-person shopping makes a comeback, it will be a smaller percentage of consumers' overall shopping. SMBs will need to ensure that their in-store presence is well integrated with their online store, leveraging their physical presences to help drive online traffic.

We don't know what to expect in the coming months, but it's crucial that SMBs are ready for anything. In the meantime, the focus should be on growing a loyal customer base online.

Kirsten Green

Founding Partner at Forerunner Ventures

There is no denying that the last many months have brought considerable hardship to SMBs across our country. In a moment the world changed, and business owners faced new realities that, as time wears on, have moved from being temporary to effectuating real change. Many people will highlight that the last six months have pulled forward trends tenfold. The many efforts businesses were taking to stay on pace pre-COVID-19 are arguably no longer enough.

This moment is offering a reset for companies to analyze what's truly essential to their business and how they can best create more flexibility, as flexibility is not just important today as a reaction to change, but essential as a mode in the face of an ever-faster-paced environment. Focus can offer leverage in many forms, and, in today's environment, isolating a point of need feels more important than ever. I would encourage SMB leaders to zero in on their unique value proposition and the one thing that makes them essential to their customers. They should then strive to offer, deliver and service that in a way that both stands out and supports a healthy business.

In addition, this time of flux presents an opportunity to embrace new tools and technologies that will enable greater operational efficiency and, ultimately, flexibility. The tech industry has been building products for small businesses for years, but historically, this subset of the industry has been slower to embrace the latest resources. Now is the time! Revisit the tools you are using to manage: employee hiring, training, scheduling and payroll; customer communications; inventory buying and planning; marketing spend and measurement; and beyond.

SMBs are the heartbeat of our economy, and they will continue to not just survive but thrive as they redefine their purpose and operations with an eye toward the future.

Yancey Spruill

CEO at DigitalOcean

SMBs, like all businesses, were hit very hard by this year's challenges, but the widespread availability of technology like cloud has helped many quickly adapt their businesses for the new reality. We have seen in our business that companies that have a good digital strategy have been able to mute the impact of the pandemic's economic toll on their business prospects. According to our recent survey, since the pandemic began, more than 60% of SMBs have expanded or upgraded cloud usage. If that signals one thing, it's that cloud is not only the lifeline these organizations need now, but also the competitive advantage they can leverage to help grow their businesses and power their ideas in the future.

Companies that will be successful in the future have realized the most important takeaway from this year: Building for sustainability is a must. Technology like cloud can provide the flexibility and scalability they need to accomplish this, but the onus is on leaders to take action and be "looking around the corner" at how their need to best serve their customers will evolve. Entrepreneurs should take time to step out of the day-to-day and anticipate what might be coming around the corner. Analyzing what the business is doing today that's sustainable versus what's not is the only way to ensure they are ready for anything. With a long-term sustainable strategy in place, companies can move onto what really matters:testing their innovative ideas and realizing their full potential.

Smart business leaders lead with empathy. They realize that their true purpose is to serve their key stakeholders — customers, employees and investors — and understanding the broader communities of their key stakeholders is critical as well, since it enables the success of their stakeholders.

Alex Chriss

EVP and GM at QuickBooks

Small businesses have already done so much to adapt and survive, but to get back on the path to long-term solvency, they must now fully embrace omnichannel commerce. This means selling everywhere their customers shop: online marketplaces, digital storefronts and, yes, brick-and-mortar stores. In a survey conducted by QuickBooks, we found that as many as 50% of small businesses are afraid to add another channel because of the operational complexity. Keeping track of inventory and fulfilment quickly becomes overwhelming; there just aren't enough hours in the day.

The longer the pandemic lasts, the more small businesses will have to overcome this barrier. They will need to adopt technology that manages compounding complexity. We found that 87% of small businesses that will open in the next 12 months will be online, or a combination of online and offline. And a 2019 Deloitte study confirms that small businesses with an advanced use of digital tools are more likely to experience customer growth than their less digitized peers.

The good news is that fintech companies are building the technology to help small businesses. For example, we've created QuickBooks Commerce, a central hub where small businesses can access multiple sales channels, integrate existing ones, manage orders and fulfillment, sync inventory across online and offline channels, avoid being out of stock and get profitability insights. With the right tools, small businesses can stop using pen and paper or spreadsheets to reconcile inventory, emerge stronger from this uncertain time, and finally get back to growth.

Learn more here.

Dan Lewis

CEO and Founder at Convoy Inc.

The pandemic had a massive impact on the freight economy. As we approach the end of 2020, freight companies are rightfully asking "What comes next?" Will the industry return to normal next year, with the availability of a COVID-19 vaccine, or will the world remain in a socially distant future?

It isn't possible to predict how the virus and related vaccines will play out over the coming year. Everyone wants things back to normal, but the reality is that every company must be prepared for an extended work-from-home situation, or one where we swing back and forth between multiple phases of reopening. A few thoughts on preparing for this:

First, most businesses are still focusing on ensuring things work today. We need to be looking at the next one to two years and all operational or customer scenarios to come. Will your employees be successful in those situations with their current setup, tools and resources? If some scenarios require people to be in-person, who outside of your company will be involved, and are they on board with your standards? Can you reduce or eliminate the physical person-to-person contact? Reach out to them and their companies today to plan ahead.

Second, take advantage of the openness your employees and partners have right now to digitize and reduce human handoffs and processes, to build a more efficient and safer business. Most tech-based improvements you make today to improve safety will also result in better quality, fewer mistakes and lower costs for you down the road.

Stacey Marx

President, AT&T National Business and Channels at AT&T

We're using technology now more than ever. The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation by five years and has driven 10 years' worth of digital growth in the last two to three months. When the pandemic hit, everything that could go virtual did. So businesses today are more dependent on technology to survive, grow and thrive. And now an overwhelming majority of consumers go online before buying something. A website has become the main storefront for a business — one that's open to everyone 24/7. Your website should tell customers everything they need to know about your business and provide contactless services like online-ordering capabilities and a chat function. Social media can complement that effort, driving people to either an online store or a brick-and-mortar store. Give customers a choice on how to interact with you.

Businesses should be thinking about what people need right now and what's working, then amplify it. Invest in the technology that will enable easy and simple processes for your customers, whether it's ecommerce or technology to enable ordering through an app. Make it easy for them to contact you if they have questions or need help with a purchase.

Ultimately, running a successful small- or medium-sized business continues to be about making it effortless and connecting virtually with your customers. We are now more dependent on technology for that, so the momentum we're seeing for SMBs to adopt digital tools will be here to stay long after the pandemic is over.

Glenn Weinstein

Chief Customer Officer at Twilio

From startups to the Fortune 500, organizations now have permission to innovate. COVID-19 has created an urgency to reinvent customer engagement models, breaking down barriers around approvals, budgets and bureaucracy. These conditions are clearing the path for builders: people who experiment, adapt to change quickly, and think in terms of massive scale. Every company has builders, but institutional inertia and a risk-averse preference for off-the-shelf solutions can inhibit their creativity. This is the time for builders to be heard. Their ideas and solutions are defining the new normal — a future where "custom built" means differentiated and customer-friendly.

Smart companies empower their builders, creating cultures that reward agility and creativity. They're using technology to reimagine physical interactions as digital experiences. They understand the value of quickly adapting to ever-changing customer needs and preferred channels, empowering their builders to make changes in hours or days, not months or years. They're willing to build software, and they're not afraid to modify that software in near real time. It's time to embrace a builder mentality. It's no longer a question of build vs. buy; now it's build or die.

Paul Gubbay

Chief Product Officer at Squarespace

Small businesses have no option but to continue to scale their digital operations. The pandemic has accelerated online adoption with more than 3.2 million entrepreneurs starting a new business this year, compared to 2.7 million at this time last year. As the nature of work continues to evolve, there is a greater need for online platforms that support a workforce that is increasingly more independent, either circumstantially or by choice. We're seeing many small businesses experimenting with different ways to monetize including selling their products, time and expertise online.

As these businesses shift from in-person engagement to online, it's more important than ever that they establish a credible brand while working out the logistical complexities of not only delivering their product or service, but incorporating point of sale, marketing and customer engagement tools. While there are many channels that they can utilize to reach their customers, they will ultimately need to create a one-stop destination that enables seamless front-end customer interactions and back-end logistics management, as well as the option to experiment with diverse revenue streams for long-term success. Success will be measured by how well businesses adapt to this digital landscape and move beyond the first step of setting up a way to transact with customers, to truly incorporating a comprehensive online business model for future growth.

See who's who in Protocol's Braintrust (updated Sept. 30, 2020).

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