small businesses

Without question, this year has been especially tough on small businesses. Unlike major enterprises, many small businesses were unable to simply transfer their operations to a remote environment. In the early days of the pandemic, that meant many faced temporary closures due to safety concerns that eventually led to numerous – nearly 100,000 as of September – shuttering operations for good.

But as we navigated this year alongside small organizations, one commonality emerged – small businesses learned to do business differently. Though small businesses are built on deeper personal connections and local flair, they are beginning to transform and provide a more virtual and online experience. Restaurants are embracing curbside, takeout and delivery. Boutiques are diving into e-commerce. Small offices went remote to protect their employees. Small business digital transformation is evolving faster than we ever thought possible.

To compete in a COVID-19 world, businesses that found digital ways to conduct business were better off than those that solely operate on point-of-presence. However, shifting to online isn’t necessarily easy. The technology, connectivity and security measures required to operate online can feel daunting for many SMBs.

Making the leap toward digital doesn’t have to be a free fall. Here’s what small business leaders need to know about embracing digital and what they can expect in the New Year.

Don’t Call It a Snap Back

While the “new normal” has been a term tossed around for months now, I’d say that the novelty has worn off. People are used to working from home, using contactless payments and bypassing in-store lines with curbside pick-up. These digital concepts are no longer new ‒ they’re just normal. And once post-pandemic, things likely won’t snap back to the “old normal”.

To be competitive in 2021, small businesses must view many of these shifts as lasting changes. The expectation of both customers and employees has evolved in many ways, primarily since they’ve discovered what your business is capable of. They’ve seen you can manage an e-commerce website or accommodate work-from-home. And while they may enjoy the in-person experience your business offers, keeping a digital footprint will go a long way in capturing your target audiences wherever they need you.

What Tech You Really Need

For small businesses across all industries to remain competitive in the year ahead, it will be key to continue building business models and the IT infrastructures conducive to both online and point-of-presence. Of SMB owners surveyed by Parks Associates earlier this year, one-third said they’d already increased spending in their IT stack. Here are a few top priorities to consider:

First, robust connectivity is crucial. Many small businesses operate on smaller internet bandwidth, speed and data storage that was adequate pre-pandemic, and some had not yet embraced the cloud. The level of connectivity and storage required to run a variety of digital functions – work-from-home, e-commerce, buy-online-pick-up-in store (BOPIS), virtual meetings, etc. – is higher. Without investing in the right size for your business, executing these functions will be tough, if not nearly impossible.

Second, customer accessible Wi-Fi is now a must for many SMBs. In the 2019 Consumer Pulse on Small Businesses survey, we found Wi-Fi was already at the top of the list for many shoppers (40%) when asked what technology could enhance their CX. And in the midst of a pandemic, complimentary Wi-Fi has taken on a whole new form. For example, some restaurants now ask diners to access their menu online via QR code and, in exchange, offer free Wi-Fi to do so. Additionally, many remote employees are looking to safely get outside of their homes to work, which provides an opportunity for local coffee shops to capture overflow from large chains. What was once a take-it-or-leave-it benefit is now a necessity for business, and SMBs should take such offerings into account when evaluating their current internet coverage.

And the final, and possibly most critical, leg of this stool is data security. As your employees may be managing operations from home, answering emails, accessing your servers from home offices, improving your network security and threat detection should be a high priority.

In the same 2020 survey of small business owners, 52% of SMBs reported concern about cybersecurity of employees’ home networks. Whether employees work from home on their own networks or customers now log in from the patio, these reconfigurations all require higher levels of security. Protecting your data, your customers’ data and your employees’ data are going to be top-of-mind in 2021.

Don’t Go It Alone

If the thought of managing all of that IT infrastructure brings up nervousness, confusion or stress – you’re not alone. A strong internet and voice provider partner can help you determine your IT toolbox requirements based on your business’ unique needs. And further, I recommend small business owners explore managed-service packages so the experts can navigate technology stacks while you focus on your business.

Many of the trends we saw this year are likely to continue into 2021 and evolve even further as we eventually enter a post-pandemic world. Ensure that your on- and off-premise connectivity solutions are prepared to power your operations and bring your small business into the digital age. Focus on robust connectivity, customer Wi-Fi and enhanced security – and don’t forget that top providers can help you tackle the challenge with managed and unified services. Regardless of what next year throws at us, if you can survive 2020, then anything is possible.

Keith Holmes is the Executive Vice President at Cox Business

Small businesses and security stock photo by Monthira/Shutterstock