5 ways small businesses can thrive into the future

(BPT) - For the past year, the pandemic has disrupted the world - and small businesses are no exception. While navigating challenges, many small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) discovered keys not only to survival, but to adapting and thriving. New research reveals what SMBs need to weather today's hardships - and future challenges.

Here are the top areas SMBs need to focus on.

1. Boost cybersecurity with smarter technology

Technology company Lenovo's "Future of Work and Transformation Study" shows that while companies experienced a learning curve moving employees to remote work, businesses are leveraging smarter technology to increase IT security and empower employee productivity.

All companies have had to respond to the need for increased IT security and support for employees relying on home Wi-Fi networks. Employees using remotely-connected cloud and collaboration tools from their laptops or other devices on home Wi-Fi networks may increase the risk to data security, putting increased strain on IT department resources.

Lenovo's study found that although most SMBs subscribe to an IT security service, data security and compliance management remains a burden. Fortunately, most businesses recognized the need early, and 80% of them built strategies to keep things running, including plans for data security and redundancy. About 45% of businesses reported having cloud-based data backup, 39% had physical data backup and 39% provided data security training.

Businesses may want to consider always-connected PCs with integrated LTE or 5G to offer employees freedom from reliance on unstable and potentially unsecure home Wi-Fi networks to increase connectivity speed and security. Smarter devices, services and software that can self-diagnose and pre-empt security vulnerabilities are also emerging technology solutions that can help SMBs that lack a robust IT support team to better manage their remote workforce.

"In today's climate, businesses need reliable technology partners to boost digital transformation initiatives," said Eric Yu, SVP and GM of the SMB Segment, Intelligent Devices Group, Lenovo. "With the right partner, any size business can manage their hardware, software and services to maximize employee experience and enhance productivity and security."

2. Ensure employees have the necessary tools

While many businesses played catch-up to ensure employees had the right tools to successfully work from home, others still don't have the right infrastructure for remote staff - which will likely continue to be essential to businesses.

The study found that cloud collaboration and software tools for videocalls and simultaneous document collaboration are essential for 97% of employees. Almost two-thirds of survey respondents also said these tools improved their productivity and efficiency.

Now is a good time to assess what technological tools your employees need, so you'll be ready for whatever the future holds.

3. Meet consumer demand for omnichannel ordering

Since lockdowns began, eCommerce and online ordering has increased dramatically - for everything from sporting goods and retail apparel to housewares and takeout meals. While some businesses - whether independent retailers or restaurants - have gone online for the first time, others worked to optimize their existing online ordering systems, taking into consideration order flow, packaging, delivery systems and end-user experience.

Through this disruptive period, retailers have had the opportunity to get more creative and innovative in terms of how they are reaching their customers. Adopting eCommerce and having an online presence is no longer a "nice to have," but a "must have" - and going forward, both retailers and restaurateurs will need to continue to perfect the omnichannel experience (unifying their physical and digital operations) by creating an integrated and cohesive customer experience, no matter how or where a customer reaches out.

Consumer behavior has quickly changed in surprising ways. Data from a recent study by Lightspeed, a leading provider of cloud-based, omnichannel commerce platforms, shows how online ordering for restaurants in large suburbs grew by a whopping 3,868% between February and April 2020, as commuter patterns changed and restaurants identified opportunities outside urban centers.

Having an efficient, safe, user-friendly eCommerce system is not only crucial when customers can't come inside your brick-and-mortar business, it's essential to provide more convenience and options for whatever customers are looking for. In both the retail and hospitality industries, consumer appetite for online ordering is here to stay. In fact, a recent study from Google showed that 61% of shoppers prefer an omnichannel experience that unifies the physical and digital shopping experience, with the ability to order online at their convenience and shop in-person when they need an item immediately.

4. Diversify revenue streams and shore up supply chains

In an unpredictable economy, it's important to make sure the entirety of your business is as resilient and flexible as possible. Many restaurants from the Lightspeed study added new merchandise, subscription boxes, to-go beverages gift cards, online classes and donation options to their online ordering menus, with great success. These are tactics that restaurants powered by Lightspeed in economies such as Australia and New Zealand maintained even after diners enthusiastically returned to indoor dining.

"Small and medium-sized businesses are the backbone of the global economy. Their ability to creatively navigate this past year demonstrates both their resilience and the crucial role they will play in reigniting communities through commerce as lockdowns are lifted," said Dax Dasilva, CEO of Lightspeed. "Independent businesses who have moved to seamlessly unite their digital and physical operations are poised to thrive."

5. Leverage social media to grow community

Lightspeed believes that commerce ignites community and the company's recent study also found restaurants that were able to grow their revenue by more than 100% in 2020 maintained a robust social media presence and marketing strategy to connect with local neighborhood diners. These thriving restaurateurs found ways to give back, reward customer loyalty and partner with other local businesses to build a broader customer base. They identified ways to utilize local media for outreach and responded to every customer review to ensure their online reputation kept new guests coming in. These are key tactics for any entrepreneur.

For independent businesses, surviving - and thriving - despite daunting challenges requires agility, plus the know-how to leverage all available technology tools.

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