Work smarter, not harder: The epic digital transformation of small business

Small businesses have new and improved tools to help them succeed

by Mo Katibeh, Chief Marketing Officer, AT&T Business

From my first job as a teenager working in my parents restaurant, to my role as CMO of AT&T Business, I’ve been amazed by the technology that’s become available to help small business owners drive better customer experiences.

The goals haven’t changed; small businesses still need to drive revenue and take out costs, while creating a personal customer experience – but the tools certainly have. My parents recently retired and closed their sandwich shop, but as I think about how current technology could have helped improve their business, there are four areas that really stand out to me.

1. Mobility

Back in the day, we literally had a cash register that had over a hundred buttons on it for various combinations of things we would sell. We had to manually punch in various combinations, one at a time, and even occasionally manually figure out the tax while the customer waited patiently. But today, there are amazing mobile point-of-sale solutions that have fully streamlined the check-out experience – and even remember key customer details.

Mobility has also transformed inventory. There would be days when we would have a rush and could run out of something customers wanted. Now, you can keep track of supplies in near-real time with apps and IoT smart sensors, so that when things are taken off the shelf in the back, it auto-updates the inventory. There’s no second-guessing on how much you’ve used and you’ll get better insights into seasonality and use, so you can dial up and down your inventory as needed.

Another one is that when the phone rang, we had to be there to answer. Today, when a call comes in, it can ring on multiple devices, on desk phones and mobile phones, and even a phone line you may have at home. So if someone isn’t at the premise at any given time, that call rings right on through to wherever they are.

2. On-Premise Solutions

I remember when we changed the promotions on our menu, which was fairly often, I literally had to climb up a ladder and manually change the board. Now you can have fully-integrated digital signage, so you can update by time of day, day of the week, seasons, customer preferences or special promotions. One of our stores was in a neighborhood where we had a lot of Hispanic traffic on the weekends. Today, with connected digital signage, we could change the language of the menu to Spanish and flip back to English during the week.

Connected devices, such as in-store kiosks and cloud-based services have transformed businesses, too. A research study by Parks Associates shows that 30% of small businesses with 5-9 employees are using at least one smart device to improve efficiency.

And then there’s business Wi-Fi. I can’t even fathom what it would have been like back in the early 90’s to have Wi-Fi at all, much less the sophistication of today’s business Wi-Fi. By allowing customers to connect to your guest Wi-Fi, you can provide a needed service and learn a lot about their preferences so you can better market to them in the future. Re-enter digital signage! Seamless ‘single pane of glass’ portal experiences also allow you to monitor bandwidth needs and upgrade as necessary, and even spot trends across multiple locations as your business grows.

3. Connectivity

In the early days, our most powerful tool to enhance the customer experience was a smile and a kind word. I don’t dispute that this is still our No. 1 tool, especially for brick-and-mortar businesses. But today, there are additional ways to impress guests, such as access to high-speed internet within the store, and apps that can sense the customer’s presence and serve information.

And, with the advent of business Wi-Fi, you’re able to use Software-Defined Wide-Area Network (SD-WAN) technology to bring in dual-connectivity – giving business owners the ability to dynamically allocate bandwidth and separate back-office data for additional protection. If at lunchtime you’ve got a rush, and wanted to allocate both circuits to customers, now, you can. Then in the afternoon, you can go back to equally distributing the bandwidth between the front and back office.

4. Cybersecurity

Who protected our business back then? A lock on the door. But now you have to protect yourselves from threats that we couldn’t have imagined when I was a teen.

Small businesses are very attractive targets for cybercrime because they often lack the structure, resources, and expertise to fend off attacks. And because an attack is so devastating to a small business, it’s important to employ complete cybersecurity protection.

So whether it’s premise-based firewalls, or simple secure email gateway solutions to ensure you don’t accidentally open malware that’s attached to the emails you receive, and cyber tools for your mobile devices, there are simple ways to help you protect yourselves or manage your security services.

What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and tell my parents what the future would hold. How today, we’d be able to work smarter, not harder, and that we’d be continually finding efficiencies and enhancing our customers’ experience while protecting the livelihood we worked so hard to build. I would just need to make sure not to tell my dad while he’s taking inventory, or he’d have to start counting all over again!

Here’s to a successful Small Business Week for all.