Changing the way we build relationships with small business owners during the pandemic
Telephone and digital account based marketing to SMEs is crucial to build relationships and drive retention, particularly during the pandemic
Plenty of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have it tough the last 18 months as they bore the brunt of the economic fallout of the lockdowns and other COVID-19 restrictions. As if running a small business wasn’t hard enough.
As a result, organisations that sell to SMEs have had to rethink their sales and marketing activities to this huge market. When they would normally account manage face-to-face or by just dropping in, they have had to migrate to remote channels like the phone, video conferencing and messaging.
Taking into account the financial and physical restrictions placed on their small business customers, many organisations have also pivoted to offer new products and services, or new ways of delivering value, which meet their customers’ new needs.
At TSA Group we work for plenty of organisations that sell to the SME market, including telcos, delivery service providers, publishing houses, e-commerce platforms, and SaaS providers.
Our role over the last 18 months has been to enable these brands to maintain relationships with their small business customers by offering them support through these difficult times, assisting them in using our clients’ products in the most beneficial and economical way, and where applicable promoting new offers that have been specifically designed around the way their businesses are currently operating.
While the details vary from client to client depending on their sector and product offering, the results across the board have been astonishing. Most of our clients not only retained their SME customers at a similar or better rate than pre-pandemic, but they also grew their customer base and increased the spend of existing customers.
They accomplished this by being proactive with product and operational developments to react to customers’ changing needs, such as switching to remote channels which actually proved more relevant and convenient for customers, and – above all – by being tremendously supportive and empathetic, demonstrating that they were there for their customers in times of need.
Delivering the right offers for the new reality
For almost all of our clients’ small business customers, the way they conduct their business has had to change dramatically. As plenty of commentators have said, SMEs really “took it on the chin” during the lockdowns. However, the fact is it could have been much worse. Government support and other schemes which offered assistance or relief with rent, loan repayments, and other bills helped immensely. While the business failure rate was up slightly in 2020, this has been more than compensated for by the record number of new businesses launched in the last year.
Companies that recognised the new reality their SME customers were working under have actually been able to thrive by meeting their customers’ new needs.
For example, at the start of the very first lockdown our delivery service client saw an opportunity with cafes and restaurants that had never done takeaway before, which would otherwise have to completely shut down. They put together a comprehensive offer to this segment, which included handholding them all the way through the onboarding and set up process. As these business owners were new to the takeaway business, our team helped them create their online presence on the platform, get their branding and pricing right, and organise brilliant photos of their menu items. The initiative was so successful that our client went from almost nowhere in this market to challenging the leader within the space in just a few months. Indeed, they are now a household name. Which just goes to show that extraordinary times not only present great challenges, they also deliver extraordinary opportunities.
Our major telco client was similarly proactive as its SME customers were forced to enact social distancing, shut their doors completely, or move to homeworking. Shops, for example, had to go contactless, which meant they needed wireless POS. Sales of mobile broadband subscriptions and tablets for small businesses soared as these gave them the flexibility they needed to operate from anywhere. This was particularly the case in rural Australia. Essentially, our client needed to be able to help SMEs change the way they connected with their customers or lose a significant portion of them.
Another example of pivoting came from our major publishing and broadcasting client, whose biggest sector for advertising spend was travel and tourism. The account management and sales team we run for them had to switch its attention to new sectors as the lockdowns and travel bans hit. Home office furniture and office technology such as headsets turned out to be among the sectors that plugged the revenue gap. Our e-commerce platform, in turn, saw new registrations explode as small retailers looked for new channels to market, and our team supported getting them online quickly.
Personalised account management
It’s interesting to note that in all the above cases the primary focus of the activity was not simply selling the customers more things or new services. The approach was to reach out to these existing customers – or even to entirely new customers – to offer them support and new services which helped them solve the challenges they were facing as a result of the pandemic.
Rather than selling, our agents are having genuine conversations with small business owners to understand their issues and pain points. This information gets fed back to the client who then draws up with new offers to give customers and prospects what they are asking for. It’s classic product development but enacted almost in real-time and mediated through actual customer interactions.
While clients carry out several marketing activities to promote these new offers and facilitate them digitally by allowing customers to sign up and purchase on their websites, nothing replaces the magic of a genuine human connection. The job of an SME account management team is to ensure there remains a human a touch in reach of customers; someone who will listen to them and who understands their circumstances. A crucial part is service delivery and provisioning to ensure customers aren’t kept waiting because business owners are notoriously time poor.
As the aim of this approach, which we call virtual account management or account-based marketing (ABM), is to create a bond with each customer, it should be personalised as much as possible. When there is pressure on costs, it is not always economical to employ dedicated account managers for SME customers. However, it is still possible to organise an account management or ABM function in a way that allows for the highest possible level of personalisation. For example, where possible we use our technology to connect returning customers to the same person so that they can further develop that personal connection.
Most of us started our own personal digital transformation over a decade ago. Businesses have been a little slower to adopt digital innovations such as messaging and video calling, however the pandemic changed that. E-commerce and m-commerce have exploded, and very few of us have escaped the pleasure of a Zoom or Teams business meeting.
For most SMEs, the acceleration of digitisation in the last 18 months has been a blessing. Adopting a digital strategy has been the only way for many to adapt to the realities of lockdown life while carry on doing business, whether it’s working from home or pivoting to a delivery-based model. When it comes to interacting with the type of brands we represent – the telcos, delivery companies, advertising inventory owners, and SaaS providers that enable business owners to operate – it’s great to be able to pick up a phone to talk to someone, but also digital communication channels such as SMS, WhatsApp, Messenger and webchat allow for faster and more effective transactions in some cases.
For our SaaS clients, for example, who can no longer demo their products face-to-face, jumping on a video call to do a demo has actually turned out to be a more effective solution. The conversion rate is higher than face-to-face and the cost is lower. You can gather the customer’s finance, operations, and technology people all on the call together and even do recorded demos. B2B used to be all face-to-face, and for now it’s all digital. It’s clear to us given the adoption and results experienced that this is a change that is unlikely to revert.
Having that local touch elevates customer experience
Going digital was certainly one of the pivotal indicators of success during this past year. However, for marketing to majority of the local SMEs, having a familiar voice on the other end of the phone goes a long way in lending the much-needed support and confidence. We were able to support our clients to communicate with SMEs effectively with our local Australian representatives. With this we were not only able to help our clients but also create local jobs in Australia by the virtue of ‘re-shoring’.
What the future looks like
It is often said that SMEs are the lifeblood of the economy, and indeed they are by far the largest employers. Small business owners and operators will certainly be in the vanguard of Australia’s post-pandemic economic recovery. For B2B sales organisations, SMEs will always remain a very important target market.
Given that Australia has reached its 80% vaccination targets, Jobkeeper payments for SMEs have come to an end. While this may impact the financial support provided to the SMEs, by now, most of them are in a state to bounce back from the hardships of the last year. Experts state that ‘Employment outcomes will improve’.
We believe that the lessons learnt during the pandemic – building personal relationships, giving support with no immediate sales goal in mind, creating and tailoring products and services to meet changing needs almost on-the-fly, and the increased adoption of digital channels for more convenient communication – are all here to stay.
TSA are Australia’s market leading specialists in CX consultancy and services. We are passionate about revolutionising the way brands connect with Australians. How? By combining our local expertise with the most sophisticated customer experience technology on earth, and delivering with an expert team of customer service consultants who know exactly how to help brands care for their customers.