The digital transformation series we launched near the start of 2021 has looked at industries from travel and hospitality to banking and finance, retail, construction sports, healthcare, education and even operations in the public sector.

Some were shown as ahead of the game when it came to digital transformation. Others lagged behind. But all were shown to be better off adapting to a digital future.

However, when it comes to the sheer number of individual businesses, no category is larger or more diverse than the label of ‘small to medium enterprises’ (SMEs).

Why should SMEs go digital?

Digital transformation can streamline working processes, increase efficiencies, simplify collaboration, and open avenues to new markets. Put simply, going digital can be an immensely lucrative growth strategy for SMEs.

It’s also a huge point of difference if you do it well. SMEs with under 250 employees make up an enormous 99.9% of the UK’s businesses, with roughly 5.59 million of them spread across every sector imaginable and an average turnover of over £750,000 per business. Yet such are the challenges of starting and growing an SME that digital transformation has traditionally been typically low down the priority list. Those that invest and get it right can stand out from the crowd and offer a market-leading proposition to customers.

Of course, as with other sectors, digital adoption accelerated drastically for many SMEs in 2020 with the advent of the global pandemic. In one survey, 75% of smaller firms in the United Kingdom reported moving to remote working, and around a third invested in new digital capabilities. Worldwide, some 70% of SMEs increased their use of digital tech following Covid-19, with 55% of Brazilian SMEs recognising that the shift brought improvements to customer relationships, process agility and even customer acquisition. In Canada, meanwhile, 72% of surveyed SMEs said they believe e-commerce (the ability to sell online) is now a fundamental necessity for running a successful business.

It’s therefore clear that digital transformation is something all SMEs should be looking into and investing in. However, with the rapid upswing in digital adoption comes a host of problems smaller businesses can encounter at every stage of digital transformation.

Barriers to digital transformation for SMEs

Despite the importance of going digital for SMEs, the blockers to a digital future can be prohibitive. Thankfully, they aren’t insurmountable.

The skills gap

This can be a case of “you don’t know what you don’t know.” While larger companies often have a lot of resources to use in researching and developing innovative solutions, smaller companies can struggle to identify the digital solutions that can help them solve their problems. Even if they do, SMEs typically run lean, with smaller teams where people wear more hats and take on a wider array of responsibilities. That can make the task of upskilling people in new technologies, while still staying productive, a tricky proposition.

The answer lies in SMEs looking to the future; taking time to understand their place in the market and how they need their business to grow to stay competitive. When the ‘could’ behind digital transformation becomes a ‘must,’ that can be the tipping point.

Finances

The digital transformation of SMEs can also be curtailed by an inability to secure suitable financing. This can be especially true when a smaller company wants to invest in digital to get ahead of the competition, but struggles to define a tangible return on investment, leading to banks being unwilling to offer loans.

One answer here could be to use software as a service (SaaS) providers whose monthly fees and lack of up-front costs can make the transition much more affordable. Where investment is required, however, defining a detailed business plan to show short, medium and longer-term benefits of going digital can make all the difference. There are also government-backed schemes that can help. (More on those in the quick wins below).

Broadband infrastructure

Finally, the ability to access consistent high-speed broadband can be a significant blocker to the digital transformation of SMEs. This is admittedly less of a problem in the UK than in some other countries, but smaller businesses with international arms – or with clients who work in less digitally prepared countries – could experience issues with working on less-than-optimal networks.

On the plus side…

One notable plus point for SMEs looking to digitally transform is that many of the barriers to typical to larger companies are often less of a factor. Having fewer employees means more agile company cultures and less investment in legacy systems. Security, meanwhile, can actually be enhanced for SMEs when moving to a digital future – especially when working with the right digital partner who will handle your security needs for you.

Digital transformation quick wins for SMEs

In our experience, the entry point for helping SMEs adopt digital technology is often in administration and marketing functions.

The former can lead to significant efficiency benefits, which in turn can lead to the business being able to take on more work – a notable plus when it comes to putting together a funding proposal.

The latter, meanwhile, can allow businesses to build a customer list, grow their reach, and acquire new customers through digital campaigns encompassing email, social media, blogging and multimedia content. It can also allow SMEs to track customer behaviour through analytics tools built into sophisticated customer relationship management (CRM) systems – something we at DCSL GuideSmiths have extensive expertise in.

Whichever avenue you decide to use to grow your SME digitally, it’s important to note that government help is available. The digital arm of the £520m Help To Grow scheme has been set up expressly to help companies with between five and 249 employees save up to 50% off the cost of technology packages. So there really has never been a better time to take your SME forward.

Now is the time for SMEs to go digital

In an incredibly competitive commercial landscape, digital transformation for SMEs offers significant growth opportunities and a way to differentiate your business. That, coupled with readily available funding opportunities, and a post-pandemic working culture that demands a more digital flexible approach, means that now is truly the time for SMEs to go digital.

If you’ve read this post and are ready to take that step – we can help. We’ve delivered projects that have helped SMEs bridge the technology gap, improve efficiencies, provide better services to customers, and even empower their staff to work flexibly from anywhere in the world.

To find out more, visit our SMEs page, then get in touch to find out how we can help you.