Essential digital tools for SMEs: making the right choice

Essential digital tools for SMEs: making the right choice

Alberto Maestri Published on 7/4/2022

Web 2.0 has drastically changed people’s approach to the internet.

Social networks and digital tools have rapidly changed our social and consumer habits, one step at a time. Both new start-ups and SMEs with a long history behind them need to know how to adapt to this change and get to grips with the opportunities and risks a new digital approach entails.

The first step is to find out which digital tools are available today and how they are used within a sales context. In this article we will therefore discuss how you can improve your relationships with customers by responding to their needs, enhance how your products are promoted and hone your internal structure using technological resources, focusing in particular on communications and digital networks.

Many people believe that social media has a purely extrinsic value for SMEs – i.e. it is only useful for external communication with the public – but this is far from true.

The technology and tools on offer allow you to create internal – or intrinsic – value too. Consider, for example, the vast array of software designed for organising your business, managing workflows, staying updated and managing employees or business partners remotely without requiring a permanent office. Transitioning towards thinking digitally and dynamically may seem scary as it requires an enormous amount of time and energy, but it can lead to enormous financial and professional benefits even in the short-to-medium term.

Internal communication: the route to an efficient business

Small and medium-sized businesses have the same internal communication needs as larger companies, but they have to make do with more limited resources: they almost certainly can’t afford to hire a team dedicated to managing internal communication or to invest in a bespoke solution.

The wonders of modern technology provide a way around this resources issue – there is a multitude of tools available, each with a specific purpose. However, although these programs are extremely flexible, the main challenge is ensuring that employees are using the right tool for the right job and in the right way. With this in mind, let’s take a look together at which solutions best meet your business’ needs.

The number one essential communication tool: email

Email is still one of the most effective forms of communication within businesses, and the most time-tested (the first email was sent in 1971).

Although it may sometimes seem rather dated, it remains the most commonly used business tool. Not only does everyone who owns a computer have an email address, its scope expanded even further with the advent of smartphones. The result is an extremely high level of accessibility and reach, which have cemented its position as the most essential element for any business. The benefits have remained the same for decades:

  • Quicker and more agile dialogue between different parts of the business
  • Low management costs
  • Quick data transfer
  • Secure and low barriers to learning and use.

It is also an extremely versatile tool that can be used for anything from corporate updates, newsletters and internal surveys to planning meetings and events. One major disadvantage, however, is staying on top of it. Without careful handling of the flood of messages a business receives every day, inboxes can become your worst nightmare. It is therefore worth trying to keep your accounts organised with tags and updated contact lists so you can find the resources you need straight away.

Internal organisation means agile planning

In our ranking of vital tools for SMEs, second place undoubtedly goes to those designed to improve businesses’ internal organisation, in particular managing documents, files and invoices. The best-known and most widely used of these is Google Workspace, a group of programs provided by the tech giant for managing your business and much more besides. The package contains myriad digital tools, including:

  • Gmail: as mentioned above, a business cannot function properly without email, and Gmail expands this potential with excellent options for cataloguing, integrating and organising your conversations.
  • Drive: a single space where you can manage all your files and share documents and folders with other people, making collaborative working easier. You can create dedicated areas for a certain work team, file invoices, keep track of how a job is progressing and follow everything from any device.
  • Meet: the pandemic has significantly increased remote working opportunities. With this in mind, Google has invested a lot in its platform for organising online meetings, adding various functions to its ecosystem to make the distance between participants less and less noticeable.
  • Calendar: perhaps the most useful (and undervalued) tool for organising your business. From a single screen you can keep track of appointments, your employees’ work, slots for receiving clients and even your leisure time. You can also create sub-calendars so you can change the view whenever you need to, and timely notifications ensure you always remain up-to-date.
  • Docs, Sheets, Slides: the final tools worth a mention in this collection are the trio of programs designed for creating and managing text documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Tools that once required an annual subscription are now offered free by Google, with all the integration and sharing functions you expect from its product range.

Another key consideration is how accessible this service is. Google Workspace is available free of charge on any device up to a maximum storage limit of 15 GB. If, however, you want this collection of services to underpin your entire business, we’d advise upgrading to the Business Standard version, which offers custom email folders, 2 TB of storage space and other software in addition to the programs listed above, for £8.28 per user per month.

Two alternatives for organising your business files are Dropbox and Microsoft 365. The former is particularly useful for handling large file sizes, but less good for creating documents, while the latter is Microsoft’s software package, which can feel a bit clunky compared to Google’s. However, it depends a great deal on the individual. If you are used to dealing with Word, Excel and Powerpoint, opt for those, as they offer endless possibilities, but subscribe to a cloud storage service or an offline internal storage system with daily backups at the same time.

Project management tools to organise your workflows

Next we come to another category of tools that can improve productivity at businesses, and ensure that work is completed efficiently: project management tools. These allow you to keep track of the status of each project and work out what still needs to be done before your goal is achieved.

This type of tool helps teams to work smartly by providing a clear line of progression, but it is vital to choose the software that best suits your needs, to ensure collaborative work between internal employees and external partners runs smoothly. Here are three different options you can use, beginning with the cheapest and most basic:

  • Google Sheets: we mentioned it earlier, but Google’s spreadsheet software can also be shared between colleagues working on a project. They can interact directly with the document, with any alterations synced almost instantly. In addition, the creator of the file can choose which parts can and can’t be modified and set specific rules for participants. The major advantages of Google Sheets are that it is free and has many functions; the disadvantage is that you have to do the majority of the organisational work yourself, including creating templates and adding any automatic functions.
  • Notion: an extremely versatile and intuitive piece of software, used by companies like Pixar and Spotify. Once you have understood the few mechanisms that underpin it, you can use the numerous ready-to-use templates to create graphic or diagrammatic workflows. With Notion you can connect your team members, projects and files together on a single platform and keep track of all your business’ everyday activities. The free account is perfect for testing whether Notion is the right app for you, but the $8/month plan is ideal if you want to create the perfect collaborative environment for your business.
  • Asana: this tool allows you to group all activities in one shared space, with preset templates for organising your work. One of the main advantages is that your work can be integrated with a wide range of third-party systems, including the Google suite of programs and Dropbox. It is predominantly focused on planning, but it can also be adapted to other activities, such as managing marketing campaigns, organising interviews and agendas, handling work requests and much more. Once again, the free version is fine for testing it out, but if you want to use Asana permanently within your business, the best option is the premium plan at £9.49/month per user.

External communication tools for business success

In addition to all the internal communication tools, there are countless programs available dedicated to external relations with customers and meeting their needs.

External communication in the modern world is a challenging business, as people are surrounded by a whirlwind of information, coming in at them from all angles.

This flood of messages makes it difficult for a company to lodge itself in consumers’ minds.

Customer loyalty needs to be earned gradually over time and safeguarded jealously, because competitors are always ready to offer a better service.

It is therefore crucial to be able to make the most of new technologies and create communications that build an authentic relationship between your business and the customer. The human factor is the only element that can truly ensure customer loyalty.

But how can you achieve this? Let’s have a look at some digital communication tools that can help give your business a voice.

  1. Your website and related services: digital platforms are the new physical stores

A website is one of the most powerful communication channels available to any business. The main advantage it provides is exclusivity: once people are on your website, you are the star of the show, with no competitors or messages to distract from you.

It is just like going into a physical shop, but with one big difference: speed. We tend to lose patience much more quickly online if we can’t find what we need. It is therefore vital to provide clear information on the aim of your business, your brand and the path you want the user to follow.

This can only be obtained with significant investment in the user experience, a branch of design that focuses on improving people’s interaction with the product, in this case the website. The experience must be as natural as possible, should provide added value to the client (i.e. it should be useful) and, ideally, it should be unforgettable too. Research shows that 75% of people admit to judging the credibility of a firm based on their experience of the website. If you don’t have a website yet, it is worth setting one up as quickly as possible, because not only are you missing out on numerous possibilities, you also generating distrust in people who, once they can’t find you online, may stop looking altogether.

Another closely related tool is your Google My Business (GMB) profile, a service provided by Google to catalogue your business, localise it and provide contact information. GMB is an essential service to launch for any business, even before you’ve finished your website. Search engines are one of the key factors in whether or not people find your business, and your GMB profile will be the most obvious result that appears when people look for you. If the search references the geographical area in which you are based, Google will include you in the list and rank you depending on your proximity to the place in question and the quality of the service you offer based on your reviews.

  1. Social networks for businesses: an opportunity not to be missed

As well as managing your website, there is also social media marketing to consider: handling your company’s pages on social networks with the aim of growing your business.

You have to choose which social networks to focus on based on the characteristics of your business, because you cannot be everywhere all the time. It is better to optimise your investment and be consistently present on a few platforms.

The crucial thing when using social networks is to devise a high-quality strategy involving publishing content that creates value for consumers rather than directly pushing sales. This is known as content marketing, and involves creating stimulating content to attract customers, instead of pursuing them with the usual adverts. Basing your strategy on building authentic relationships with users will enable you to communicate effectively, acquire new potential customers and generate traffic to your website.

Choosing the platform that best suits your needs is no simple matter, especially as it will involve investing significant resources. It is therefore vital to understand the main characteristics of the different social networks and the differences between them:

  • Instagram: almost everyone is here nowadays. It is perfect for B2C (Business to Consumer) communication, and is an essential platform if your customers have an average age of below forty and if you sell goods online.
  • YouTube: use of the second-most popular search engine after Google has really taken off since the pandemic. The best content to attract users either educates them or provides entertainment, but succeeding on YouTube requires significant investment. If you want to stand out and make a name for yourself, you need to have a long-term strategy and post new content frequently, leading to huge production costs from both a creative and financial viewpoint.
  • Facebook: the largest social network in the world has over 2.5 billion users, but its reputation is diminishing over time, especially amongst younger users, who are migrating to other platforms. Its main strength is that it provides an effective way to reach the over-40s, and is best used with engaging visual content that can elicit an instant response (reactions or comments). It should also be noted that Facebook has become a ‘paid’ social network for businesses, despite being supposedly free on paper. To stand out, you need to pay to boost your content, and so reach potential customers more effectively.
  • Twitter: this platform is designed for information and discussion. Its users tend to be aged between thirty and sixty, and it is excellent for vertical B2B trends, particularly in the fields of marketing, technology and politics.
  • TikTok: what was once a rising star in the social network landscape has now consolidated its position as a leading player for the 16-24 age bracket through its use of short and entertaining videos. To reach an audience through this platform you need to create entertainment content with no direct link to the products.
  • LinkedIn: a social network that is particularly suitable for B2B, but which has recently also been opening up to B2C. Content is mostly informative and can improve a business’ online visibility by directing qualified users to its website, creating a professional network in its sector and preparing highly targeted ads.

  1. Customer service: the key to satisfied clients

Nowadays, getting customers to the purchasing stage is no longer enough.

To create a sustainable business model based on long-lasting relationships, you also need to invest in the after-sales stage, where top-notch customer service is vital.

High-quality customer service is not only the best way to ensure customers continue to like your brand, it is also important for finding new clients.

People appreciate the attention they receive, even if they have not yet bought anything. This has a positive impact on how the company is perceived, and helps to create word-of-mouth and positive reviews, validating your services and getting you known more widely.

Given these benefits, it is worth choosing the right tool to make talking to customers as human as possible, even when you’re using bots. Here are some of the leading options:

  • Zendesk: a piece of CRM (customer Relationship Management) software for SMEs dedicated to customer support and engagement. It is an all-in-one solution comprising a messaging system, a ticket service for support requests through multiple channels and data analysis on interactions to help you improve your business services. While this tool has many benefits, it is also rather expensive, with even the basic plan costing £39 per user per month.
  • WhatsApp Business: the cheapest option is definitely creating a dedicated phone number for your business with an associated WhatsApp account. The business account allows you to interact directly with customers, create a catalogue to showcase your products and create quick or automatic replies to speed up your service. One negative aspect is definitely scalability, as while you will be able to manage a certain number of clients using the app’s catalogue system, when the numbers get larger you will find it increasingly difficult to reply in enough detail to everyone and maintain a personal experience.

There are also various chatbot systems you can connect to your website and social networks. I would definitely recommend ManyChat for the quality of the service provided and its excellent integration with social media, websites and additional messaging tools such as email and text messages. You can test out ManyChat free up to a maximum of 1000 contacts, while the pro version starts from $15 a month, with the price rising depending on the number of contacts.

Choosing the right tools for your company will ensure your business is sustainable and profitable. Don’t hang about, however: according to a recent European Union report on SMEs, only 17% of small businesses have successfully integrated digital technologies into their operations, compared to 54% of large enterprises. Most significantly, they are not taking advantage of the information they possess or that they are allowing to escape.

Data is the lifeblood of any digital business, and you need a mindset based on innovation and constant training if you are to make best use of the tools available and grow your business.