Small businesses invented personal, connection-based commerce ages ago with close relationships with local consumers. Today's challenge is maintaining that small-business intimacy while growing, translating it to the Web experience, and competing with mega-brands that have more tools to make digital connections with consumers.
Luckily, consumer trends are in the small business operators' corner and both small and midsized businesses will make big gains next year in customer service and connection by being more...
...Mobile. SMBs are going more mobile all the time. More than 25 percent of very small businesses do half or most of their work on the go via mobile phones or tablets, a 2015 survey by LivePerson found. That percentage was up sharply from two years ago. Even so, nearly eight in 10 small businesses still don't have mobile solutions or apps, a survey earlier this year by Endurance International Group found. That will change in a big way this coming year.
...Messaging-focused. Consumers are heavily mobile in connectivity, but just because they have their phones in their hands does not mean they're ready to make phone calls. Instead, the hottest thing in mobile is messaging apps, which put the human back into digital communications. Messaging and chat also enable greater flexibility in the SMB world. You can handle chats from your desk while you're working, but let's be honest, you have a business to run and places to be. So, you can also take chats from your mobile, with less time commitment than a phone call or email chain and less cost. A recent Aberdeen Group report shows businesses that use messaging enjoy a 23 percent lower cost to serve their clientele and are 24 percent more likely to improve customer satisfaction.
...Respectful. Communicating with customers the same way they connect with friends and family is a start toward a meaningful connection. Most big companies haven't yet turned messaging into a connection opportunity with consumers. Instead, many are still invested in expensive toll-free call centers that put consumers on hold much of the time. SMBs can skip the investmentin toll-free call centers for customer service and leapfrog straight to one-to-one communication via messaging. Messaging is asynchronous communication, and consumers can engage and respond on their time. No one gets left on hold.
...Smart. Messaging and chat are smarter than any other communication tool. If an employee takes a call from a disgruntled or overjoyed customer, chances are the communication ends when that employee puts down the phone. Sure, she might turn to a boss or coworker and repeat the information, but it is simply too hard to quantify what goes on over the phone. Moving communication to text allows for easy insights. Chat analytics can also tell you where your customer pain points are so you can fix them before the problem arises again—or your disgruntled customer turns his gripe into a rant on social media. If a customer complaint makes it to social media, you've missed one opportunity, but don't miss another one. Engage that customer on a more private channel, like chat.
...Personal. It might be hard to imagine small businesses being more personal than they already are. However, the growth of social media has vastly expanded the flow of information, ideas, and moments between friends, colleagues, communities, and even far-flung folks with common interests. If you're the owner of a local restaurant or an online hobby shop for archery enthusiasts, you've got all kinds of social media opportunities to grow your network and personally connect with customers. If a customer doesn't want to connect, she won't. Others might. Word-of-mouth has always been a key way for small businesses to grow. Now, that megaphone has moved to social media, and it is more powerful than ever.
Tom Byun is general manager and senior vice president of the Global Small Business division of LivePerson.