An introduction to understanding what digital tools or support your business needs

There is a wild array of digital tools, services and tech available to small and medium-size businesses in the UK. This degree of choice is great – but it can be tricky to know what’s right for you and your business.

Adoption of digital tools among small businesses is widespread. Research from Deloitte found that 99 per cent of SMEs appear to use at least one digital tool. But “use” and “adoption” is just the beginning.

Research from the European Commission shows that 75 per cent of people view digital technologies positively and 67 per cent say digitisation has improved the quality of their lives; consumers want more digital services and offerings.

To meet this demand, businesses should consider operations and how to integrate the right digital tools and support. You don’t need to invest in every new gimmick on the market. Only get what’s right for you. This guide will help you decide on what’s appropriate.

Once you've read this guide, visit our dedicated action plan to take the next steps forward.

What contributing factors affect your choice of digital tools?

Consumer demand

Making customers happy is your bread and butter. For all the mystification that happens around the best way to run a business, the central aim is to sell.

So the question of what your consumers (and, crucially, what your ideal consumers) want should be front and centre. Trends are angling towards consumers buying more online, for instance. A bullish prediction by the ecommerce giant Ocado says this trend is “irreversible”.

That’s a helpful starting point, but you need to be more focused on your customer base. Consumer trends and behaviour are erratic – just consider the remarkable resurgence in record sales. So, don’t just go for trends, look at what your customers are actually doing and then consider what they’ll need.

What employees need

The digital camera was invented in 1973 by a 24 year-old Kodak employee named Steve Sasson. When he showed executives his crudely put together camera, the response was tepid. Years later, Kodak’s business model was destroyed by its own overlooked invention.

The point of Sasson’s story is that employees will often show us the way forward. Innovation is often seen as top down – but frequently it comes from the ground up.

Workers are what keeps the business ticking and they are intimately familiar with the company’s pain points and where improvements to processes can be made. And addressing employee concerns and needs with the right tech will speed up adoption.

Unforeseen events

Unforeseen events happen in business all the time. Whether it’s a global pandemic or the classic fire or flood. Consider how these interruptions affect you and what technology is required for continuity.

Do you have the capacity to shift to digital or remote services if needed? And if you do, employees need to be aware of this capacity and trained to use it properly.

Will Crawford, Concrete Canvas

Handing over control was a rewarding experience for Will Crawford

“Handing over control and delegating is hard, but once you’ve made that leap it’s fantastically liberating.”

Will Crawford, founder of Concrete Canvas

The cold hard facts

According to Salesforce Research, 63 per cent of consumers expect businesses to know their unique needs and expectations. This is even higher among B2B clients (76 per cent). This means any tech you implement should be squarely aimed at satisfying these needs.

Not sure what clients want or need? Surveys are an old-school but effective way to gather customer input. And, what’s more, customers appreciate them too. According to research from Microsoft, 89 per cent of consumers want companies to ask them for input.

Common mistakes when choosing digital tools

Rushing into new tech

No one business is alike. And yet, many businesses rush into trying new technology or using tools just because they’ve worked for a peer. Yes, peer feedback is important – but don’t get swept up by a single or a few good reports.

It’s important to plan what’s right for your business before you invest. Speaking to peers is valuable and that’s a good place to start. Alongside this, you should speak to your leadership team, employees and, if at all possible, some clients.

Just because new technology is exciting, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for you.

Not identifying your goal and needs first

Many small business leaders told us how they went about searching for or implementing a product or service before they had taken the time to fully understand what their needs were.

By getting to the root of the problem being solved, the process of choosing and finding the right resource, tool or person becomes easier.

Not thinking of the user

You simply can't design or implement any tool unless you understand the people who will be using it. You might think you know your employees – but “thinking” or “assuming” is no replacement for talking to them directly.

When trying to identify which tools will solve the business’s needs, the opinions of employees should be front of mind. When user needs are considered earlier in the process, it’ll make buy-in and usage much simpler later on.

Bethany Koby

Aligning her team around a common goal helped Bethany Koby to prioritise

“We wanted to align our teams around common goals, KPIs and the work that needed to be done. It was important to choose a way that was transparent and allowed for ownership, autonomy, accountability and ensured clear prioritisation.”

Bethany Koby, CEO of Tech Will Save Us

The cold hard facts

When scoping out any digital tools, start from the base: the people who have to use and live with the technology. Sometimes businesses are guilty of trying to put a square peg in a round hole. This ruins the customer’s experience and that costs you – bad user experiences cost businesses around £170 per customer.

Quick wins for identifying the right tools for you

Measure capacity and readiness

Be honest about your capacity. The sales pitch for a new tool or product will always be spectacular. But instead of getting over-excited, project the product onto your business.

It’s not just about what a tool can do – it’s also about what you and your business can leverage.

Technology doesn’t provide value autonomously. Ambitious implementations often fail because the dream is misaligned with reality.

Define your core goals and needs

Before even starting your hunt for new tools, clearly articulate what it is that you are trying to do. Once you know what the issues that need addressing are, you can set out and start seeking ways to solve them.

Take your time (if you have it)

If you have the time, take it. Research is key. Speak to your peers, competitors and market experts and find resources that explain solutions in layman’s terms.

Particularly when technical information is explained, take time to clearly understand the tool’s intimate workings and value.

Business leaders (or implementation leads) must be able to clearly explain these things to others during rollout. Remember, successful technological change is as much about helping people adapt to new ways of working as it is about having the right tech.

“In the past we probably said, 'How are you today', and the answer is 'I'm fine', but it doesn't really answer the question or get down to how you are actually feeling. So that was when we turned to technology."

Joe Thomas, co-founder of Wondervision

The cold hard facts

Contrary to popular belief, SMEs are innovative. According to the UK government, over a third of SMEs (37 per cent) are “innovation active”. The issue, then, isn’t a lack of innovation. Instead, it’s about what the innovation is focused on and how it’s applied across the business.