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Report Gives Before and After View of How the Crisis Changed Small Business Priorities The data from Salesforce was collected in March and August of 2020.

By John Boitnott Edited by Jessica Thomas

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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The push to move from paper to digital business processes has accelerated over the last several years due in part to customer expectations. Companies also began to better understand the urgent need to lower costs and improve customer experiences. Yet many companies have also hesitated, unsure about how to undertake digital transformation.

According to a just-released annual business trends report by Salesforce, the events of 2020 sped up that transformation. CEOs and leadership teams made drastic shifts in everything from office sanitation and design to remote customer interaction.

Related: Keep These 7 Strategies in Mind as You Reopen Your Business

Perspective and priorities

The report surveyed more than 2,300 small and medium business leaders from around the world at two different times — March and August of 2020. It provides a kind of "before and after" picture of the effects of the current health crisis on businesses and their priorities.

Some of the key findings include:

  • A roughly 30 percent increase in the number of small and medium business owners who said it had become a challenge to "plan for the long term" future of their business (21 percent in March and 28 percent in August).

  • 21 percent more business owners said they found it a greater challenge to "personalize customer engagements" (38 percent in March and 46 percent in August).

  • An 11 percent increase in the number of leaders who said they're now "engaging customers on their preferred channels" more than they had been.

  • 1 in 5 small or medium business owners said they began implementing at least one of the following tools in the past six months: customer service software, email marketing platforms, ecommerce tools or team collaboration software.

These trends sped up among businesses that had already prioritized innovation, says Enrique Ortegon, SVP of small and medium businesses North America for Salesforce. "Personalizing customer engagement and continuing to stay connected with their customers in a world where there is not the same level of physical access to customers is a big priority for small businesses now," he says. "So, the question for them is how do they develop and provide a connected experience with their customers in a digital world?"

Related: Why You Should Speed Up Your Digital Transformation During the Crisis

Small businesses adapt due to the health crisis

Whether it's HR, office design, customer experience management, marketing or ecommerce, small businesses are pushing forward with digital transformation and other changes. Here are some of the key ways they're doing that.

1. Responding to public health mandates

Worker and customer safety rose to the forefront in the last several months. In early 2020 these issues were barely relevant compared to how important they are now. Sanitation and social distancing in particular have become top areas of concern.

"It's very important to small businesses that they understand the local public health mandates so they know how to respond to them," Ortegon says. "This includes coming up with options to deliver their services in a contactless way. Many businesses are struggling to determine how to design their physical spaces to make sure they're maintaining social distancing."

2. Personalized customer experiences

Now more than ever, providing for a positive, personalized customer experience is vital to every small business' bottom line. Part of what encourages loyalty is the close-knit feeling customers have with your brand, your products or even just the staff in your store. During the health crisis, many small businesses discovered they need to rely on that goodwill in order to keep revenue stable.

3. Workforce management

One place companies started their digital transformation is in their HR departments. This area plays a key role in addressing remote work environments, including policies and procedures, people management, payment coordination with accounting, and onboarding and training.

Introducing new workforce management software can be the first step toward a digital transformation that emphasizes connectivity and communication across digital channels.

Related: How to Onboard Employees in the Midst of a Crisis

4. Identifying your company's unique needs

Although bringing in new software can certainly help, every organization has different requirements. Rather than buy and use anything and everything, identify what you need and the technology that fits your situation.

Several months back it might have been easy to talk across the aisle or over the desk in your office, but now businesses need to invest in technologies that let them communicate online. Moreover, ecommerce and online ordering is something more and more small and medium businesses are now required to offer if they want to stay afloat.

"This can be [anything] from how you order your coffee or your food before you pick it up, to how you order things, to how you choose your favorite provider," Ortegon says. "It involves the whole ordering placement and fulfillment process. We've seen CRM usage increase 24 percent since last year because now businesses that are not operating in a physical place need to have a digital record of customers."

Related: 7 Ways Technology Is Working to Address a World in Crisis

5. Focus on a centralized platform

Taking a centralized approach to your digital transformation offers an integration strategy to help build out more digital processes over time. According to the Salesforce report, small and medium businesses have begun using fewer apps. Seventy-two percent said they believe that one centralized application to manage their business functions is more helpful.

For example, as remote work increased, companies looked for collaborative platforms that offer a suite of tools. Two well-known platforms are Google's G Suite, which includes Gmail, Docs, Drive, Hangouts and Calendar, and Office 365 from Microsoft, with Word, Excel, Teams, Outlook and OneDrive.

Both platforms show the potential for companies seeking to connect their team members and move work online. This centralized model can anchor the transformation to a digital workplace, including the ability to manage data and digitize critical business functions. From there, you can add tools that integrate with your central hub platform as you continue to evolve into a digital organization.

True digital transformation

The world, the general business environment, and your customers' expectations are changing even faster than before and in unexpected ways. For companies of all sizes across all industries, digital transformation isn't a matter of if, but rather when — or more accurately, how soon.

Despite the need for a rapid response to address legacy software and outdated processes, a complete digital transformation still requires a long-term operational commitment to change from leaders as well as the existing company culture.

Related: 4 Key Steps to Motivate Employees to Finish Work Projects

John Boitnott

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® VIP

Journalist, Digital Media Consultant and Investor

John Boitnott is a longtime digital media consultant and journalist living in San Francisco. He's written for Venturebeat, USA Today and FastCompany.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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