When you’re a small business owner, your ability to adapt to the marketplace dictates whether you’ll sink or swim. You have to meet demand without losing too much money or biting off more than you can chew. Maybe that’s why so many small business owners resist adopting new technologies – especially if their business is running just fine (for now).
'I’ve found that many small business owners, once they’ve found strategies that work for them, tend to drag their feet on new technology,' Brian Carter , author and CEO of The Carter Group , told G/O Digital. 'They can mistakenly assume that since one strategy has always worked before, it will always work in the future.'
Though small business owners might be hesitant to change their ways, the world is changing quickly – and so are the expectations of customers. From customer service to data-driven advertising, consumers have new expectations about the companies they support with their hard-earned cash.
According to Forbes, consumers want to work with brands that are more accessible, easier to navigate, and customizable. Essentially, they want brick-and-mortar brands that mimic the smooth, targeted experience of online shopping.
In 2017, technology will make adapting to these new consumer expectations easier – but only if you’re ready to change the way you think about work. Here are 13 disruptive technologies that will impact small businesses this year – and how you can use them to improve the customer experience for your company.
1. Chatbots - "Hi, my name is Steve. How can I help you today?"
Sound familiar? 24/7 customer service chatbots allow companies to give their customers full-time support – without the expense associated with maintaining a full-time staff.
According to Business Insider, "More than 85% of customer interactions will be managed without a human by 2020," which means chatbots will become an expected – and acceptable – form of customer service in the next five years. Plus, the results of an Aspect Software Research study indicate that people enjoy using bots to solve their problems – instantly.
Services like Zoho and LiveChat can help you deliver automated customer service across multiple channels, track and respond to inquiries as needed, and learn from the data your customers give you.
Before settling on a new service, consider how to-
a. Integrate bot customer service with human touchpoints.
b. Train existing customer service representatives to pick up the thread of a bot interaction or monitor for accuracy.
c. Work closely with your software reps to program Artificial Intelligence that can handle common customer requests.
d. Engage with, learn from, and qualify customer leads, driving customers to make purchases.
As with introducing any new technology, you want to make sure you’re following live chat best practices , and that your entire staff is on board – especially if that staff member only speaks in 0s and 1s.
2. Wearable Tech - Whether you’re looking for a strategy to make employees more productive, or another channel for reaching your customers, wearable tech like the Apple Watch or FitBit will change how you communicate in your day-to-day business.
Companies like Amazon already use GPS trackers in their warehouses to improve the efficiency of their workers. In 2014, the CRM pros at Salesforce made their software compatible with wearable tech brands, so companies can increase the productivity of their reps on the go. And if your customers are wearing these same devices, it stands to reason you’ll have an opportunity to expand your marketing channels, too.
But the most common piece of wearable tech to impact your business might not be Google Glass or an Apple Watch. Wellness programs that use fitness trackers "are often strongly linked to companies negotiating lower rates on collective insurance policies," Chris Brauer , the director of innovations at Goldsmiths, University of London, told Bloomberg. Not a bad expense for small businesses to minimize in 2017.
With more data comes the need for increased information security, so be prepared to make an investment here,too. And if you’re going to require employees to use your tech, you should have a good reason for the data collection laid out in your contract – or expect them to opt out.
3. Internet of Things - In 2016 alone, customers spent 157 billion dollars on devices that connected, in some way, to the internet. Think wired (or wireless) cars, thermostats, security systems, and more.
And while a gadget that connected to the internet may once have been a novelty, more consumers are demanding devices that upload and receive data. Market experts are even predicting 24% annual growth in connected devices over the next five years .
Unsurprisingly, security experts are already fielding cybercriminal abuses of these new gadgets, like this vulnerable baby monitor or this hackable car. If you’re in manufacturing and trade, you’ll have to get out in front of these security concerns to make a product your customers can count on without getting their identity stolen – that doesn’t exactly promote customer loyalty.
4. Connection-as-a-Service - Big name brands like Amazon, Uber, and Airbnb have built online empires simply by providing a way for buyers and sellers to connect with one another. In Silicon Valley jargon, that’s called "people commerce," or connection-as-a-service, and it’s how startups are now receiving handsome 25% fees for their trouble.
Take the parking app Park Circa , for example. Park Circa’s users are primarily frustrated city drivers who want to access unused private parking spots, negotiate with their owners, and pay to park. The service provided by the app cuts down on the cost of parking for the driver, nets the parking spot owner income they wouldn’t otherwise have, and gives the creators of Park Circa a nice little bump, too.
Chances are, you’re not about to go out there and create an app – you already have a business model that works. According to Xero , you don’t have to be a startup to leverage the mechanisms that make "people commerce" work. Small businesses can [partner] with connection services [and] make their products more accessible via the gig economy and the delivery economy.
Maybe that means making your menu available online at GrubHub, or posting your real estate listings with Zillow or ReValu8. Whatever connection you decide to make, the aim is to increase your visibility and maximize the number of low-barrier opportunities your customers have to connect with you. That’s just good business.
5. 3-D Printing - Yesterday’s cool gadget is today’s disruptive technology. 3-D printers offer companies the ability to turn around affordable prototypes in a single day, which means everyone from tech startups to biomedical engineers will be working at a faster clip.
Take the company Spuni , which produces an easy-to-handle spoon for toddlers learning how to eat solid foods. Without a 3-D printer to decrease the time between prototype and product, Spuni might have taken years to launch a successful design. Instead, it took a fraction of the time – and money.
3-D technology also makes personalization and customization easier and more affordable for companies to offer their customers. The advisory firm Gartner, Inc . predicts that "By year-end 2017, at least seven of the world’s top 10 multichannel retailers will use 3-D printing technologies to generate custom stock orders." According to Recode.net , that could mean anything from printing your own mug or iPhone case to customizing an orthotic for your running shoes.
What does all this mean for small businesses? According to AJ Agrawal, CEO of Alumnify, it will even the playing field , especially in manufacturing and trade. Where once small businesses lacked funding or space to produce goods at the same rate as larger companies, 3-D printers offer an affordable way to scale.
Although 3-D printers are still fairly expensive, make an investment in tech and training now, so you don’t wind up eating your competitors’ dust.
6. Security Technologies - If the recent security breaches at Target or our nation’s reluctant embrace of pin and chip cards have taught us anything, it’s that small businesses – especially retailers – will have to do more to protect the privacy of their customers in the coming years.
But customers aren’t the only ones at risk of getting their information stolen – hackers are also looking for opportunities to walk away with intellectual property. "The primary concerns for [businesses] are security of customer information and intellectual property and extortion of information that can be used for financial gain," security expert Elena Kvochko explained to Entrepreneur .
The threat magnifies when you consider how many small businesses depend on cloud technology to share documents, collaborate on projects, and communicate potentially sensitive information. Without proper security measures in place, it’s all ripe for the plucking.
To counter the possibility of a data breach, make it a priority to upgrade your tech and train your staff on security protocol. Here are a few of the most important starting points-
a. Use an email encryption service like ProtonMail, or, at the very least, 2-step verification tools on Gmail.
b. Manage and change passwords frequently with tools like Dashlane or LastPass.
c. Instruct staff on best practices for reporting and avoiding email phishing scams.
d. Schedule regular sweeps for malware on all technology.
e. Research security protocols for online transactions or outsource to companies like PayPal, Due, or Stripe.
f. Create a company-wide VPN to further protect sensitive information.
g. Develop a PR and damage-control plan in case a breach occurs.
Since security tech is changing every year, making these upgrades once isn’t good enough. This is a technology you’ll have to stay on top of if you want to be truly secure.
7. Blockchain - The technology that makes Bitcoin transactions instantaneous and independently verifiable is coming for small businesses, too. Blockchain is a network – spread across public or private computers – that stores real-time records of transactions between people or companies. Because the record of the transaction is available to everyone in the network, it’s harder to commit fraud. And because the technology is spread over a vast network, the transactions work fast – much faster than bank transactions.
It’s easy to see why this tech is completely disrupting the financial industry. Purchases made with Bitcoin cut out the middleman – the banks that move money around and verify transactions. With blockchain, networks of other people and computers provide the checks and balances – not individual institutions.
So, what does this mean for small business owners? For starters, it means businesses with the ability to take payments in Bitcoin will see some financial advantages. Unlike processing credit cards, Bitcoin eliminates transaction fees. And because the virtual currency doesn’t recognize a country, you won’t have to worry about exchange rates either.
According to U.S. News & World Report, more than 100,000 businesses around the world already use Bitcoin transactions in their day-to-day for exactly these reasons. "Having money on hand is often critical to small businesses’ survival," reports Jin Wu. "Compared with credit card transactions, which can take several days to show up in merchants’ accounts, bitcoin payments can be in their electronic pockets in just a few hours."
As blockchain technology becomes more prevalent, you’ll start to see it creep into other areas of business. In the medical industry, tech experts predict networks of hospitals will use blockchain to update, verify, and patient records and diagnoses instantaneously. Experts also expect to see blockchain tech in insurance companies, education, and retail . Just imagine the business implications of no longer having to print, sign, and scan contracts.
8. Smart Payments - Consumers may not be ready to switch some – or most – of their assets over to Bitcoin, but they’re still going digital with mobile or “smart” payments like Google Wallet , Coin, and Apple Pay . According to The Guardian , "The total value in the U.S. of mobile payments…in 2013 was expected to be $37bn, up 50% from $24.7bn in 2012." And consumer use of this tech is only expected to keep growing.
While the technology may not be affordable for all small businesses to adopt, Apple and Android are nevertheless developing incentives for customers to use their tech to make payments. Starbucks seems to have figured this out faster than other retailers, says analyst Bryan Yeager ."More than 20% of their in-store transactions in the U.S. are from their mobile app, and that’s a great success story," Yeager told Fortune .
Stay competitive with bigger businesses in your industry by being more flexible with mobile payments. Upgrades to credit card terminals should make this easier, say the experts at Quickbooks. "Fortunately, if you’ve upgraded your POS systems to handle EMV chip cards as required by the Oct. 1, 2015 upgrade deadline, your POS terminal should also accept NFC-enabled digital wallets," the editors write .
As with other areas of your business where tech and payment processing collide, you’ll need to pay special attention to the security of your customers’ financial information and prepare staff to integrate payments into existing accounting processes.
9. Big Data Processing Tools - Big data is everywhere – it’s what powers the Google Analytics insights you use to study your website traffic, or how you track and learn about your customers’ preferences using CRM like Salesforce.
And, as technology advances, big data processing is getting, well, bigger. Take IBM’s Watson technology , which combines "natural language processing, hypothesis generation and evaluation, and dynamic learning," explains Daniel Burrus at Wired . Foodie magazine, Bon Appetit, used the technology to sort and cross-reference its database of recipes to come up with new dishes, and IBM has even offered incentive programs for companies to join in the fun.
While most small businesses might not have access to tech like Watson right away, you can still use the analytics and data processing abilities in your marketing tools to anticipate trends, track customer preferences, and manage your data.
And if you want to look to the future, the sophisticated app in development at North Face , which can help customers answer complex questions about their needs. What about manufacturing and trade? McKinsey & Company released a study with ten areas where big data processing will make an impact, from forecasting demand and production, to better quality management.
Pretty much any computing tool that allows you to speed up a complex but repetitive data-driven task benefits from this tech – and you benefit from the collection and analysis of that data. If you’re a fast adopter, you’ll have a leg up on competitors who don’t bother to track or analyze data. Just make sure you have a plan for how to use the information you collect, so you can fine-tune the processes that make your business tick and outsmart the competition.
10. Machine Learning/Artificial Intelligence - It might sound like the future, but machine learning has long affected how we interact with the tools on our computers. For example, Gmail’s spam filter uses a robust algorithm that identifies and sorts messages based on their content. Over time, the algorithm “learns” how to identify messages that use odd syntax, or messages that come from strange email addresses, and marks them as spam. That’s right – machine learning keeps your inbox spam-free.
According to TechCrunch.com , big retailers everywhere use this same technology to improve their online customer service. "Home Depot needs to show which bathtubs in its huge inventory will fit in someone’s weird-shaped bathroom," explains reporter Lukas Biewald . "Apple needs to show relevant apps in its app store. Intuit needs to surface a good help page when a user types in a certain tax form.' That’s why the research firm Gartner predicts investments in machine learning will only grow. Over the next year, businesses are expected to spend 3.5 trillion dollars on IT services globally – and a big portion of that is expected to fund machine learning tech.
For businesses that don’t have access to these resources, keep an eye on what startups do with machine learning tech and watch for improvements to software packages and analytics tools . Making strategic investments in individual marketing, customer management, or inventory management software with machine learning capabilities will only put you ahead of the pack.
11. Virtual Reality/Holographic Telepresence - Gamers may be gaga for VR, but expect this tech to creep quickly into other industries, too. From real estate to retail, businesses can use VR technology to enhance the experiences of their customers and make purchasing goods that much easier.
According to Fortune, "38 companies – including the New York Times, GoPro, and furniture-seller Wayfair – highlighted virtual reality as a part of their business plans." This represents a 375% increase over last year’s reports, says Reuters.
Some of these VR budgets are bound to go toward making virtual prototypes or branding products that are expensive and time-consuming to produce. For example, Six Flags used VR technology to help name their newest coaster instead of waiting to build, brand, and test their coaster on audiences in real time.
And virtual reality isn’t just for the consumer – it’s expected to impact employees, too. While we understand that "holographic telepresence" sounds very Star Wars, small businesses and workers will only benefit from technology that helps employees work remotely.
"When you’re working from home and the regional office calls a meeting, you could simply slide on your VR display to see the team in your living room, suggests Ashley Speagle at PGi , a conference call solutions company. "Meanwhile at the office, VR would break down walls and connect silos just like the open office of chance encounters trending in collaboration."
As this tech becomes more affordable, investments in remote work capabilities will only help companies cut down on costs associated with office and employee management.
12. Beacons - If there’s one piece of tech that’s easy for small businesses to invest in – and incredibly effective to boot – beacons are it.
According to a report conducted by Business Insider , beacons "directly influence[d] over 4 billion dollars worth of U.S. retail sales [in 2015] at top retailers," and the number is expected to keep growing. Beacon technology combines cell phone and GPS data to ping customers with customized offers, like 'real-time flash sales," says tech writer John Patrick Pullen at Entrepreneur . In Canada, stores have experimented with paying for customer parking, while the NBA allows some ticket-holders to upgrade to better seats at the last minute.
Trevor Longino, the head of marketing and PR for Kontakt.io, even likens the use of beacons to early website adoption. "It’s like how no one takes a company seriously if it doesn’t have a website," Longino told Pullen. "In 10 years’ time, if they don’t have a good beacon strategy, they’ll be thought of the same way."
13. Drones - What started as military-grade technology has morphed into a must-have consumer delivery vehicle. For example, the South African music festival OppiKoppi used drones to deliver beer to customers so they didn’t have to navigate the crowds. Domino’s is even experimenting with drone pizza delivery in the U.K. Drones don’t have to follow pre-existing routes (or traffic laws), making delivery faster – and more fun – for the consumer.
But drones will really make an impact on existing services that "scan, map, and gather data," says tech writer Mark Henricks . Think traffic reporters, surveyors, and even roof inspectors. "Drones offer inexpensive, safe alternatives to helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft for mapping, photography and imaging," writes Henricks at the American Express blog . He expects the technology to make these services faster, cheaper, and safer from start to finish, which is why drone spending is expected to double over the next ten years to $11.6 billion annually.
As tech becomes more affordable for small business owners, early adopters in disruptive strategies will most likely see incredible financial benefits – especially companies that are strategic about where and how they invest.
Like introducing any new system to your company, it pays to spend just as much time and effort training staff and assigning responsibility as it does to spring for an upgrade. Build the tech – and the training – into your five-year plan and your job descriptions now, so you can ride the wave to success in your company’s future.