Recently I spent a fascinating behind-the-scenes day on the Microsoft campus. There, I was given a glimpse into the future of small business, into the future of your small business, and left with what I consider to be four truths that are not only going to shape the way you and I see and do business for the foreseeable future, they are shaping the way we have to do business now, today.
Before I share what these truths are, I have to say that between meeting with David Smith, the worldwide VP for small and medium business, as well as the experts in Microsoft’s AI unit (Artificial Intelligence), the pros of Surface Pro, and the coolest geek ever who runs Microsoft’s innovation incubator “The Garage,” I left the day incredibly optimistic about where we are headed.
It’s not often that one gets to report from the future (unless you are Marty McFly of course), and as such, I hope you listen to what I am going to share, because I think it is akin to a great stock tip – this is where things are headed and it would behoove you to go there.
As hockey legend Wayne Gretzky once observed, don’t skate to where the puck is, skate to where the puck is headed.
Truth #1: In this hyper-competitive environment, customer expectations are changing: There are 30 million businesses in the U.S., and 99% of those are small business. And, as if that were not enough, there is the now-interconnected global marketplace to contend with.
That’s a lot of competition.
What then is the best way then to deal with customers when they have so many options? As discussed by both US SMB VP Cindy Bates, as well as a recent Microsoft survey, “More than ever before, customers want to interact digitally with businesses in the same way as they do with friends and family; through social media and mobile devices.”
Think about it. How do customers – you and me included – interact with a business these days? Often it is not:
- Walk in a store
- Check out Facebook
- Compare prices online
- Buy mobilly
This is a seismic shift that affords both challenges and opportunities for your business. The thing to realize – the “truth” – is that customer expectations and behaviors are changing and you need to follow the puck.
Truth #2: Technology can make your business life a whole lot easier: If you are like a lot of entrepreneurs today, you work with remote teams.
Tools – Office 365 for example – make working remotely not only easy, but fun and productive. Aside from the usual suspects – Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook – Office 365 packs a punch by making remote, real-time online collaboration not, as AI expert Dave Forstrom said, “science fiction, but science fact.” With integrated tools for videoconferencing with Skype and chat-based tools like Teams, Office 365 allows you all to work when, where, and how you want, and that is a trend of major import.
Truth #3: Data is taking the risk out of business: A wise old entrepreneur once told me, “an entrepreneur is someone who takes a risk with money to make money.” But running a small business is not just a financial risk, it is also a reputational risk and an emotional one too.
The good news is that data is reducing that risk. Indeed, according to Cindy Bates, one of the top trends she sees for business in 2017 is the increasing availability and use of BI – Business Intelligence, aka, “big data.”
The thing with data is that if you know how to analyze it, it can unlock vast vaults of value. How did that display ad do? What about that e-marketing campaign? How do they compare? What day pulled best? What price worked best? BI can tell you. In this regard, you might want to check out PowerBI.
Truth #4: The way employees want to work is changing: Customers are changing, technology is changing, behaviors are changing, expectations are changing, and yes, employees are changing too. The whole landscape of business is changing.
On this last point, employees generally, and millennials specifically, want, nay, expect, to be able to work when, where, and how they want. And they further expect that their employer will give the both the freedom and tools to do so. You need to do that. Today.
These four trends – the changing expectations of employees and customers, and the transformational potential of big data and new technology, are fundamentally changing how small businesses will need to be run sooner rather than later.
I suggest you jump on the changes faster than you can say, “flux capacitor!”
Steve Strauss is a senior small business columnist at USA TODAY and author of 15 books, including The Small Business Bible. Steve is your host here at TheSelfEmployed.com.