The COVID-19 pandemic produced a dramatic and immediate impact on the global economy. Larger enterprises relied on immense resources to adjust. But many medium and small businesses had to be more creative in order to keep their doors open.
Technology has played an instrumental role in reshaping the processes small businesses are using to survive. This includes everything from ramping up online service delivery methods and virtual events to automating essential functions behind the scenes. This reliance on technology is expected to continue to accelerate changes in the ways small businesses operate and serve customers.
Best Small Business Processes for Success
These three trends in small business processes stand out as having the highest potential for significant, long-lasting influence.
Automation and Artificial Intelligence
Large, medium, and small business owners face the pressure to cut costs and streamline operations. However, the volatility of the past few years has put added burdens on organizations. Small-business owners have found themselves suddenly thrust into a world where digital tools are a basic necessity. Without them, you can’t reach and serve customers, gain market insights, increase productivity, or enable remote work.
It’s becoming the new norm to automate processes with artificial intelligence and software as a service (SaaS) solutions. This new normal is not limited to enterprises, as small-business owners realize they can’t do it all. Solutions such as customer relationship management platforms, chatbots, and payroll software for small businesses are reducing repetitive tasks.
Automation also helps companies meet the needs of employees and consumers, especially with limited staff. Owners and their teams can refocus their day-to-day responsibilities on more enriching work, which increases job satisfaction and organizational commitment. Focusing on non-repetitive tasks puts small business teams in a better position to address difficult challenges and company sustainability.
Predictions about the AI market project its global revenue will exceed $300 billion by 2024, with 80% coming from software solutions. CRM, risk management, workflow processes, productivity applications, and communication and collaboration solutions will lead the pack.
As AI-based solutions continue to evolve, small business owners can expect them to drive transformation in key areas. They will change how consumers make purchases and the ways supply chains operate.
Freelance and Independent Contract Work
Freelancers and independent contractors make up what’s known as the gig economy. Some of these workers keep full-time jobs while they build up a side hustle. Others ditch traditional employment altogether to become entrepreneurs and work on projects that speak more to their passions. Whichever approach they choose, freelancers and independent contractors represent a sizable portion of the labor market.
Currently, 36% of the U.S. labor force engages in freelance work. During the pandemic, 12% of the labor market started independent contract work. And at existing growth rates, over 50% of workers will be doing some form of freelancing by 2027.
Third-party online platforms like Upwork and MarketerHire, which connect freelancers and companies, are increasing in popularity. So are postings for contract positions on job boards and networking platforms like Indeed, Monster, and LinkedIn.
For small business owners, this growth represents both change and opportunity. First, small companies can think beyond the traditional model of hiring in-house staff. Although it may still be necessary to have internal employees for some functions, owners can now expand their teams’ expertise. They’ll no longer be limited to hiring from local labor pools, as freelancers often work remotely.
In addition, the costs of bringing independent contractors on board are often lower. Companies usually don’t have to pay freelancers insurance and retirement benefits. With independent contractors, owners can also scale their labor costs according to work volume and availability.
Instead of incurring the constant overhead associated with internal employees, owners can work more flexibility into their budgets. They can either increase or decrease spending on labor according to fluctuating demand. However, small businesses may be surprised to learn that hiring gig workers is increasingly competitive. Owners will want to research markets and going rates to attract the expertise that will fill in their skill gaps.
Online and Digital Selling
The pandemic’s lockdowns and public health restrictions only heightened the importance of reaching customers digitally. E-commerce adoption rates were already growing year over year, but pandemic-related restrictions made people rethink the role of physical storefronts. It suddenly became impossible for many businesses to reach and serve customers face-to-face.
Online sales and service delivery methods became the most logical and cost-effective means small businesses had to reach customers. Stories of gyms and dance studios transitioning to online classes via paid subscriptions started to emerge. Sales at online retail giants like Amazon shot up astronomically. Demand for grocery delivery and curbside fulfillment increased so much that it became difficult to reserve pick-up times.
As public health officials go back and forth between lifting and reinstating safety measures, consumer anxiety over shopping in-store remains. Many more are experiencing the convenience of online shopping, delivery, and curbside fulfillment. Some are reducing the time they spend in stores and only going in for essentials or items that can’t be purchased digitally.
Even if small businesses don’t have the resources to create and maintain e-commerce sites, they can become third-party sellers. Major retail platforms such as Amazon allow individuals and small businesses to sell products this way. Shoppers see the products when searching for similar items and order through the platform. As a third-party seller, the business is responsible for shipping the products to the customers and issuing refunds if necessary.
Some of these platforms also allow small businesses to sell products through a fulfillment agreement. Under these agreements, the online retailer handles shipping and inventory. The small business sells the products to the platform at wholesale costs. Depending on the product, some business owners choose to implement a mix of third-party seller and fulfillment agreements.
Online selling agreements like these are expected to grow as small businesses realize they can expand their consumer reach. They also gain the benefit of association with well-known and trusted names in the digital shopping sphere. Small business owners can capitalize on these opportunities in addition to building internal e-commerce platforms.
Changes in the way small businesses operate are largely being driven by unpredictable market conditions. Consumer uncertainty and anxiety, supply-chain vulnerability, and financial instability remain ongoing threats to the business world.
Rapid shifts in business models and operations have made it possible for many companies to survive. Technology and processes like AI-driven automation, remote contract work, and digital storefronts will keep transforming the economy. Small businesses that adopt these tools and practices stand a better chance of success, even after the uncertainty clears.