Whether you’ve recently started a business, or have already established a solid footing in your industry, keeping a finger on the pulse of emerging trends is vital. Economic forces aside, small business trends are driven by the wants, needs, beliefs, and values of the buying public. So regardless of the business you’re in – or what year it is – how customers see your organization matters.
Most of today’s top small business trends revolve around emerging technologies and the need to adopt more creative approaches to client relations. Watching market movements can help you determine where to invest your valuable resources. But the first and most pressing question we need to ask is: who is your customer in 2017 and beyond?
Millennials as Trendsetters
If you think you’ve only been imagining that today’s consumers are getting younger, you haven’t. Millennials - those born between about 1980 and 2000 - are not only the largest generation ever born in the US (yes, even bigger than the Baby Boom generation), the oldest among them are just coming into their prime spending years.
Both the priorities and the buying behaviors of young adults have shifted dramatically in recent times, and these new habits are visible across virtually every industry. So if it’s growth you’re after, you’d be wise to adjust your business model accordingly. Connecting with the millennial generation means understanding their tendency to:
- embrace new technology,
- expect instant access to products and information,
- participate enthusiastically in the new sharing economy, and
- make health and wellness a priority
Millennials also have a strong social conscience when it comes to their purchasing decisions. They frequently look for companies that engage in environmentally responsible business practices at every level. And they want to know that the brands they deal with are forward thinking and inclusive in terms of gender equality and cultural differences.
They Want It Now
Having grown up fully immersed in the digital world, Millennials expect businesses to deliver products and services quickly and conveniently. This is evident from the runaway popularity of companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Uber - and it’s a factor that features prominently in consumer shipping expectations.
According to Deloitte, the concept of instant gratification is commonplace among millennials, and they often prioritize same-day shipping over price. Independent market research has also confirmed that:
- 56% of millennials expect same-day delivery, compared to 32% of non-millennials, and
- 64% are more likely to make a purchase if there’s a same-day option, compared to 40% of non-millennials
From healthcare to business services, the demand for a quick turnaround has been rising. Whether you’re involved in e-commerce or not, it’s important that you make fast and efficient assistance a reality for your clients.
They’re on the Move
The demand for mobile services continues to grow. In large part, this is because millennials not only enjoy being able to shop and compare from their smartphones, tablets, and laptops, more and more of them are embracing mobile payments as well. As of 2016, nearly half of this demographic had used a mobile wallet like Apple Pay or Android Pay. And there’s every reason to believe that this number will increase dramatically over the next few years.
As the fastest adopters of whatever’s new, millennials are constantly setting the bar for consumer standards. To avoid being left behind, it’s essential that you consider investing in mobile selling, responsive websites, and innovative, value-driven apps.
Today’s consumer craves information, and they expect your business to give it to them. This is an important consideration when it comes to everything from the content on your website, to the quality and thoroughness of your customer service.
As the best-educated generation in history, millennial customers have a habit of researching their purchases before they come calling. And they won’t settle for anything less than comprehensive answers to their questions to get the information they want.
Every member of your frontline staff needs to be thoroughly acquainted with your products or services. Just as importantly, they should stay current by plugging themselves into the conversations and content circulating inside your industry. If your business doesn’t have all the answers, that’s okay. But the millennial consumer fully expects to be pointed in the right direction to find what they need.
They’re Changing the Workplace
Having recently become the largest employed demographic, millennials are poised to comprise some 75% of the workforce by 2025! Surveys and opinion polls confirm that millennials want to be leaders: they love to learn, and they’re looking for authentic business mentors.
They’re also looking for a flexible work environment that capitalizes on the commercial advantages of remote collaboration. With older Americans “retiring in droves”, one of the best ways to prepare your business for the future is to give promising young employees the training, technological tools, and recognition they need to shine as tomorrow’s leaders.
4 Biggest Small Business Trends
There are four major areas that are impacting business development in 2017: customer engagement, automation, crowdsourcing, and specialization. Let’s examine each of these in more detail.
1. Customer Engagement
It’s long been recognized that engaging and interacting with your customers on their terms is one of the cornerstones of modern business success. Customer engagement may not be a new trend in 2017, but it’s certainly one that’s continuing to evolve in significant ways.
Rather than dropping off, the importance of SEO, social media conversations, and innovative, hands-on customer experiences is growing. That means every business should consider dedicating a certain amount of their operating budget to entertaining and educating their target audience through:
- insightful content,
- video and augmented reality offerings, and
- in-store experiences like retailtainment, workshops, and customer appreciation events
Although they’ve been around for some time, online videos are one form of customer engagement that continues to gain momentum. From YouTube to Facebook Live, 75 million people in the US watch videos online every day!
Not only does video marketing help to establish trust with potential clients, it improves SEO rankings, and is a proven way to generate social interactions. It’s also been determined that nearly 40% of videos are viewed on mobile devices – underlining the merit of responding to the millennial influence.
Just as important as engaging your audience, is collecting and using the data that can be gained from interacting with them. The more you know about the people who are interested in your products, the more value you can provide. Integrating technology with the needs of your customers through CRM (customer relationship management) systems will help you create content that’s both relevant and appealing.
Given the popularity of today’s on-demand, sharing-based market place, the need for quality customer interactions isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. At the very least, your marketing strategy should include producing a company blog. But with consumer needs growing more sophisticated every year, your business really can’t afford not to develop a digital marketing model.
Just remember that to keep your promotional processes on track, prioritizing your customer over your brand is vital for successfully growing your business.
New and evolving technologies continue to improve business processes for both the customer and the employee. In fact, automation is set to have a bigger impact on the success of SMBs going forward than has ever been possible in the past.
One major reason for this is that cloud-based software and infrastructures are making automation available to everyone for relatively little cost. And many small business owners are beginning to realize that they, too, can take advantage of the same technological benefits that were once only available to the major commercial players.
A big advantage of automating your business is that it reduces labor costs associated with the manual performance of mundane, repetitive tasks like:
- paying bills,
- processing employee expense reports, and
- managing emails
It can also streamline internal communications and inter-departmental workflows. This means that your personnel can spend more time on projects and problems requiring human intelligence and creativity – the kind that contributes directly to your client relations and company profits.
Cutting-edge technologies like the Internet of Things and virtual reality have started to play an important commercial role. Slated to become a critical success factor for the small business going forward, artificial intelligence is here and is being adopted by all types of organizations. Remaining competitive in the future will hinge on not only automating today but on staying up-to-date as automation evolves in the coming years.
In addition to its widespread influence on internal procedures and workflow, automated assistance in managing customer engagement is also increasing significantly:
- chatbots are well on their way to improving the customer experience, and
- emerging trends like holographic computing and AI-integrated social messaging are redefining how companies connect with consumers
Some of the areas expected to be hit hardest by advancing online technology include personal entertainment, home automation, and energy management. There’s also been a lot of movement in mobile tools and apps designed to disrupt the real estate industry - and in more innovative approaches to managing traditionally paper-run companies in blue-collar industries.
But with AI getting bigger and smarter, the demand for automated resources is growing across the board. If they haven’t already, it won’t be long before your customers and employees alike begin to expect a high-quality product to be backed by a fully digitalized business.
Research suggests that almost two-thirds of millennial employees already use company social tools and networking apps for collaboration purposes. And nearly 80% of them agree that, as technology develops further, their work lives will become “more fulfilling.” Meanwhile, when it comes to catering to the millennial consumer, you should bear in mind that today’s young adults view technology as the defining characteristic of their generation.
Today’s crowdsourcing efforts combine the best of customer engagement with evolving automation. Quickly gaining traction this year are conversational interfaces that allow organizations to co-create new products and services with input from consumers. Many successful brands are already leveraging chat tools like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger to interact directly with customers. But innovative new participation platforms are taking this relationship one giant step further.
As an idea sourcing model, many people look at crowdsourcing as a win-win scenario for creating better products. Companies get everything from feedback on how to make existing goods or services better, to innovative concepts for brand new products. Meanwhile, platform members benefit from:
- being part of a community that encourages and rewards participation,
- being given access to insightful news and other valuable content, and
- having the opportunity to develop personal, authentic connections with others who share their passion for a particular brand
A lot of companies are gleaning a lot of success from integrating customers into their core development and marketing processes. Leveraging online “innovation methodology” can achieve unexpected brand insights - and product and procedural improvements - that resonate with your target audience. And there’s probably no better example of where “thinking outside the box” can take us.
When it comes to interacting with your business, it’s also important to recognize that most millennials prefer text or chat to email or telephone. In fact, research suggests that the average millennial exchanges 67 text messages every day! We’ve already seen how chatbots and other forms of artificial intelligence are playing into this trend. And with text consistently ranking as the highest rated contact method in terms of customer satisfaction, it’s the ideal communication channel for short-format, high-priority messages like:
- appointment reminders,
- updates and schedule changes, and
- follow-up notes
Forward-looking entrepreneurs are staying ahead of the curve by integrating digital communications and collaboration into their regular operations and growth strategies. This is rapidly becoming a viable and effective way to validate your own products and services. And a lot of its success is due to the fact that there’s no better customer focus group in the world than the market you’re selling to.
Given their seemingly insatiable demand for information, we know that many consumers invest significant effort in researching a product before they make a purchase. But there are many niche areas where the average customer may have difficulty finding the information they need.
One of the realities of our dynamic marketplace is that people’s lives are constantly changing. A consumer who adopts a new pet, for example, may be buying pet supplies for the very first time. And that’s where your business can serve as a subject matter expert. Products or services that fall outside what a customer may have wanted or needed in the past often require some form of purchasing guidance. And while many people turn to friends and family for advice and recommendations, there’s a growing need for specialized knowledge at the sales level.
We know that time is of the essence for today’s customer, and the faster they can get the answers they need from your business, the more reliable you become in their eyes. Specialization plays an enormous role in building trust. And many companies are responding to this challenge by adding subject matter experts and brand story-tellers to their internal teams.
McDonald’s is one such example of the trend toward in-house specialization, but you don’t have to be a big business to benefit. In fact, small businesses may very well have an advantage in this area. After all, small business owners and their teams have often been in it from the beginning, and are intimately familiar with every detail of their products and services! Just the same, there are many SMBs that:
- still believe in the questionable concept of multitasking, and
- still believe they can’t afford to assign employees to dedicated tasks
The reality is that when it comes to standing out in our competitive commercial environment, specialization can dramatically improve business performance. And the overwhelming trend toward authentic customer engagement is proof in itself that consumers want personalized service and communication.
Avoiding the one-size-fits-all approach that many businesses still cling to can translate into a huge competitive advantage. Hiring information specialists, or training members of your team to fill those shoes, is well worth considering. And if you can develop niche products or services, so much the better. Consumers are growing tired of getting lost – physically and philosophically - in mass retail environments, and there’s a legitimate trend toward business specialization in all its forms.
A Few Final Thoughts …
One of the biggest challenges facing today’s small business owner is the struggle to compete in an exploding marketplace. Watching the trends – and remaining open-minded and agile enough to invest in the ones that make sense for your business – is crucial. Cutting-edge technologies aside, there’s no longer any reason for even the smallest company not to adopt established digital marketing processes, and software that can increase efficiency and productivity.
But while staying on your toes is important, it’s always worth bearing the basics of a successful business in mind: ask for help, network with like-minded individuals, and value your employees for the asset they are. With those elements covered, you’ll be well-positioned to take advantage of emerging technologies that can keep your sales up, and your cash flow positive.