Did you know that approximately 90% of all businesses worldwide are either small and medium-sized businesses (SMB)? Or that SMBs employee between 50-90% of the total workforce, depending on the country? That’s why we want to introduce you to the technology industry veteran who’s stepping up in a big way to help SMBs find their operational edge.
- Over the past 15 years, Amanda Honig has become a trusted advisor to businesses of all sizes in the retail, manufacturing, warehousing, transportation and logistics sectors. She knows better than many how influential technologies can be on a worker’s output and an organization’s outcomes. She also has unique visibility into the challenges that small businesses face in today’s fiercely competitive market and extensive knowledge of the various technology platforms that should – and shouldn’t – be applied to certain problem sets.
Below, she outlines some of the things keeping small business owners up at night and shares some sage advice for those trying to figure out the best way forward, whether the priority is keeping the lights on or simply lightening the load for a workforce trying to recover from COVID-19 surge demand.
Your Edge Blog Team: The past year has been quite a roller coaster ride for small businesses. What is the sentiment among the ones you’re talking to now? Are they feeling good about where they are a year into the pandemic? Or is there still a lot of uncertainty?
Amanda: Well, I think COVID-19 leveled the playing field for businesses in a way. Retailers, governments, healthcare providers and consumers did not discriminate when hunting for the goods and services they needed last year. They were happy to buy from anyone who could get them what they needed, when they needed it, at a fair price. It gave small businesses an opportunity to shine. In fact, if anything, I think consumer and commercial customers alike were more willing to support small businesses when the opportunity presented itself. And many small businesses proved more reliable than the larger, mainstream brands simply because they weren’t as inundated with customer orders (at least at first) and were more willing to pivot as needed to meet customers’ needs. Though small businesses may not have the same fulfillment capacity as larger competitors, they are often more agile. They don’t have to worry about overhauling systems or reworking processes across multiple facilities in multiple regions. They can adjust their strategy, implement new offerings and turn things around on a dime. In that sense, it seems like many small businesses are optimistic about the future. In fact, we recently surveyed a number of SMB warehouse operators to see how they have been doing, and nearly two thirds said they saw a big jump in sales this past year and are now focused on taking advantage of the growth opportunity.
Your Edge Blog Team: We imagine that, even with that growth, there are some big hurdles to clear still, right?
Amanda: Absolutely. Small businesses that were able to acquire hundreds, if not thousands, of new customers overnight now must figure out how they’re going to sustainably meet demand without making mistakes that could cost them loyal customers. They need to make a positive impression on new customers to retain that business and ensure they aren’t inadvertently hindering the high-quality, high value experience their long-time customers have come to expect. Considering that small businesses’ workforces may not grow at the same rate as demand, they must look to mobility solutions, workflow automation, and other technologies that can help staff become more efficient. They may encounter inventory challenges, too. I know the lead time for many small businesses right now extends two, three, even six months out on some items. Service providers may have a month or more wait time for new customers. This is a good problem to have, but it’s one they must solve quickly if they don’t want to lose those customers to larger competitors that find a way to scale up faster. Again, the challenge here is figuring out how to manage that growth.
Of course, not all small businesses are in this boat. Nearly a quarter of the SMB warehouse operators we surveyed said their sales have actually slowed down, so they’re looking for ways to trim operational costs. Again, though, automation is rising to the top of the investment list because it allows them to introduce new efficiencies. It also helps improve the accuracy of key fulfillment and inventory management tasks so they can reduce costly errors and wasteful spending. Workflow automation can allow small businesses to become leaner without losing their operational edge should demand pick back up suddenly.
Your Edge Blog Team: It sounds like they are still thinking about the future even as they’re trying to address current challenges.
Amanda: You’re right. It’s very much a balancing act. They know they have to make changes now for whatever reason. However, they want to ensure those changes have a lasting impact. Flexibility and scalability are key when thinking in terms of business process re-engineering and even the implementation of new technology systems.
Your Edge Blog Team: Is technology spend rising among small businesses? Or do you see them trying to make do with whatever they had in place pre-pandemic?
Amanda: Honestly, it’s a little of both. Small businesses that had the right mobility solutions online in early 2020 to help automate order picking, for example – or those that were in the process of their deployments – are going to be okay for the next few years. This is especially true if they had already migrated to an enterprise-grade Android™ platform. They’ll be able to scale as demand grows, the workforce grows, and new applications are needed. Businesses that are using legacy Windows CE devices may be more eager to migrate to the Android operating system (OS) simply because Microsoft has ended support for those devices and they need the security and expandability of enterprise-grade Android solutions. Many small businesses are also starting to increase spend on technologies that will allow them to at least partially augment or automate workflows as well, to include wearables and certain types of software solutions. However, every business is starting from a different point, so the investment level varies based on current hardware and software performance, overall business growth and targeted short- and long-term goals.
Your Edge Blog Team: What is the “right” mobility solution for a small business?
Amanda: There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but there is a basic framework that small businesses need – and it’s nearly identical to what larger companies need. For example, a warehouse is a demanding environment, regardless of its size, and workers need enterprise-grade rugged handheld computers, tablets, scanners and printers that were built for heavy duty, around the clock use in high-tempo environments and sometimes very challenging physical environments. They also need software tailored to their individual workflows so that all team members have access to actionable intelligence and can receive guidance on the best decision to make or action to take in every scenario. Many times, we’ll see small businesses try to piecemeal something together without the help of a technology solution partner. Or they’ll buy consumer-grade devices that seemed like a straightforward power-on-and-play solution that could save them some time and money. However, they might learn in time – or perhaps right away – that the solution isn’t as easy to use, manage or scale as expected. Or perhaps it’s not compatible with other technologies that the business owner wants to deploy. So, we always advise small business owners to consult with technology experts well-versed in both mobility and their specific industry. Better yet, speak to someone who can help map out the long-term technology strategy. That will ensure the decisions you’re making today around mobility will support the actions you want to take a year from now – or even five years from now – as you grow and become ready to automate more workflows.
Your Edge Blog Team: Zebra has started to see more orders come in from small businesses in the past year. Are those investments in enterprise-grade solutions being driven by customers’ growth ambitions?
Amanda: Yes and no. Zebra develops enterprise-grade solutions, and there’s been a perception in the market that – because the term “enterprise” is often associated with big box retailers or huge corporations – our solutions are targeted primarily to larger entities. However, the truth is, we have always worked with private and public sector organizations of all sizes, including startups and small businesses. We’ve actually learned recently through our market research that many SMBs just aren’t aware of how we can support them. So, I think much of the interest we’re now receiving from smaller organizations is stemming from conversations they’re having with other small organizations about the technology solution providers they’ve worked with and trust. We’re also seeing our channel partners, some of whom are small businesses themselves, really connect with this market and help small business owners understand the value of enterprise-grade solutions.
Your Edge Blog Team: What is the value that technology can bring to small businesses, especially enterprise-grade solutions?
Amanda: Every organization today needs to mobilize its workforce and digitalize its processes. Every business leader needs more visibility into operational performance, and every worker wants technology tools that facilitate fast data capture and provide best-next-step guidance. Plus, everything has to happen faster than it ever has before. Orders must be picked, packed, shipped and delivered faster than they did a year ago. Construction and inspections must be completed faster to ensure there’s enough inventory in a high-demand market. Emergency personnel always want to be able to respond to incidents faster and know what to expect when they arrive. Customers need to be moved through grocery store checkout queues and restaurant drive thru lanes at record speeds. Healthcare personnel must be able triage and treat patients stat. I could go on and on.
The point is, though the pandemic may have forced some of us to slow down, organizations were driven to speed up literally every aspect of their operations. Those who didn’t have the resources to pick up the pace spent a year perpetually behind. They were losing customers – and losing ground to competitors. So, many decided to fast-track their technology investments. The problem is that, in the haste of “innovation,” many small businesses opted for mobile devices and other technologies that were familiar and seemingly easy to onboard. What they didn’t realize is how complicated things would get when they tried to layer in the workflow software and sync with back-end business systems, which is key to gaining greater efficiency and accuracy.
Had they known to call Zebra or one of our channel partners from the start, we could have just as easily set up with the right solution – one that actually solves their operational issues – in the same amount of time, likely for a similar cost and with a far greater return on investment (ROI).
So, it’s important we help small business owners understand why they need reliable, purpose-built technologies as much as their larger competitors do. In fact, it could be argued they need them more because they do have smaller workforces and more limited resources, even though they have just as many customers to serve and orders to fulfill. Small businesses also need the guidance and support of a technology partner who they can trust to be available on demand to answer questions, provide recommendations and keep them on the right track as they work through today’s challenges and plan for the future.
Your Edge Blog Team: Is it a good idea for smaller businesses to mimic larger enterprises, then, especially when it comes to their technology strategies?
Amanda: There is a lot of overlap in the types of technologies that both SMBs and larger organizations should be employing. Mobility solutions are among them, as well as barcode scanning technologies, thermal printers and task management software. Small businesses also stand to gain a lot from prescriptive analytics and augmentation solutions as well right now, especially retailers and warehouse operators. Heads-up displays that can run augmented reality apps to guide picking, packing and put away tasks can be very beneficial when workers are trying to operate at record speeds and get orders out the door the same day they come in.
So, it might be a good idea to learn from others’ successes and mistakes in the sense of a best practice analysis. The larger companies are sort of pioneering and piloting the use cases that smaller businesses can similarly apply. However, no organization should ever aim to replicate what another is doing. Every small business is unique and needs to figure out which technologies can best solve its problems and support its goals. Even trying to mimic another small business could be problematic because no two companies operate in exactly the same way.
In this same vein, there’s a strong propensity among small businesses right now to want to fast track automation given the benefits that automating data capture and workflow processes can provide. However, those wanting to automate in terms of robotics automation – collaborative robots (cobots), intelligent automation and other autonomous mobile robots (AMR) – should really sit down with a technology solution provider to understand what groundwork needs to be laid first. Even though robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) is making these types of automation solutions more accessible to small business, we’re very frank in telling customers, “you don’t want to skip over critical steps in your transformation journey that could set you back years.”
For example, the transformation journey mapped out in Zebra’s Warehouse Maturity Model breaks automation down into manageable pieces. It’s not driven by trends in the marketplace. So, we work with customers to ensure they’re striking the right balance between solving immediate problems and anticipating future needs.
Your Edge Blog Team: If I were a small business owner, what advice would you give me right now?
Amanda: If you are still managing your operations manually, it’s important to confirm the actual level of control you have over those paper-based processes. Can you see what inventory you have on hand in real time? Can you easily check on an order status at any time to see if it was picked or shipped out? Or do these things require a series of calls to hunt down the right people and get answers? If you don’t have basic control over your operations, the most immediate next step should be to digitalize your systems and implement mobility solutions that can facilitate fast, accurate data capture and aggregation.
If you already have the right mobility solution in place, then you might be well served to automate certain aspects of your operation this year through lower-risk, high-return implementations of sensor and radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies. Or perhaps the best next step would be to integrate more wearables or augmented reality applications.
Whatever you decide, make sure you really understand the potential payoff for your business. The easiest way to do that is to schedule a discovery workshop with technology solution consultants to detail your pain points, outline your goals and then strategically consider every potential technology component that could be leveraged to improve outcomes – to include things such as printers, scanners, mobile computers, wearables, sensors, RFID and workflow automation software.
Your Edge Blog Team: You mentioned that small businesses need enterprise-grade solutions. Yet, some might say that they don’t need the rich feature set often found in this class of technologies, which is why many defer to consumer-grade platforms. What would you say to that?
Amanda: I want to first clarify that most enterprise-grade solutions, unlike consumer solutions, are highly configurable to the needs of the end user. In fact, we’ve taken care to offer several different flavors of each hardware, software and accessory component in our portfolio – from mobile technologies to real-time track and trace systems – so that all our solutions are accessible to all businesses from both an affordability and manageability perspective. Though small businesses may not need a fully featured rugged tablet for their field-based workers, they do still need the durability, performance and security that you will only find in an enterprise-grade rugged tablet. Same with workflow software. You may not need all the modules we offer in our prescriptive analytics or task management solutions today, but you may need them six months from now as you expand your operations or introduce new services. So, you can turn on one today knowing that it won’t take much to add the others in later.
And the scalability of enterprise-grade solutions that run on the same Android operating system or have the same software DNA is a huge benefit for small businesses. Your workforce will eventually grow and, as it does, you can add more devices or customize the accessory set to suit those new roles – without having to rip and replace currently deployed devices or write software applications for a new platform.
Your Edge Blog Team: Is the price of enterprise-grade technology solutions ever a deterrent for small businesses?
Amanda: Not in our experience. In fact, the majority of the small businesses we surveyed last year said they weren’t actually as concerned about the price of technology solutions as they were about the quality and reliability – and the support offered by the solution provider throughout the planning, implementation and even management processes. For most small operations, once new workforce automation technologies are online, they almost need them to run on autopilot. Many need mobility, scanning and printing solutions that workers can self-diagnose and manage without having to call in an IT person. And they want to be sure they do have the support of the solution provider should there be an issue. Device downtime has grave consequences for small businesses. If it’s too hard to figure out or too hard to use, they aren’t interested. They don’t want to be shopping for, piloting and deploying new mobility and printing solutions year after year, either.
That’s actually the value that we provide to small businesses: our partners do the heavy lifting as far as solution design and deployment and we help train their teams on how to use the solutions. We can even create on-demand, how-to videos that help new workers onboard quickly and remind current employees of how to use certain device or workflow app features so they aren’t bugging busy supervisors or colleagues with questions. Of course, unlike a consumer device manufacturer, we have professional support teams on standby to help troubleshoot and resolve issues big and small. And we can make sure the customer knows exactly which media and ribbons are compatible with their labeling applications and printer hardware so the purchasing manager doesn’t have to waste time trying to research these types of things.
Your Edge Blog Team: It’s all about streamlining tasks, eliminating manual processes and improving decision making then, right?
Amanda: Exactly. Small businesses benefit greatly from simplicity. So, my job – along with others at Zebra – is to ensure the technologies that small businesses buy will actually cut down the effort they must put forth to complete each task, no matter if that task is related to fulfillment, inventory management, procurement, finance or labor management. If workers spend all day scanning barcodes on inbound or outbound goods, then we’re going to make sure that small business is only buying devices that can scan multiple barcodes at once with perfect accuracy, even if the barcodes are far away, dirty, scratched or crinkled.
Your Edge Blog Team: Is there a technology that you feel is undervalued by small business owners that deserves stronger consideration?
Amanda: This isn’t exclusive to small businesses, necessarily, but companies that want to remain relevant and competitive – regardless of size – need to invest more in data analytics solutions. Once you digitize processes and have what we call a “system of record” in place, you really need to start scaling to “systems of reality” and eventually “systems of engagement.” These may seem like complex ideas, but they’re fundamentally simple: the system of reality enables you to gain greater visibility of what’s happening in your organization right now and understand why it’s happening. It allows you to react faster and, in many cases, get ahead of issues.
A system of engagement really empowers workers to make on-the-fly decisions based on real-time actionable intelligence. All the data coming in about customer orders, supply chain partner status, current inventory, asset location, and worker output can instantly be aggregated and analyzed in a way that tells you what’s happening, why it’s happening and what specifically to do to adjust your execution strategy in this very moment. As small business leaders gain more nuanced insight into the inner workings of their operations, they will be better apt to make effective decisions regarding fulfillment capacity, growth capacity, labor management and more.
Editor’s Note: To learn more about the automation technologies proving most beneficial to small businesses right now, visit Zebra’s website. Zebra can also help you find a small business solution partner for personalized recommendations on the technology tools best suited for your business. Our partners are vetted, supervised and held to the highest standards – and finding one that best meets your needs is a snap.