How businesses can grow their online presence to gain a competitive edge

To stay relevant and continue to exist as a business, consider digital as one of the key areas you’ll market: Bernard Khumalo, head of sales and operations at Yep!

JEANETTE CLARK: Small and medium enterprises in South Africa and globally have had a tough time of it over the last two years, with traditional channels of reaching customers severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. SMEs had to embrace digital solutions to reach not just their existing customers, but broaden the spectrum and enhance engagement.

But what is it that these businesses need in times of uncertainty and volatility, and how can they galvanise themselves and grow their online presence, generate leads, and gain a competitive edge?

To help us work through this topic we are joined by Bernard Khumalo, head of sales and operations at Yep! I’m going to kick off with the first question and ask you in this hopefully almost post-pandemic economy how important is the role of digital channels, and what does this mean for SMEs and their own digital transformation journeys?

BERNARD KHUMALO: I think it’s a very good starting point to our discussion. When you check and look at the seismic shifts that are taking place in the various markets in general, you’ll notice that a more than 300% growth in participation of firms in the digital economy has been recorded in a very short period of time, especially post-Covid.

What this means is that there’s an acceleration of digital adoption in the general economy, I think firstly spearheaded by the banking sector, financial services sectors, and more recently by your ride e-hailing services.

But the bottom line is that a lot of customers or would-be consumers of products and services have essentially started to significantly change the way they consume products and services, and that shift is definitely towards online. So, it is important then for any person who is currently in business or is planning to get into business to consider digital as one of the methods in which they access their market.

JEANETTE CLARK: You’ve mentioned the seismic shift – let’s unpack that a little bit. While the topic has been dealt with thoroughly over the last two years, what are some of those challenges that were caused by the pandemic – specifically for small and medium enterprises – and how long do you think these businesses will actually feel the effects?

BERNARD KHUMALO: We obviously had the situation where most consumers were under lockdown for a while and there was restricted movement in certain sectors of the economy. [This pushed consumers to access their goods and services online].

In the past you would have many customers maybe a little wary of transacting online due to concerns around safety and issues of fraud and all of that. But what you’re seeing now more and more is that the brick-and-mortar business is no longer just sufficient. You’ve got the opening up of the economy and people are now more and more bold to go back to the mould and travel.

But effectively a lot of businesses are still finding it very difficult to operate in this environment because you’ll find that with the ads and top smartphone technology, and with what people have become used to, especially during the Covid period:

… now more and more consumers are comfortable [enough] to easily access whatever they require online from the comfort of their homes, knowing full well that there’s safety in that type of transaction that they’re essentially doing.

So, if you’re going to be a business that wants to succeed and reach your market in a manner that is more than just a local geographical area where your brick-and-mortar store or business is located, you’re going to want to participate in the digital revolution that is currently taking place, and even be able to have access and visibility to your own markets as you go along.

JEANETTE CLARK: You’ve mentioned that some consumers were wary [of adopting] e-commerce and going online, but why do we still see some businesses being wary of embracing digital channels and adopting this new way of doing business?

BERNARD KHUMALO: You’ll always find that when it comes to the manner [in which] our propositions are essentially offered to the market, there’s that element of making sure that we are satisfying the various touchpoints from research that we basically gather around preferences that our consumers have, and sometimes fears that our consumers have.

You’ll find that with our Yep! digital solutions, where we are talking around our website builders as well as the Yep! app itself, part of what we have done is to ensure that the journey that our customers must go through – whether the customer is the SME that is taking up a service with us in order to use that service downstream with their customers, or the actual end customers that they’re interacting with – there’s an element that they want to make sure that everybody feels secure, and they feel like their transactions are safe, and also that they’re dealing with vetted businesses that are able to deliver the type of product and services that are under discussion.

That is where we come in, in terms of being able to ensure that we hold the SME’s hand around the adoption process, ensure that the tools that we’re giving are tools where we’ve done good leads analysis to see what stage that business is sitting at, and what the business is trying to achieve in terms of its own market-facing activity.

In that manner then the way that we package the solution is in a way that coincides with the expectations of the market that different businesses are trying to get into.

JEANETTE CLARK: So, before we dive into the actual solutions, can you tell me a little bit more about Yep! and how this fits into the company’s digital transformation journey?

BERNARD KHUMALO: Yep! itself is a business that has been on its own digital transformation journey. Even in your intro you spoke about Yep! Yellow Pages. We have more than 40 years’ experience of connecting entrepreneurs to markets, as well as ensuring that we give entrepreneurs visibility in the markets that they want to operate in. What has happened is that, over time, even our own business has had to evolve in a manner that ensures that we are keeping up with the times which shift, as I referred to earlier, around the way consumers now consume goods and services.

So, from a platform perspective, as well as from some of the solutions that we have to offer, we have excellent partnerships with some international partners such as Google and Facebook, for instance, and we’ve got our own capabilities that we have developed and built over time, where we know that this necessarily speaks to some of the local market we are in, and solves a lot of the pain points that many of our SMEs [experience].

So if you’re a plumber, if you’re an electrician, someone who owns a hair salon down the road, or even somebody who’s just a hustler trying to market goods and services online, we are able to deal with all manner of SMEs, as well as enterprise businesses, in a way that ensures that you are taken care of around being able to be seen and be interacted with online.

JEANETTE CLARK: All right. Can we talk about the all-in-one solution? What does it actually offer? I’m specifically looking at this from an SME perspective. Say I have that hair salon on the corner, what will it actually offer me? Also, one of the barriers for SMEs often is cost. Will this be a deterrent, or won’t it be?

BERNARD KHUMALO: It’s a very good question. If you look at the actual solution itself, you’ll see that if you are in business and you’re an entrepreneur, you will need, first and foremost, digital existence. You were maybe running your business as a brick-and-mortar store, you were successful. Things have started changing, and maybe customers are no longer walking through the door the way they used to. What’s going to happen in that instance is you need to exist online.

Our solutions essentially ensure that we are able to host you, we’re able to assist you in opening up your online store, give you capabilities so that customers are able to have shopping carts where they’re dealing with your store, and essentially have e-commerce capabilities that enable the customers to transact with you online, buy directly from you, process payments.

More than just the capability of being present online, there’s also the conversation around visibility, where we start to ensure that different pockets of customers that you’re trying to target actually get to hear about your business.

They get to see your business as an enterprise they can consider in the area of choices that they might have in terms of satisfying a certain need.

Then naturally there are other elements around our business which also have to do with that lead generation and engagement after those specific sales have taken place, or transactions have taken place. You want to continuously interact with your customers, understand where your customers’ needs are going, be able to continue to tell your customers what specials you’re currently running, or any reward processes that you have around your business from a service perspective.

All those things that we have in the form of capabilities are simple, because we assist you in the process.

I think you’ll find in the market there are quite a lot of companies that purport to assist you with your digital journey, but what typically happens is they just put [up] the platform and say, here you go – and you have to figure your way out, whereas for a lot of SMEs the real gist of the discussion comes down to are you actually doing what you’ve got into business to do, and not being distracted by the day-to-day [challenges] of running a business?

In a nutshell, we give you that existence online. We ensure that [once you’re] online you are quite visible in terms of reaching out to the different markets that you are targeting. Then we give you the capability to transact with your customers online, as it relates to the goods and services that you have to offer.

JEANETTE CLARK: I want to just ask a detailed question around the all-in-one inbox. I believe it’s AI-driven, and it’s a chat-like communication channel. Now, as an SME, when you hear ‘artificial intelligence’ you might get a fright, but just tell me a little bit more about that functionality and how it assists on that customer journey.

BERNARD KHUMALO: I think this is where digital maturity, as it relates to some of our offerings, comes in. So it’s back to what I just introduced in the last point of discussion around the fact that an entrepreneur wants to be able to focus on key elements that ensure that the business is staying afloat, the business is running, and not have to be [bogged] down: whether you are responding to queries from customers, whether you are trying to communicate something if customers via social are essentially getting in touch with your business and [have] landed on your portal – as we have essentially assisted you to build one.

What that AI capability does is give you the ability to have certain pre-set communications with the customers while the entrepreneur is focusing on other elements of [the business].

And then, touching on the point you just mentioned, when we talk about all of these things one would assume that oh, this sounds so complicated, it must cost an arm and a leg for you to be able to get access to those types of tools. That is where we’re saying, no, we have had quite a lot of experience also in understanding the types of businesses that we are dealing with in the market – that not every business is coming from the same financial position.

From as little as R99 you are able to get a tool or a set of tools through Yep! Integrated Solutions or the Yep! app itself that can start delivering some of that value which makes a difference in terms of your own revenue as an SME.

JEANETTE CLARK: If we can go to the lead-generation tool you mentioned earlier, the partnerships with the likes of Google and Facebook, how does that support SMEs and entrepreneurs to make their businesses first of all, like you said, visible, but also [to] find those clients that can be customers.

BERNARD KHUMALO: Excellent question. When you take a look at the entire discussion around lead generation, you find for most SMEs, especially people who are just starting in business or who have been in there for a while, your databases are almost stored – whether you’ve got a database on your tablet, on your phone, sometimes on an old PC – (sometimes that happens with a lot of SMEs) where there’s no proper differentiation in terms of the activities that you’re doing with your customers versus some of your own personal contacts.

One of the key areas that we assist in is starting to curate and build a very good customer database on our platform. Once that happens, it gives you an ability to start directing specific messaging, whether that messaging is through SMS campaigns, whether it’s through email campaigns, or whether it’s through social. To the point you mentioned around Facebook, for instance, and Google, you start having a situation where now you’re directly communicating with certain audiences with a platform that makes it easier for you to do that.

But on the other hand, when those communications are received by your different audiences, you will also have the engagement tool that then makes sure that the messages that are coming back from those customers that you’re targeting are messages that are directly coming back into your inboxes or into your managed … facilities that we’ve built for you.

In that way then your lead generation is taking place.

You are now engaging with your customers to a degree where you can start to offer propositions, be considered around those propositions, and further downstream you then can process payments and ensure that those customers are essentially transacting with you.

So with Google, for instance, part of how we do that is [to] take a look at your business through a needs analysis, and we see what type of toolset through the Google suite you can start to put in there that ensures that your business starts to be visible in certain corners, and after that your second place.

Then you are back to the discussion I’ve just had with you around how we ensure then that you curate your data, and customers are coming back to essentially interacting with you on specific items of your offering.

JEANETTE CLARK: What is the risk of an SME not taking this step and taking the leap into the digital sphere? What would happen to those businesses?

BERNARD KHUMALO: Simply put … the risk is that of irrelevance.

If your market is moving in a certain direction and it’s a way that’s driven, you can see the numbers, you can see the sheer volumes of transactions that are taking place online for different businesses, whether at that stage you are a plumber, whether you’re an electrician, whether you’re running an enterprise business that is providing car parts, it doesn’t matter what you do. Your customers are spending more and more of their time online, your customers are shifting in that direction, and you may very well find that you have two left feet walking into your brick-and-mortar store, and you want to ensure that you are taking advantage of that evolution into digital.

So, for you to stay relevant and for you to continue to exist as a business you want to ensure that you’re considering that digital [space] as one of the key areas that you’re going to market.

JEANETTE CLARK: Thank you, Bernard, for your time today, helping us understand how Yep! is offering affordable solutions for SMEs to take that next step and empower themselves for a digital future.

That was Bernard Khumalo, head of sales and operations at Yep!

Brought to you by Yep!

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