Digital transformation needn’t be expensive for SMEs

Butterflies in cocoons and one fully emerged.

Why businesses invest in digital transformation

As business owners, marketing professionals, and communications teams, there’s been a lot of hard work taking place over the last decade that we should be really grateful for. The advent of Web 2.0 and the following culture of ‘doing stuff’ online means that there is now an insatiable appetite amongst customers and clients to do things quickly and in their own time, using their phone or desktop.

This huge increase in demand has inspired leading businesses to carry out a wave of digital transformation – the process of converting old, offline workflows into their digital equivalents.

But, if there’s one thing that experienced business owners know about digital projects, it’s that they are really expensive! There’s such a struggle to justify the cost of secure, scalable and integrated online workflows when a tried and tested manual offline version is already available.

I have heard many times that existing processes “still work” and are “free” as there’s nothing more to set up (putting aside the understanding that they have a cost associated with the manual processes which keep them spinning).

So, if this ‘currently free’ versus ‘expensive to implement’ problem exists, why do some businesses invest in digital transformation?

  • Customer expectations – people don’t need to be persuaded to visit a website or open an app to sign a contract, complete an application or update their details – they’re expecting it! There’s always a sinking feeling when, instead of quickly going online and allowing autofill to half-complete a form, there’s an invite to download, print, fill in and post back a PDF form.

    So, when customers find an easy-to-use digital service, they will stick to it, using it again and again.

  • Digital disruption legacy – everyone has seen the societal change that has taken place due to the birth and phenomenal growth of digital services; it seems like everything is being disrupted. But once the expensive disruption has taken place, things very quickly move into a business-as-usual state of affairs.

    So, there’s plenty of scope for a company to build on the aftermath of the disruption, making use of the standards and conventions that have evolved, and transforming their own business. Think of the advent of SAAS solutions, such as shopping platforms that allow people to rapidly sell online when before they only had a brick-and-mortar shop.

  • Reduce costs – this is a no brainer, although as I mentioned above some people still don’t get it. If the customer or client is carrying out a task themselves, it stands to reason that your organisation is not devoting time and money doing it for them.

    Each customer transaction can be measured in business overheads, including everything from hourly wages through to tea bags. Once calculations are performed, real savings can be easily identified.

So, there are three key reasons that either enable or encourage businesses to start digital transformation. But…

Everyone is still wary of the big IT transformation project that eats up budgets, takes far too much time away from other work, and often produces a lukewarm solution that doesn’t deliver all the big promises.

Well, there’s a way to deal with all that.

Digital transformations start in the mind!

Now I’d like to outline a way of thinking that mitigates the risks associated with digital transformation.

Doing things in an Agile way

Whether or not you’ve heard of Agile development, it is a process that has developed significantly over the years; some people love it, some people hate it, and some people just get on and use it.

The goal of this article isn’t to teach you about Agile. Instead, we’re going to see how you can use an Agile-like mindset to help convert your offline processes into digital versions.

First, let’s look at the four stages of a single Agile cycle (again, don’t worry about how it fits into the overall Agile methodology; we’ll be ditching references to that from here on):

  1. Find out where you are
  2. Take a small step towards your goal
  3. Adjust your understanding based on what you learned
  4. Repeat (OK, not really a stage, more of a command to start again – but REALLY important)

Looking at this simple process, we can see that, at its heart, it is concerned with making incremental changes, and that is its major strength. Gradually changing a process or workflow gives time to measure the effectiveness of any updates and, based on the results, pick a new mini-goal to move towards.

This is at odds with the more traditional way of looking at a transformation project which is to scope out a major change in business practice, develop and deliver in a single drop, and move straight into the BAU phase. This is commonly known as a waterfall project, as one project phase cascades into another.

Side-by-side comparison

Whether or not to use a cyclic or a waterfall implementation is often going to be influenced by a range of factors, and it’s not really within the scope of this post to make that decision for every eventuality.

But for SME digital transformation, we can put together a very high-level comparison of how the two ways of working can affect projects:

  • Waterfall – a comprehensive digital platform is conceived and planned based on your business needs. Budgets are raised, timescales set, and the building begins.

    When issues arise, variances are adopted, delays swallowed, and additional expenses incurred. Once the project is delivered, it matches exactly the requirements of the public and they regularly use the system – or not!

  • Cyclic – the first thing to do is look around and find out what’s good and what’s not. Even some things that are generally disliked by an organisation can have value, even if only temporarily.

    Next, find a small improvement which can be created by a modest development process – for example, allowing people to read the status of their account online.

    Creating this feature is simple, fast, and cheap and, once added, you can quickly see if this is something the public actually uses. If they do, great! If not, the reasons why can be used to inform the next set of changes.

I’ve seen both approaches taken in the real world. In my experience, the latter is far more effective than the former. It’s simple, doesn’t require a huge investment up front, and people involved in the project have a great sense of ‘just getting on with it’ – plus they get to see things delivered and used quickly, which is a great feeling.

Simple ways to start digitally transforming your business

Being able to make small, incremental changes, learning from the results of those changes and adjusting your behaviour moving forward creates services and applications that fit your business, and the needs of your customers, closely.

Sticking with the small step, we’ll look at a range of ideas which businesses can use to start their digital transformation process.

We work in three main sectors – recruitment, legal, and charity – so we’re going to look at each of those in turn and discuss some of the incremental developments these industries could consider.

Sector 1: Recruitment

Show job seekers how their application is progressing
Although it costs money to tell every unsuccessful candidate they didn’t get the job, using the ‘if you don’t hear from us you weren’t successful’ line is not a great move if you want to attract top talent.

An easy way to streamline this process is to let candidates view the status of their application via an online portal. It’s simple enough to develop and use something like this but has the potential to have a lot of impact on how your business is perceived.

Help contractors and temps find their next job
Both contractors and temporary workers manage their careers with the burden of frequently changing job status. They depend on their recruiter to find them more work if their current assignment is coming to an end.

Pushing new job details to workers who are rapidly approaching the end of an assignment is one of those small digital initiatives that will make a recruiter stand out from the crowd.

Get your timesheet online
This one’s easy. So many companies still use paper-based timesheets, and who wants to fill in one of those?

It’s not a difficult task to create an online form and send the data automatically to either a payroll system or even an email address. If you are still working with paper when it comes to tracking time, you should consider transforming to digital immediately.

Sector 2: Legal

Show clients the status of their accounts
Your clients are obviously interested in how much they’re being billed, and where these costs are coming from.

Giving them an easy way to view billing in real-time will help them to feel more in control of the process. This helps to avoid the shock of an unexpectedly large bill arriving at the end of the month and the inevitable phone call where you have to justify your activities to them.

Give people access to their documents (and allow them to E-Sign)
Digital signing is now a staple technology in many industries. If you’re not currently using it in your business, this should be one of the first things you put in place.

Additionally, giving your clients access to whatever documents are theirs is a big plus. This is standard practice in other industries like insurance and banking, so making it available here is a good move.

Create a compelling online directory of your people
All the legal firms we work with are at pains to point out that their people are their greatest asset. Yet, for other firms, often this information is reduced to dull, un-engaging profile pages.

Obviously, these pages should be kitted out with high-quality portrait shots (not monochrome thumbnails), clear contact details and some display of experience and expertise. But how about being able to start a chat right away? (Don’t worry, most chatbots can be switched to AI mode so lawyers don’t get interrupted when they’re busy.)

Sector 3: Charity

Get feedback on fundraising
If you have a decent CRM in place, it should be very easy to find out how much a particular fundraising project has generated.

Displaying this information in line with the campaign details on its particular microsite will help showcase how the initiative is going and give a sense of how much is still needed.

Create a personal page
If someone has taken the time to donate through your website, participate in an event, or carry out any other activities for your charity, why not give them access to a page detailing what they have done for you?

You can also use this page to inform them about upcoming events, update them on the projects they supported and offer them new ways to continue showing support for your organisation.

Create a targeted newsletter sign up form
Many organisations have a stock ‘Keep in touch by signing up for our newsletter’ line on their forms which doesn’t actually work as well as most people think.

Instead, sign up messages can be made specific to the content on the page a visitor is reading. If they are looking at a particular event or fundraising activity, invite them to sign up to keep informed of what’s going on.

Of course, you should remember to ask for their consent if you’re adding them to your general list too. But don’t discount the value of personalising your signup forms - you’ll probably see a big bump in conversions when you implement this change.

So, don’t think of the big picture, think of something modest that you feel will make a difference. And most importantly, keep the momentum going – pretty soon you’ll have transformed your website into a useful, engaging, cost-saving core foundation of the organisation.

So, when you think about where your business or organisation will be once it’s been fully transformed in this digital world, it can seem a long way off and that it could be very expensive to get there.

Don’t just think about the big picture, think in terms of the small changes that can make a big difference. Build it and see how it performs. Then move forward with another. And another. And another.

Pretty soon, you’ll have transformed your online presence from part of the background to a useful, high-impact asset to your organisation.

About the author

UX fan and well-travelled digital architect. Helping people create much better things online. It's not that hard.