How the digital marketplace is leveling the playing field for small and medium enterprises

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are the lifeblood of South East Asia’s economy. They account for 96 per cent of all businesses, employ 85 per cent of all workers and contribute more than half of the region’s GDP. These businesses are hugely important, not only as employers and drivers of regional growth but also as contributors to innovation.

From cloud services to mobile and tablets, technology is becoming increasingly critical to an SME’s operations and is fast becoming the backbone of successful business, largely for those in the service industry. Mobile communications enable SMEs to be constantly connected whatever the time or location. For a customer, a positive experience and immediate response is essential. If a customer is unable to find a service provider when they need them, they will simply look for another option. However, the problem is not exclusively surrounded around consumers whose needs are unmet because they do not know where to look for help — talented service providers are also finding it difficult to gain new customer leads, and many small business owners are not able to compete with their corporate counterparts.

Additionally, as the region becomes highly competitive and as individuals live further away from each other, reliance on traditional advertising and recommendations from friends and family might not be enough for customers and service providers to find one another. Increasingly, customers are relying on Internet platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google to find service providers to help them with tasks like moving, cleaning, event planning and also personal finance. The customer of the future is the tech-savvy customer, and he cannot be ignored. It is not just that the offline experience is clunky for those who scroll through volumes of directories — it is also an entirely different issue of expensive service costs. If the SME of the future is not visible on the Internet, it might as well not exist.

Keeping this in mind, business leaders are expecting wrenching change to the service industry as they see customers employ online services to not only find relevant service providers but also more efficient and decentralised ways of finding them. An increase of low cost computing power and the ascent of online platforms also means that barriers to entry for SMEs to leverage on mobile technology to access a much larger customer base is now at a record low.

At the heart of this change, a business must make sure its processes connect people with information, enable greater collaboration and encourage knowledge sharing. A trend that has swept the USA and Europe by storm is now making its appearance in Asia. The sharing and on-demand economy has been cited as one of the most disruptive business models of the last hundred years, as it tries to make the world a more cooperative and waste-free place. Pair that with modern mobile applications, and it is changing the way workers find work. Uber, for instance is putting the choice into the service provider’s hands. Uber drivers can bid on the most suitable requests, and can organise their schedule on their own terms around requests demanded in an area they choose.

Consequently, if drivers can be summoned at a click of a button, why not plumbers, cleaners and even medical care givers? Jumping on the Uber bandwagon, consumers will soon look to the ‘Uberisation’ of all services. People are becoming more comfortable with the idea of using digital platforms and referring to community sentiment to get a job done. However, although users may be clamoring for more convenient ways to request all sorts of services, traditional SMEs often lag behind more tech-savvy startups offering the same types of services — the average lorry driver or plumber will spend most of his days traveling between client’s locations and hardly has the time or resources to dive into the nuances of digital marketing.

There is scope in the market to cater to this growing trend. Online marketplaces that help customers find a range of service providers conveniently, safely and instantly are the marketplaces of the future. However, it is a colossal mission to become a one-stop-shop for all services in South East Asia. Services marketplaces like ServisHero, offer home maintenance workers and a wide range of occupations from wedding planners to emergency auto services to fitness instructors.

Technically, this should not only make it easier for users to find the best rates and services instantly — it should also provide independent SMEs with a whole new demographic of tech-savvy customers to reach out to, without having to build their own online platforms.

Like most eureka moments in life — this next big consumer trend did not start with a product in mind, it started with a problem. In an increasingly competitive environment for SMEs with tight labour and cost constraints, making use of technology will help effectively market their services online. It is a win-win situation for the region — as customers are able to access reliable service providers with ease and service providers are able to access new customer sources through a powerful digital platform. Independent SMEs would do well by taking full advantage of the growing network of tech-savvy users and they need to join the shared economy at a time when sharing means a lot more than caring — it also means big business especially for small business owners.

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