There are more than 650 000 small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in South Africa, making the sector a major target market for vendors of almost any type of product aimed at other businesses. High-tech products, solutions and services rank high among these, with SMEs seen as a gold mine for those who can crack the code of how to sell to them.
The problem is that there isn’t really a code, but one very simple secret: SMEs will only buy high-tech solutions when they’ve become a “no-brainer”.
That attitude goes hand in hand with what is to some an unpalatable reality about SMEs: they are notoriously slow at adopting new technologies.
However, that does not mean there is no hope in selling to them.
SME Survey 2018, a research project conducted by World Wide Worx in partnership with Intuit QuickBooks, showed there is one clear exception: the Internet of Things (IoT). Interviews with 1400 SMEs revealed that 83% of decision-makers expect to be using IoT in their business within five years.
The reason for this enthusiasm? Many of them have been using IoT all along, in particular with fleet- and vehicle-tracking systems, and asset management. The SIM cards hidden in vehicles to allow them to be tracked are in fact part of IoT. They act as sensors that report vehicle positions to base stations, and that information can be aggregated and supplied to live mapping services. In fact, it is just that technology that makes Google Maps so effective for navigation.
However, when it comes to more futuristic technologies, SME enthusiasm vanishes. The next highest-ranked high-tech options were artificial intelligence and Big Data, but they are expected to be adopted by only 29% and 27% of SMEs respectively. Just 21% of SMEs expect to use 3D printing, while crowdsourcing drops to 16% of respondents.
Right at the bottom of the list came Bitcoin, the technology underlying Bitcoin, at 9%, and Virtual Reality, at a mere 8%.
The reason is simple: Blockchain is so new, its value proposition remains a mystery to SMEs. Not only that, but it is strongly linked in the public mind with Bitcoin. The massive fluctuations in the value of the cryptocurrency makes it too volatile and risky for the cautious SME decision-maker.
While virtual reality doesn’t suffer the same bad press, it is still regarded as a toy, and falls far short of the no-brainer status SMEs require of technology.
Even the technologies that fare a little better, like artificial intelligence, are still far off the mark for SMEs. Because they require large amounts of data, which are typically generated by large customer bases, they tend to make sense only to large organisations. Further, it requires a new way of thinking, and adoption requires a mindset change, something that is not even on the radar for most SMEs.
The annual SME Survey has shown again and again over the years that decision-makers are generally only willing to embrace a new technology if there is a clear business case. So, for example, when the massive technology shift from dial-up to ADSL happened between 2003 and 2009, it was not because SMEs were attracted by higher speeds. Rather, it was a combination of speed, cost-effectiveness, efficiency and the ability to connect multiple users to the same connection, at a lower price. In short, it was a no-brainer.
Now, we are witnessing the beginning of the decline of ADSL, for the very same reason. High-tech history is repeating itself as ADSL is replaced by fibre to the home or office.
ADSL usage peaked at 73% of SMEs in 2009 and remained at this high until 2015, when fibre arrived. SME Survey 2018 indicates that ADSL usage has now dropped to 59% among SMEs, while fibre has increased to 25% – meaning adoption of fibre is taking place even more rapidly than ADSL did 15 years ago.
This is partly due to the rapid rise in availability of fibre across urban areas, coupled with the falling price of the technology. In conjunction with this, the increasing uptake and use of bandwidth-intensive technologies by SMEs has resulted in a perfect storm that is driving a need for technology replacement. In other words, it’s a no-brainer.
When SMEs see such a clear value proposition, they are ready to embrace it rapidly. On the other hand, when it has to be explained or demystified – as originally occurred with the concept of cloud computing – they tend to stay clear of it for far longer. However, the fibre value proposition is so obvious, that SMEs are clear about how it will improve their business, and so adoption is taking off.
A key benefit SMEs obtain from switching to fibre is that it enables SMEs to operate online without the performance and quality constraints they faced before. This means that their communications are significantly improved for solutions like video-conferencing and social media. It also gives them more confidence in transacting online, thanks to the quality and speed of the connectivity.
Those selling gadgets and other high-tech will probably take courage from one particularly startling finding in SME Survey 2018: that 70% of SMEs are ready to embrace new technologies.
However, it is clear that, while the willingness is there, they will only embrace something new if it makes sense for their business. In other words, just because SMEs say they are ready to embrace new technology, it doesn’t mean that they will buy just any new technology.