Digital transformation projects are underway at many small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), but the typical company has not prioritized efforts including cloud, mobility, analytics, and the Internet of Things (IoT) when it comes to IT spending, according to IDC research.
Nearly half of SMBs (48%) are currently in the planning phase when it comes to activities that will help them adapt and transform their business in the digital future, according to a recent report from SMB Group. Meanwhile, 36% are already implementing activities to support digital transformation, and 16% have no digital plans underway.
"Digital transformation for SMBs is a hot topic for two reasons," said Kim McCumber, founder of Floodlight Training & Consulting. "First, the cost of technology has fallen significantly with the rise of cloud-based SaaS applications. This makes the tools far more accessible than they've been in the past. Second, the capabilities of these tools have increased exponentially. For example, the ability to actively review how a prospect has engaged with your brand over time is a gamechanger."
SEE: IT leader's guide to achieving digital transformation (Tech Pro Research)
Many products on the market are helping SMBs move into the digital future. Here are 10 apps, tools, and platforms that may help with their digital journey.
TensorFlow, developed by Google researchers, is an open-source machine learning framework. Since financial product comparison site MejorTrato.com started using the platform five months ago, it has been able to automate 57% of queries, offering customers responses to common questions within seconds and freeing up the team to answer more difficult questions. The company's sales also increased more than 24% since it was implemented.
"We are sincerely surprised with the results and very happy, because on the path to digital transformation, boring, manual and repetitive business processes today can be performed automatically thanks to AI," said MejorTrato.com CTO Cristian Rennella.
Chatbots are perhaps the most promising tech tools available today for SMBs, according to Carlos Melendez, COO of nearshore software engineering services firm Wovenware.
"Their ability to interact with customers, and answer basic questions and route inquiries appropriately, allow companies with limited staff to seem much larger and improve customer service—even providing 24/7 call center support when it would be impossible to hire enough people to do this," Melendez said.
The cost to build a single-purpose chatbot is also within reach for most mid-market firms, who would pay much more to hire a customer service representative, Melendez said.
SMBs gravitate toward Node.js when it comes to digital transformation because the platform allows them to use the same language on the front end and back end, allowing smaller development teams to spend less time rewriting code.
"With minimal training, these developers are able to quickly use Node.js to get a web server up and running and, from there, they can expand out to APIs, devices and front end," said Keith Chester, lead R&D and senior app developer for Fusion Marketing. "Were we to use Java or Ruby for many of our projects, that learning curve would be much steeper."
One of the original social media platforms used by more than 15 million people globally, the social media marketing and management platform Hootsuite can help SMBs take control of their social media presence.
The platform also offers a number of resources for SMBs, including top 10 social media tips for small businesses, and guides on how small business owners can use social media to grow their business and stay competitive.
SEE: Electronic communication policy (Tech Pro Research)
Stripe builds economic infrastructure for the internet, allowing SMBs to accept online payments and run financial operations. Platforms commonly used by SMBs including Shopify and Squarespace can be built on top of the software.
"After 36 hours live on the newly integrated-with-Stripe Snowvation platform, one Snowvation partner ski resort processed 10% of its entire 2016 volume," said Michael Stocker, CEO and founder of ski resort software provider Snowvation. "In an industry where most revenue is restricted to only four months of the year, making payments as fast and easy as possible, especially online, is key."
Project management SaaS product Trello is key for digital efforts, according to Evan Tarver, a tech analyst at FitSmallBusiness.com. The platform allows multiple teams across different working groups collaborate on projects, and manage multiple project pipelines. "Using Trello brings your business processes into the digital age, and makes your company run more efficiently," Tarver said.
Workplace messaging tool Slack has picked up a lot of steam in both enterprises and SMBs in recent years.
"Slack is a great tool for SMBs, especially if team members or vendors are geographically scattered," McCumber said. "It's great for communication and sharing files with one or multiple individuals at a company." It also integrates well with Zapier, a tool that can take a large number of SaaS platforms and connect them to work together, McCumber added.
8. Quick Base
Quick Base—a low-code platform for business users—can help non-tech professionals more easily create apps for their company.
This is especially helpful for businesses that work with spreadsheets that can spiral out of control when multiple people are making changes and creating new versions, said Joe Marchillo a member of the IT solutions team at Apex Imaging Services.
"With Quick Base, we get a high-level view of everything we want to know in a single snapshot," Marchillo said. "All of our project managers (who don't know how to code) are now using Quick Base as their new Excel spreadsheet. It definitely streamlines efficiency; for example if we call stores and say we're going to be there for the project in two days, we have a log of all that in case there's any push back."
Xero is a cloud-based accounting platform for small businesses, accountants and bookkeepers. The platform recently introduced Hey Xero, a Facebook messenger chatbot to help small businesses to find accountants and bookkeepers as well, according to Alexandra Zelenko, marketer and technical writer at DDI Development. Xero has also migrated its platform to Amazon Web Services (AWS), which will enable it to apply AWS machine learning and artificial intelligence services for chores such as coding invoices for payment, Zelenko said.
10. SAP Concur
SAP Concur offers invoice management software to help small businesses keep their headcount down, save time on administrative tasks, and eliminate errors.
"It's easier than ever for small businesses to adopt enterprise tools," said Christal Bemont, general manager and senior vice president of the Small, Midsized and Nationals business unit at SAP Concur. "Historically, enterprise tools have come with an enterprise cost, and often entail lengthy deployments. However, thanks to the rise of the cloud, small businesses are able to quickly and easily deploy cost-effective web-based apps to better position themselves for rapid growth."
- Digital transformation: A CXO's guide (TechRepublic)
- Eight obstacles to overcome in your digital transformation journey (ZDNet)
- Cheat sheet: How to become a data scientist (TechRepublic)
- Why AI and machine learning need to be part of your digital transformation plans (ZDNet)
- Why employees are the key to digital transformation success in the enterprise (TechRepublic)
Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.