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Necessity is the mother of invention: How SMEs are navigating Covid and why they are worth the investment

Opinion piece by Tammy Milani

It is easy to forget that small businesses, or SMEs, are the powerhouse of the NZ economy, generating nearly 30% of our GDP. 97% of Kiwi businesses are classed as SMEs and nearly a third of us work in them. 

In many respects, SMEs have been faster to deal with the challenges of this pandemic, by reinventing their businesses or ways of operating at lightning speeds. With this has come the need to work with agencies who can share this cultural philosophy and can operate without the more bureaucratic processes or layers that epitomise the larger agency operating models that have always struggled to accommodate the SME.

So what is the secret sauce to servicing an SME? – well firstly, it takes one to know one.

You need to understand an agile business model and the hustle of a start-up business; you need to be fast, think on your feet, be up for a challenge and be prepared to throw out the timesheets and invest the time and effort into making a difference, and most of all you need to make the money work hard. The truth is, it’s not for everybody. 

But for those that get it, it can be the most rewarding work of your career, the ones that you fondly tell people about after a few wines at dinner or reference in many client meetings to come. While SMEs pose a challenge to agencies to think outside the box to make budgets work harder (or sometimes even turn water into wine) they also give us scope for innovation, creativity, the ability to try new and smarter ways of doing things and to truly make a difference – both to their business and the community as a whole, leaving a lasting impact.

The very nature of SMEs means you are always working directly with owners or business leaders. You become part of their wider team rather than always being perceived as an external supplier. Instead of red tape zones or hoops to jump through, you get businesses that are willing to test ideas faster in order to move with the needs and desires of their customers and markets. For MetroEXP, it is the challenge of thinking on our feet and solving the next set of unique problems that are a huge motivator for the team. In fact, we love it so much we have created a business geared around servicing them!

Let’s talk about the C-word

We can’t talk about SMEs or business in general without tackling the impact that Covid-19 and lockdown culture has had on how we do business, get business and keep business. Here are just some of the highlights on how SMEs have been pivoting and future-proofing so they live to fight another day – and how we as agencies need to adapt to it.

An unknown future requires more adaptability 

Nothing is more constant than change and the fight against Covid-19 has taught New Zealand small business owners and decision-makers that taking a more flexible and agile approach to work is critical for navigating a more uncertain future. This means constantly evolving business models and team structures and exchanging yearly planning for monthly or weekly plans. The 2degrees Shaping Business Study found that more than half (58%) of Kiwi SMEs have changed their approach to work since Covid began. It has never been more important for SMEs to re-examine their operating models to ensure that they are fully prepared for recovery. At the very least, they will have created a fitter, leaner and more agile business. Survival of the fittest has never been more apt (insert Rocky theme song here). In turn, agencies need to adapt a more flexible model to accommodate this change. It’s all about being lean and customisable based on moving requirements – there is no more one size fits all.

Surviving the pandemic means rallying together 

While many SMEs have adapted, moved online or even grown in lockdown there are many that are still feeling the heat. In times like these, it is important to support these businesses and do what we can to help. I know an Auckland Theatre Group that has been bowled over by the number of customers who have waived their right to a ticket refund and have donated the money instead, providing help for all of the people who rely on the arts for employment to feed their families. At MetroEXP, we take pride in investing time into proactive initiatives aimed at helping our clients through these tough times and providing simple solutions often at no cost to give them a win. This recent lockdown we’ve helped with ideas to boost social and digital presence created some digital and social assets to help with Covid-19 communications or even just sent them a pick-me-up to let them know they are not alone.

 Customer service is still the number one priority 

Great customer service is the golden ticket for most businesses, but for SMEs it can literally make or break them. It plays a pivotal role in customer retention, churn and referrals. Whiskey and More, a small family-owned online liquor retailer, puts little bags of jelly beans in its deliveries to thank its customers for supporting a Kiwi owned business. Small touches like these can make all of the difference in the battle to win that second and third repeat order. That’s also true for agencies – a client is as loyal as your relationship. Anyone can and should deliver on time and on budget, but not everyone will offer to help with that important presentation to your boss or stakeholder, celebrate with you on your kids first day of school, send your family a care package halfway around the world when they are going through a tough time, have a coffee and a muffin waiting for you cause they know you didn’t have lunch, or have a meme-off with you when you are working late to make you laugh. The extra mile is the difference between a client and a real partnership.

Lean into smart digital strategies

Many SMEs are adapting to lockdown by leveraging online capability and technology to galvanise and future-proof their business. It’s telling that in research, three out of five SMEs are pursuing new opportunities for the use of technology to help their business survive the pandemic. This includes things like increasing click and collect trading, expanding online expertise and services and becoming more adept at using social media to create supply and demand for their products.

Black Cottage Cafe in Coatesville has created a new online click and collect menu for limited availability treats that sell out well in advance owing to its social posting. Its limited availability Cinnabon is world-famous on Auckland’s North Shore. Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand, who normally rely on supporters undertaking live head shave events to raise sponsorship, organised one large online shave event instead, MC’d by Hilary Barry – it was one of the charity’s most successful fundraising events ever.

As a highly targeted and measurable medium, digital is still the most cost-effective way for SMEs to get reach, awareness and sales to drive their business. Our approach with our SME clients is always digital-first but the key is spending the time to make it contextual to the medium and the audience.

Creating a banner campaign that gets slapped up everywhere isn’t always the best approach. It’s about smart custom creative at the right place at the right time. And it’s about working with smart digital buys – for example, creating a temperature triggered Tik Tok ad to encourage your customers to cool down with your new summer drink, or digital billboards triggered by heavy traffic to send you to get Wendy’s on the way home for dinner. That’s just a few of the examples we have worked on with our clients recently. 

Agencies too are leveraging digital tools and capabilities to keep BAU moving. We can pitch, plan and produce almost anything virtually these days, even helping clients with virtual events. We also have smart ways to film and produce video content to keep schedules on track.

Look after your greatest asset 

He aha te mea nui o te ao, he tangata he tangata he tangata. What is the most important thing in the world? The people, the people, the people. 

It seems obvious to say, but there is no greater value to an SME business than its people. Every staff member is an ambassador, they get the vision, they are where the rubber meets the road and they do the hard yards so you can focus on the bigger picture. It is vital to nurture and grow great people and make them feel valued – because churn can be an SME business killer. This is even more important as we navigate the new norms with working from home and the mental strain that lockdown creates for staff and their families.

 One thing that we’ve done at MetroEXP is to offer more flexibility for staff. We understand that working at home can come with a lot of distractions, and, for staff with families, managing your home life in a pandemic can be quite a balancing act. Since each person’s home life is different, we decided more flexibility was the best option for us. Plus we run initiatives like summer hours, allowing people the freedom to end work early on a Friday afternoon to get a start on the weekend, alongside organising regular virtual get-togethers to help everyone maintain perspective and support mental health. 

So next time you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with an SME, get in the trenches and jump at the challenge that only an SME can bring, better yet, send them over to MetroEXP.

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