Small Business Technology Tips
Greg Sterling, VP of Market Insights, Uberall offers perspective on shifting consumer expectations and how small businesses can use technology to compete with national brands.
The COVID-19 Pandemic has changed the way we live and how we interact with the world around us. In the context of how people interact with local businesses, particularly small businesses, technology is pushing consumer expectations to new levels. From online ordering, to curbside pickup, to contactless payment and much more, businesses have needed to adapt to this new consumer environment.
We spoke with Greg Sterling, VP of Market Insights at Uberall, to understand the broader shifts in these consumer expectations, what can happen when technology fails, how to stay competitive and much more.
VP of Market Insights
Greg Sterling is one of the leading analysts and speakers on location marketing, location intelligence and the small business marketplace. Greg has 20 years of experience as an analyst, writer, and researcher focused on digital and location-based media and marketing. He was a contributor to Search Engine Land for 14 years. Before joining Uberall, Sterling was the VP of strategy & insights at The Local Search Association.
FULL VIDEO INTERVIEW
Changing Consumer Behaviors
One thing that I was thinking a lot about, and I was seeing that you were posting about just kind of the impact of the pandemic and how it was changing how businesses and small businesses were reacting and all that kind of stuff. And I think there’s been a lot of interesting ways that people have kind of pivoted, and I mean, for example, for one instance, in mind, there’s a local kind of diner near me that just online order paper to the phone, go pick it up. Great, perfect for me, I still do it now. So, we’re still actually and especially having kids, I think that contributes to that reasoning, why, but now I’m like, you know, what a great experience of that small little diner had. And I guess my question for you is, as you kind of are watching the space, and how that that impact, the pandemics impact had on these small businesses? What are some of the more interesting shifts? And how people are interacting with the businesses in their area? Whether it’s a diner to service-based businesses, what are some of the things that you think are some of the more interesting shifts in the consumer behavior?
Well, I mean, I think that, you know, consumers have always used the internet to do product and services research before buying. But I think that has been reinforced, you know, people, people bought more stuff online, more types of things online. And as, as your example illustrates, it’s about convenience for them. So, I think that, you know, more electronic interaction between businesses, and consumers and consumers, you know, a lot of a lot of things might have been handled in the past, you know, in a manual way, or with paper or with face-to-face visits, and I think more activity is becoming digital.
In the healthcare field, this is not necessarily small business. But in the healthcare field, you know, there are more virtual doctor visits. Now, you know, more, there were more there were phone concept consultations in the past, but now what you’re getting is more video, like FaceTime, video, or, or zoom or whatever, where people are doing these kinds of, you know, check ins that could have that probably would have required an office visit in the past.
Payments is another area that’s pretty interesting, and pretty widespread, that has not gotten as much attention, perhaps as it deserves, you know, early on Apple Pay and Google pay weren’t that widely adopted, you could especially, I mean, Google, especially Google pay, but you know, there were few chains and grocery stores that were taking it, but not a lot of people were using it. Now, you know, it’s the minority who don’t take, you know, NFC payments, where you can’t pay with your phone. And I haven’t seen any recent data to indicate how widely used it is.
But just in my anecdotal experience, you know, my little local taqueria that I would go to, they still don’t have an app or online ordering, which is a pain in the, you know what, but you know, I go in there and I can pay very quickly, I don’t have to use cash, I don’t have to pull out a credit card. So, sort of contact free payments is pretty widespread. And that’s, you know, up and down the line from small businesses to major retailers and department stores. And that’s, that’s not gotten as much coverage as I would have thought, because it’s pretty significant change in behavior. It doesn’t necessarily have any marketing implications for small businesses.
But in terms of the consumer experience, a lot of these things, create expectations that are applied to competitors. So, if you have a great, you know, I’ll just use Whole Foods, because that’s one of the grocery stores that I shop at. It’s not again, not a small business category, but it illustrates the larger point. So, they have delivery, you could do curbside pickup, you know, or you can go into the store and pay with your phone. And so, I’ve done all those things. And the convenience of that is really great. And my local Safeway, and lucky supermarkets that are closer to me, don’t have those capabilities, they do the payment, contact, free payments, but not pickup and delivery, not curbside pickup, and no delivery. So, if I’m pressed for time, there’s no question I’m going to go back to Whole Foods. And so that that creates a certain kind of self-reinforcing pattern of loyalty. And the point for small business customers is when there’s a great user experience out in the world, especially in a category that you compete in, people are going to start expecting everybody to have that capability.
And it won’t be a deal breaker, if you’ve got a great reputation, you know, good online reviews, all those things. But it’s really important for businesses to understand what’s going on in their segment and to try the best they can to make it easy for the customer. Have you do business with them, which may mean adopting some technology that they don’t currently have?
Failing to Meet Expectations with Tech
I wanted to kind of follow up on what you said – these major retailers, they’re investing in this technology, creating an expectation, and now that expectation can then be applied or is being applied to small business, large business, it doesn’t matter. And I think there’s an implication, if you do adopt this technology, the consumer is going to expect that it works the right way. So as an example, the same diner, we placed an order on a day that they actually were closed, it was a special circumstance that they were closed, but they didn’t turn off the online ordering feature. So, we placed the order, made the payment and we showed up and no one was there. But you know, again, it’s a local diner, I’m not going to get all mad.
Yeah, you’re forgiving, but it makes it makes the point that you’re trying to make.
Yeah, right. And I think that the question I have is – so you adopt this technology, the service, this feature with interacting with your business contact list payments, whatever it is. What is the potential repercussion in your eyes on having an experience like that, or multiple experiences like that?
Well, so I think that that’s right, that’s you raise a very fair point, which is that the other side of this is if it if it goes wrong, if it doesn’t work, as expected, if you make, so these technologies sort of make a promise to the to the consumer, and if they don’t work, then there’s frustration and potential negative repercussions. You know, that could your if you had been a jerk, you could have written a really negative review on Yelp or Google right. And even though it would have been an isolated review, still, it’s not something that the business wants if we can avoid that. So, I do think you, I think, so the caveat is don’t just adopt everything, nobody’s in a position to do that anyway, but don’t just indiscriminately just add technology, you have to be thoughtful about it and thoughtful about the customer experience. And, and do it in a way that’s going to work for you and work for the customer better, better to not roll something out, if it’s going to be the bad version than to, you know, then to stay with an older process that still mostly, mostly works.
ADOPTING NEW TECH
So given kind of some of the shifts in expectations, consumer expectations. What do you think, in terms of small businesses and their adoption of technology? Is it like, “hey, you better do something is better than nothing?” Is it, “hey, be thoughtful?” Is it, what is it in your eyes? Given these shifts in behavior? How does the Small Business kind of adapt, pivot, and adjust to be competitive in the market?
Well, so they, so when, when apps first came out, and whatever it was 2008, or nine, everybody built an app. And then sometime thereafter, people realize, oh, no one’s going to download my app, if I’m a roofing company, you know. So, I think that analogy holds for certain kinds of technology.
I think you need to be, you certainly need to be present on Google, you know, have a complete Google My Business profile, have a Facebook page, maybe Instagram account, depending on who you are. And you can use these third-party technology tools and platforms, where there’s very little technical, you know, are limited technical knowledge required to set them up. It’s more, you know, it’s more about time and sort of knowledge of best practices, which everybody doesn’t have. But use those first, because that’s where the customer is, or Yelp, for example.
I’m in the process of having to put a roof on my house, which is why I use that example a second ago, because it’s top of mind. And, you know, I went to Google, I went to Yelp, I looked at some reviews and next door also is another one that may be useful for some small businesses. And I got some recommendations, I contacted them – having the capacity – multiple ways to contact you is very valuable. Email, certainly phone for people that want that. And, and chat messaging is great.
So, use you know, using the existing platforms, where your customers are going to look for you in the first place, or do the kinds of searches and lookups that might result in a contact, and then utilizing the tools that make it easy for them on these platforms typically, but you know, also on your website, they make it easy for people to contact you. So, some, some companies have a webform, as opposed to an email address.
But then beyond that, the thing that really will differentiate businesses is kind of good old-fashioned responsiveness and customer service. Just to use my roofing example, again, I went through Yelp and Google, and you know, different places and reached out to these people. And I prefer to do it electronically, rather than get on the phone and try and get ahold somebody initially. And then subsequently, schedule those appointments. I had three, three roofing companies come out, the first guy came out, and he’d never got me an estimate, he just he was the first one never sent me an estimate. To others did, they were both responsive, I got it through email. And I was able to make a choice based on that. But the time factor was really critical in getting to the customer. And this is just common sense.
Also respond to reviews, this is sort of a version of that. whoever they are, they’re going to have reviews online at this point. And they need to monitor that, and they need to respond to them. And there’s a longer discussion about that’s not my customer, hey, where are all my good reviews, that kind of thing? That’s a longer discussion, but look at your reviews, Google, Facebook, Yelp, and if you’re in a particular industry, there are going to be sites that have reviews and respond to those reviews. You probably have to set up an account. But look at them, respond to them, hear what people are saying. Responsiveness is really a very basic thing, but it’s really important. You know?
ONLINE CHAT TECHNOLOGY
Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, I think that again, like you introduce to your point that we talked about earlier, you introduced chat you introduced I was like I don’t know how many people I’ve seen that introduced chat, and don’t even have the system in place for someone to be responding to those chats.
Well, that’s right. That’s just another sort of good business, common sense thing is that you don’t want to create a channel for your customers and then nobody’s there to receive the message or people don’t pay attention. One other quick example, I have an elderly mother, I’m dealing with her doctor, I have to call that office every time wait on hold for 510 15 minutes, I can’t contact the doctor directly. They have an email address, which is some convoluted non intuitive thing. And they never respond to it. And it’s, it’s just a bad experience all the way around, you know, you have to look at your own, you have to look at your own business from the through the eyes of your customer. And imagine what it would be like to deal with you if you were the customer and assess, you know, is it easy to talk to you? how responsive Are you being? Is your is your, you know, website terrible? It’s just these kinds of basic things.
In the doctor scenario, I don’t think people are as inclined to be like, “they didn’t respond to my email, I’m going to find another doctor,” you know what I mean? You have to deal with them. So there’s these certain spaces or industries where you’re kind of like, subject to whatever their response time is, and you kind of have no choice, which is unfortunate. But in the world where I can order food online, on my phone and go pick it up in like, 10 minutes, these experiences are very frustrating.
I agree. I mean, this is my mother’s doctor. So, I especially have no choice in the matter. But it’s an illustration of somebody who really is doing things in a way that used to prevail decades ago and hasn’t really modernized. And it’s very frustrating. And, and but those are, those are increasingly, the marginal cases. I mean, there are situations where you have to deal with their setup, regardless of what it is. But more and more I think people are, are updating their systems. And so, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s an illustration of the, of the consumer expectations, being transferred to another area and getting really frustrated. Years ago, nobody would have been frustrated by that. That would have just been what you expected, you know, rude receptionist that wait on hold for 10 minutes – doctor call you back in three days.
But, you know, one, one quick comment about this, this issue, because there was an article just in the Wall Street Journal a couple of days ago, or maybe it was last week, about how Amazon’s next day shipping, you know, very compressed shipping time, had created all these expectations that small businesses were trying to compete with conform to, and how it’s put a lot of pressure on them to do fulfillment really quickly. And which is unfortunate because they obviously don’t have the resources that Amazon does.
But it’s a kind of an inevitable thing where maybe you can get away with a shorter shipping time. I mean, you don’t, you know, you can’t do next day. But maybe you can do something more accelerated. But that’s, that’s the world we’re living in now. You know, and, and especially when you’re dealing with a product, supplier or product, somebody who sells a product, you know, Amazon is sort of always looming or lurking in the background there. Because, you know, so many people use Amazon. And it’s just, it’s the, it’s the no brainer default system for so many people.
So, you have to do something better. You have to, you know, you can’t compensate with technology, maybe, but you can compensate with service. You know, overall experience, and loyalty.
THE BASICS OF SMALL BUSINESS TECH
Five years ago, there were all these studies and research showing some crazy number of small businesses didn’t even have a website. And it was probably I think more the Home Services side, but regardless, there was some crazy number of businesses without a website. Now we’re talking about online ordering, you know, pick up in store and all these different use cases. What would you say if you don’t even have a website? What would you be saying to a small business without a website?
Well, to some degree, it depends on whether their service or product business, but beyond that, I would say, you know, if you have to focus on one thing, focus on Google. There are a host of businesses for whom social media is really effective. Yeah. And so, it depends. You know, some people are having enormous success with Instagram, for example, depending on who they’re on. isn’t what they’re selling. But if just generic advice would be or Tick Tock in some cases generic advice would be get if you’re if you have a physical location or if you’re a service area business meaning you go to people’s houses, get on Google, you know fill out and verify your Google My Business profile completed, put a bunch of photos on there, your work, you know, whatever is relevant to your business, make sure those photos look relatively good fill out all the fields that is really important because in most cases, people are going to look at Google and that’s going to be in their research process in their buying in their in their purchase process.
And then you also have to pay attention to reviews you know, in there and Google has a way to expedite review solicitation you can get a link and email it to your customers and say review us and that doesn’t violate their terms both mass emailing me, but I don’t think that so listening by itself doesn’t.
And so be on Google get some Google reviews don’t pay for them don’t do anything unethical. And then you know, branch out it really depends though on where your audiences, but Google is the one thing that I think is, is probably more essential than anything else, you know, barring you’re selling some beauty product and you’re an influencer and you can get away with Tick Tock right without a website. Right? Because they now have social media ecommerce too, right? Instagram stores. Facebook stores.