Small businesses must embrace digital trends to meet changing consumer preferences
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic more than one year ago, Chicagoland small business owners have endured incredible change, adapting essentially overnight to a new world defined by uncertainty, shifting consumer behaviors and heightened health and safety measures.
In many cases digitization enabled individuals and businesses to adhere to social distancing protocols that kept us safe while remaining connected. But it also accelerated and normalized a more digital world.
Consumers, many with a new appreciation for the convenience and ease of interacting digitally, will expect continued and expanded digital access in the post-coronavirus world. In fact, according to Bank of America's 2020 Small Business Owner Report, 73 percent of entrepreneurs believe consumers will be less likely to visit brick-and-mortar stores in the future.
However, digital innovation for its own sake won't move the needle in a meaningful way. Instead, Chicago-area business leaders considering an investment in digital should determine its value by placing clients at the center of the equation. Below are some considerations drawn from Bank of America's long-standing commitment to digital and feedback from our Chicagoland clients.
Choose digital tools that enhance the client experience
First, prioritize digital tools that enhance the client experience and facilitate seamless, on-demand interactions between your company and its clients. Whether making products and services available on-demand via mobile app or offering electronic signature options for contracts, digital tools can be a great way to help clients conduct business with you safely, securely and efficiently. Our clients increasingly use digital tools to deposit funds, send money, book appointments and even apply for loans.
Seek flexible digital solutions in this changing environment
Protect your investment in digital by choosing tools that can learn and grow with your business and stay relevant in an evolving environment. Last year, Bank of America's virtual financial assistant, Erica, learned more than 60,000 coronavirus-related terms, ensuring the AI-powered platform could understand clients' concerns and provide relevant, timely support. Digital tools that learn from and grow with your business is key.
Use digital tools to free up time and grow your business
Internally, choose digital resources that work for you and your team (instead of the other way around), allowing you to focus on providing products and services that drive value for your clients. Today, four out of five Bank of America small business clients are digitally active, choosing to automate processes like banking, payroll, accounting and HR so they can focus on building and growing their businesses.
Embrace contactless payments
Instant, contactless payments are becoming a preferred method for financial transactions -- both in-person and virtually. About 13 million Bank of America clients, including small businesses, are now active Zelle users, an increase of 33% in the past year. These clients sent and received more than 517 million transactions totaling $141 billion in 2020. Businesses that embrace contactless payments will have a leg up on their competitors as our economy moves forward.
Today, about 70% of Bank of America consumer client households and small business clients are digitally active. Growth in digital engagement is expected to continue as people enjoy personalized experiences and embrace the convenience of managing their businesses and financial lives from wherever they please.
For small businesses around Chicagoland, expanding digital tools and solutions that are centered on clients' needs and goals can strengthen business this year and for years to come.
• John Scully is managing director, head of Small Business Digital Sales and Service at Bank of America. He is based in the Chicago area.