Ecommerce expert explains how small businesses can survive COVID-19
The coronavirus lockdown in India has caused significant disruptions in various industries and crippled the MSME sector. These businesses largely depend on recurring sales to meet fixed costs. Currently, they are seeing little to no sales and cash inflow. There are high outstanding dues to be paid to them by large corporates and government organisations.
Halting production, altering their business model, and deferring payments are not the only ways small businesses and MSMEs can optimise costs to stay afloat and survive in the post-COVID-19 era. They can start adopting digital technology such as registering on online marketplaces, build websites, boost their social media presence, improve customer experience using chatbot and cloud phone systems, adopt cloud-based billing solutions, and more.
“India has 63 million MSMEs but only 32 percent of them are digitally engaged. The others must change their strategy and digitise their business processes to survive in the long run. MSMEs with a digital presence will grow faster, as people will continue to avoid meeting each other and social selling will be the new normal,” says B2B ecommerce expert Sandip Chhettri, COO, TradeIndia.com.
In an exclusive interaction with SMBStory, Sandip explains what TradeIndia does, how he thinks consumer behaviour will change post-pandemic, and why going digital will be paramount to the success of MSMEs.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
SMBStory [SMB]: What is TradeIndia all about? What does it do?
Sandip Chettri [SC]: TradeIndia.com is one of the largest B2B online marketplaces in the country with over 5.5 million registered users. It drives online business for suppliers and buyers. It is a one-stop solution offering global buyers and sellers a reliable platform to identify trustworthy business partners. It was started in 1996 by Bikky Khosla in New Delhi.
We focus on a multitude of specialised segments such as online marketing, online trade promotion, connecting global buyers and sellers, sourcing and selling, etc.
SMBS: What is the history of TradeIndia?
SC: The portal is maintained and promoted under the flagship company, Infocom Network Ltd. With branches in 40 cities and employing over 2,000 professionals, TradeIndia initially operated as a publishing firm for exporters’ yellow pages before expanding into an online portal that provided digital directory services to the global export-import community. The portal provided information about Indian and global sellers and buyers, and featured over 80,000 product categories.
Today, we provide 360° digital solutions for end-to-end business-related needs of customers. The main products and services offered include online catalogue, domain, email, SSL, buy leads, payment solution, Google ad words, social media ads, credit reports and business loan solutions for MSMEs.
We have over 3.9 million sellers listed on the platform, who have posted over 10 million products. We also have six lakh app downloads. In 2013, the company launched GetDistributors.com - a unique platform for connecting distributors, franchisees and sales agents with relevant companies and vice-versa.
SMBS: How will the coronavirus pandemic impact MSMEs?
SC: The pandemic will have a material impact on the products and services offered by MSMEs. It may restrict the demand for their products, and the disruption in the supply chain may push prices for raw materials up. This may negatively hurt their cash flows. They are set to face an acute cash crunch due to a sharp fall in business, and deal with operational challenges such as low or zero manpower. The immediate challenge of MSMEs will be to pay their statutory dues, wages and to creditors.
SMBS: How will consumer behaviour change and how can MSMEs adapt to this?
SC: The pandemic is creating a paradigm shift in consumer behaviour. It has changed the way we work, shop, and communicate with people more than any other disruption in the recent past.
Consumers will change their traditional buying habits. They are likely to opt for online buying even after the outbreak ends. Most of the consumers will order products online that they normally purchase offline. They will be worried about meeting people or visiting factories due to fear of being infected. They will also adapt to restricted living and avoid travelling.
Therefore, the digital adoption momentum is likely to carry forward and become permanent. This inflection point will be primarily shaped by two major shifts in customer behaviour - the reluctance to mingle in crowded public places and a higher propensity for digital adoption. The COVID-19 outbreak will mark a tipping point for the adoption of ecommerce and mobile commerce platforms.
SMBS: How can MSMEs adapt to this change in consumer behaviour?
SC: MSMEs across diverse categories cannot rely entirely on their offline presence. They will have to inevitably adjust to the new norms of online buying. This could force every MSME to embrace omnichannel ecosystems and converge the operations of their online and offline stores. Not doing so will mean suffering huge losses in revenues.
MSMEs must rethink their strategy and use this period as an opportunity to build a strong online presence. They must capitalise on the recovery trends by introducing innovative ways of fulfilling orders - be it establishing an Online-to-Offline (O2O) platform or building sophisticated digital logistics and payment reconciliation capabilities to be in the lead in the race to recovery.
They should also capitalise on their existing customer data to drive traffic to their own website. This involves using robust CRM and marketing automation systems to take control of existing customer data.
They will need to improve on online personalisation efforts to differentiate themselves from their competitors.
With continued uncertainty, I predict that brands which are currently the most receptive and agile in meeting these new norms of customer behaviour will prevail, rather than those who wait it out.
SMBS: What are the various digital technologies MSMEs can adopt?
SC: First, they can register on an online marketplace. B2B platforms like Tradeindia.com or any other online marketplace helps MSMEs to have a digital presence instantly, which helps them exhibit products and services to prospects, accelerating purchase decisions and improving conversion rates.
They can also build a user-friendly website to mark their online presence. By taking their businesses online, MSMEs can add efficiency, innovation and accuracy to their existing operations and eventually reduce the turnaround time of their servicing process.
Small businesses have limited resources and bandwidth to exist everywhere, so another approach would be to go deep and go wide. This means they should identify the social media platforms most used by their audience, and create highly valuable and engaging content to build interaction. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, and LinkedIn should be used efficiently because of the large number of users they have.
Improving customer experience should be a top strategy for boosting revenue growth. MSME owners must leverage chatbots for attending to customer queries instantly. Businesses must switch to cloud phone systems and route all their landline calls on the same. It will enable sales and customer support teams to attend business calls on their mobile number, from the comfort of their homes, or any other place. Moreover, real-time call tracking, call recording, and detailed call analytics can be used to make well-informed business decisions.
MSMEs should also look at digitising their business operations via a cloud based billing solution. While a majority of small businesses are finding it difficult to manage their team, allot work or even oversee accounting and compliance, those companies which have opted for SaaS-based compliance solutions are faring well.
By opting for cloud-based CRM software, businesses can fight the inconvenience brought about by this scenario. They can communicate, delegate and monitor all work and also ensure the safety of their team. Thus, even in this time of great turmoil, businesses can keep a track of daily team activity.
While sales may be slow during the COVID-19 pandemic, MSMEs must also focus on generating leads using online mediums that will set up success once the crisis passes. Focus on generating leads should be on using social media marketing and advertising, search advertising, search engine optimisation and email marketing.
MSMEs should also leverage webinars and video calls to boost sales.
SMBS: What more needs to be done to help MSMEs recover?
SC: The government must look at loan provisions to cover wages, suspension of contributions to employee’s provident fund and Employee State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) for six months. They also must look at creating liquidity by clearing dues from government departments, public sector undertakings, GST refunds and fast-track the process of tax refunds.
MSME must be given easier access to bank loans, especially at lower rates, with help from the state and Central governments.
Next, skill upgradation needs to be designed and implemented creatively and the focus should be on digital transformation and use of technology. More awareness about the Credit Linked Capacity Subsidy Scheme (CLCSS), which helps MSMEs with technological upgrades and automation, must be created.
Edited by Javed Gaihlot