South African SMEs embrace digitalisation: 47% say that digital engagement with customers has improved 

Published on 2021/01/18 by Sonia Navarrete

digitalisation of South African businesses

In just a matter of months, the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world at the speed of light. Most businesses weren’t prepared and were forced to adapt to extraordinary challenges in order to continue with business operations –whilst battling to stay afloat. In South Africa, many businesses have opted for mass work-from-home policies for their staffas businesses navigate through new ways of working as a direct result of the pandemic.  

Digital transformation has become the enabler, propelling businesses into the future. Technologies like collaboration and online meeting software have become a necessity through the transition to digitally enable remote workingThe acceleration saw a broader impact on commercial use of technology, transforming everything from the way businesses interact with prospects and customers, to the internal processes needed, not only to survive, but thrive as business enterprises. 

 As we enter 2021, it is vital for organisations to shift from using digital for disaster recovery, to a more considered application of technology that will drive business benefits post-pandemic.  

The digitalisation of South African SMEs

To assist businesses with ensuring their technology deployments deliver real commercial value, GetApp recently surveyed over 500 SME business leaders about their digitalisation and experiences in accelerating transformation initiatives. The results suggested a need to focus on planning for the long-term, as well as working with technology partners that can support this forward-thinking approach.  

61% of respondents cited social distancing as a driver for going online.

Despite the government’s decision to ban online shopping for all but essential purchases under Level 5 Lockdown, ecommerce has flourished with large numbers of consumers making online purchases for the first timeThis indicates that these consumers were likely to increase their online spend in the future.  

Almost half of South African businesses (46%) state that the majority of their business has been conducted virtually since the start of the pandemic:  

businesses are conducted virtually since Covid-19

South African businesses are seeing over 76increase in digital traffic, whilst 18% have seen a decrease and 10% have had no change in the digital traffic. In addition to increased digital customer and prospect engagements, businesses confirm that 38% of new traffic has originated in regions or countries where they had not previously operated in:  

new traffic from new regions

Just 11 days into 2021, South Africa was at its most devastating peak of the pandemic, and the new variant of the coronavirus seems to be forcing the state back into harder lockdowns. It is becoming more crucial for businesses to adapt to digitisation and accelerate their transformation to maintain business services through the year. 

88% of business leaders surveyed believe that software purchases have enabled their businesses ability to survive

It has taken agility and innovation to mitigate through this new world order, create new revenue channels, upskill or reskill staff at this accelerated pace. All these, which were lingering issues pre-pandemic, have now been given the spotlight during COVID-19. 

Optimising digitisation strategy depends on first understanding over-arching business goals. For most of our respondents, these goals are relatively consistent throughout 2021. Across both the first financial quarter and 2021 as a whole, a significant proportion identified retaining customers, increasing cash flow, cutting costs, finding new customers and retaining employees as their top five business goals for the year: 

short and long term business goals south african companies 2021

 88% of business leaders surveyed believe that software purchases have enabled their businesses ability to survive:  

role of software for survival businesses

The survey also looked at the success of businesses in engaging with customers in digital environments, such as social media and the business website.  

The most positive response with 47% shared that a digital engagement with customers has been very much of a success; while it has fairly been successful for 40% respondents, almost three quarters (11%) of respondents said the digital engagement with customers is a minimal success. However, customer digital engagements are not at all successful for 2% of respondents. Any shift that was unplanned always comes with challenges, and as such, businesses have experienced moderately challenging aspects in converting their businesses digitallyconverting the in-person services provided to be online (e.g., teaching classes online) had the highest respondents with 43This is followed by 41% of respondents who said shifting from in-person meetings to virtual ones is also moderately challenging.  

In order to drive support in the digital shift, the survey asked the respondents which other emerging technologies could be valuable to their businesses as well as to drive the success of their business digital transformation; and 58% believe that Internet of things (IoT) connectivity could be beneficial to their business, followed by 58% who believed in  Big data analytics to a range of 49% – 46% of respondents who believed that Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning as well as Cloud-based data storage would be valuable to their business leaving  10% who  believe that  Blockchain could also be valuable to their businesses.  

The respondents also shared further operational changes they have considered or implemented because of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing requirements as well as the areas of their business where they plan to invest the most in digitisation in 2021.  

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Survey methodology 

Data for this study was collected in December 2020 from an online survey of 500 respondents that live in the South Africa. 

To participate on the survey, respondents had to be: 

  • Employed full-time in one of the following roles: 
  • Owner, founder or other head of an organisation 
  • C-Suite executive e.g. CEO, CIO 
  • President of Vice-president  
  • Director 
  • Manager 
  • Working for a company of up to 250 people 
  • Working at the organisation during the COVID-19 pandemic

This article may refer to products, programs or services that are not available in your country, or that may be restricted under the laws or regulations of your country. We suggest that you consult the software provider directly for information regarding product availability and compliance with local laws.


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