How one app kept SMBs in business during lockdown — no Internet required

Oluwatobi Asekun / February 2021

Oluwatobi Asekun manages operations for the Google for Startups Accelerator Africa programme. Here she outlines how one of the Accelerator’s startups changed its focus under lockdown to enable its merchants to trade online, even when their customers were offline.

2020 will be remembered as the year in which a pandemic accelerated digital transformation for businesses across the board, no matter their size or location. For a number of businesses in Sub-Saharan Africa, lockdown exacerbated existing infrastructural challenges, such as poor and expensive Internet connectivity and low levels of digital transformation among small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs).

For those in the Enugu State in eastern Nigeria, the lockdown meant that business declined dramatically. Merchants and payments platform Xend realised it had to do something to help the SMBs it supports to digitally transform their operations quickly. This sudden disruption meant that the team needed to get closer to their customers in order to adapt fast.

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Turning insight into action

Xend produces an app called Geena, a personal assistant for businesses, that manages everything from point of sale, to customer relationship management, and business intelligence.

In April 2020, with hard lockdown measures firmly in place, Google Analytics data showed a sharp decline in use of the app. Xend wanted to know why. With the lockdown keeping potential buyers at home, far fewer people were physically visiting their customers’ stores. This meant the merchants were conducting fewer transactions, and consequently showed up as reduced levels of activity on the Xend platform.

Being there for your customers means more than just meeting their immediate needs. It also means anticipating what they may need further down the line

Businesses don’t exist to solely provide customers with products and services. They have the unique ability to act as a source of support when customers have urgent and unexpected needs. And as Xend discovered, one of the best ways to understand how to support your customers in these situations happens to be one of the simplest: ask them directly.

Build for the user by building with the user

Following a series of advisory sessions with customers, the team was able to pivot and update its app with critical features. SMBs now had the ability to market their products to people in their neighbourhood, get donations from their customers and supporters, manage the order and delivery process, as well as gain a holistic view of inventory, transaction activity, and more.

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Being there for your customers means more than just meeting their immediate needs. It also means anticipating what they may need further down the line.

Understanding that a drop in Internet connectivity could make matters significantly worse than existing lockdown pressures, Xend updated its app to be offline first. This allows customers to record sales even when there is no Internet connection — essential in a region where erratic connectivity is common.

Knowing that they can operate their businesses as normal any time of day gives customers peace of mind. Once the Internet connection is back, the app synchronises the data online, freeing the SMBs up to focus on keeping their customers happy.

Success isn’t a destination — keep iterating

Xend plans to include more personalisation tools for users so they can create solutions tailored to their future needs. Empowering users with development tools and services that have real relevance and meaning in their day-to-day lives gives marketers and businesses a chance to develop meaningful long-term relationships. It's a lifelong endeavour based on a simple strategy: make sure your relationship with your customers matters.

Businesses have the unique ability to act as a source of support when customers have urgent and unexpected needs

3 ways to solve your customers’ pain points today

Involve your customers in the problem solving process

Ask them directly, ask them often, and involve them as far as you can in the solution process. Open communication lines between you and your customers are beneficial for two reasons. For one thing, they help solve problems. And, perhaps more importantly, they are a great way to build loyalty and trust between you and your customers.

Anticipate your customers’ needs

Helpfulness should be at the core of every business’ purpose. This includes helping your customers solve problems before they even see them coming. Think carefully about your local context. What kind of support can you offer customers that will help make their day-to-day easier? How can you help them prepare for uncertainty?

Remember that it’s more than just business

Today’s consumers expect businesses to be socially responsible in actuality, not just in their messaging. Ensure that your brand is there for your customers beyond the transactional experience. Consider offering additional services like mentorship or business advice. This can go a long way in building a relationship based on loyalty with your customers.

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