As we kick-off the new year emerging from the many upheavals of 2020, businesses in the Asia Pacific region continue to adapt and put plans in place to capitalize on the changes and opportunities ahead.

In thinking about what the year ahead might bring for small to medium businesses (SMBs), let’s take a look at three key trends that SMBs should watch out for in 2021 to position themselves at the forefront of these long-term shifts and maintain their competitive edge.


Trend #1: Seamless integration of online and offline experiences

The pandemic has fundamentally transformed consumer behaviour and driven lasting changes across all industries.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, businesses relied on in-person services and physical interactions to drive sales and consumption, introducing the digital experience mostly at a payment level of the consumer’s purchasing decision.

However, the pandemic has forced businesses online and this has transformed the digital touchpoints and overall online experience throughout the entire customer journey.

This shift towards a contactless customer experience is observed in a variety of industries beyond retail such as insurance, investments and real estate, to name a few.

For instance, today, it is possible to purchase a new insurance policy or make an investment completely online without having to interact with anyone in person. This reality has completely transformed how financial advisors or real estate agents reach out to their customers today.

The integration of online and offline experiences is a long-term shift that will continue to shape the consumer journey in 2021 and beyond.

It is crucial for businesses to rethink how are they targeting, engaging, and onboarding their customers, and how this contactless, digital experience can complement traditional, in-store/physical interactions in the future. This will transform the overall customer experience, which will entail a seamless integration of online and offline touchpoints like we’ve never seen before.


Trend #2: The growth of automation and hyperautomation

With artificial intelligence (AI) and similar emerging technologies becoming increasingly accessible and affordable for SMBs in recent years, we have seen an uptick in automation over the course of 2020 and I  expect this trend to continue in 2021.

One popular type of automation technology commonly deployed is Robotic Process Automation (RPA), which involves the use of “robots” to mimic repetitive human tasks such as processing a transaction and entering data. According to PWC, RPA can yield up to 45% automation of work activities. The RPA market size in Asia Pacific is estimated to reach USD2.9 billion by 2021, double of what it was in 2017.

With technologies like RPA, companies can automate high-volume, tedious business tasks, increase operational efficiency and free up employees’ time to focus on more strategic, high value work.

In addition to automation, hyperautomation will also play a bigger role in the year ahead. Hyperautomation refers to the application of automation technologies like RPA along with AI, machine learning and other emerging technologies to increase the level of automation in companies by integrating different sources of data that were previously siloed.

This can help ensure that all the data-driven intelligence is consolidated, easily accessible and up-to-date, so that companies can effectively capitalize on data and insights for more efficient and accurate decision-making and optimize the deployment of resources.


Trend #3: The evolving role of humans from utility to driving value

The rise of automation has always raised the question about the role of humans in the process. This is why it is crucial to understand that the push for automation is not meant to replace humans.

Together, automation and human involvement help companies deliver superior customer experiences while reducing operational costs, enhancing efficiency and increasing profitability.

Furthermore, automation and the adoption of other technological tools generate vast amounts of data and insights, and the human element plays a critical role in driving value conversations from those intelligence and analysis of the data.

In 2021, we will see a greater emphasis on the role of humans, which will shift from that of utility, to one of creating value.


Staying ahead of the curve

2021 will continue to see the acceleration of technology adoption to augment how people work and allow for more agility, resilience, and innovation among businesses.

Companies will need to be more proactive, nimble, and better able to anticipate customer expectations and needs in a digital-first post-COVID world.

Keeping up to date with these long-term industry trends can give SMBs a competitive edge and enable them to be build crucial capabilities for a fast-changing environment in the year ahead.