Digital experience, the way organisations engage with customers, partners, and their employees, is a critical attribute that will determine the viability of businesses, especially SMEs, in a progressively distributed business environment. In a recent study conducted with Oxford Economics on enterprises in these Southeast Asian countries – Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines – customer and employee experience has emerged as a core priority for 60% of surveyed SMEs looking to secure their long-term success.

It’s clear that superior experiences increasingly form the foundation of sustainable growth, particularly in the very dynamic and diverse Asia Pacific region. It is this foundation from which other key ingredients – customer acquisition, talent attraction and retention, next-generation technologies and data-driven decision making – come together to fast-track growth.

Photo from Rasa Malaysia

Just like my favourite food, beef rendang, every single ingredient offers a unique flavour to the palate to make it an outstanding dish. Experience can the element that seals the recipe for long-term success for SMEs in the region. Let’s look a little more closely at this.

Customer Experience as the Main Ingredient

The nature of work and business has changed because of the pandemic. As a result, building trust with customers, which smaller firms tend to see as their inherent competitive advantage, has changed fundamentally. In fact, our study showed that enterprises in the region identify customer experience as a strategic imperative for survival and growth, with more than a third (34%) saying service excellence is now their primary source of value and differentiation. Positive customer experiences have become the foremost strategic consideration for businesses, with key factors being personalisation for the customer (58%) and providing high-quality products and/or services (54%).

SMEs need to experiment and innovate with new technologies and business models that will deliver better experiences. The accelerated pace of digital transformation over the last year gives them a golden opportunity to experiment and scale new innovations and engagement models to better enable resiliency and growth.

Perfecting the Craft by Organising for Agility

If customer experience is the main ingredient, then agility and being data-driven are key condiments that will unleash the full flavour of the perfect dish we want to serve up. Taking the first steps to establish a digital backbone is crucial to enable greater agility. This digital backbone will enable SMEs to maximise their operational efficiency to ensure business continuity, and expediate decision making processes in the face of disruptions.

The tectonic shift in consumer behaviour has major implications for SMEs in the region. 40 million people in six countries, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, went online for the first time in 2020 — pushing the total number of internet users in Southeast Asia to 400 million — or nearly 70% of the population. Digital engagement models are no longer a good to have, but a must-have, and digital platforms must no longer be constrained to just marketing channels, but instead, must serve as a conduit for businesses to reach and engage more users.

A Generous Serving of Growth

In my conversations with customers, many understand the importance of having a digital backbone. However, some are still hesitant to jump all into digital. My humble advice to them is to take small steps, but don’t delay those small steps. In a region like Southeast Asia with an increasingly digital-first citizenry, relatively youthful demographic, and a growing middle class – the prioritisation of experience will place SMEs firmly on a long-term growth trajectory.

What are your thoughts on customer experience? Do you think it is a foundational ingredient for business success?

Claus Andresen is senior vice president and head of Midmarket for SAP APJ.