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We live in an era of rapid change and technological development. Consequently, many of the business models that companies have relied on for decades have become obsolete almost overnight.

This flux is particularly apparent in the retail industry. Every week we read about once-dominant companies collapsing. Often these stories are accompanied by statistics showing the inexorable movement of shoppers to online stores, the abandonment of the high street and businesses innovating to survive.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the extinction of bricks and mortar retailer is nigh, and that SMEs will never compete against the likes of Amazon. I don’t believe this is true. Consumer habits have changed, but the fundamentals of business haven’t. If you have a good, well-priced product, an efficiently run business and a prospective customer base, you can succeed. The key to this is data. Or more specifically, understanding your data.

Every business decision you make needs to be underpinned by a true understanding of the current situation, and critically, how it could evolve in the future. For example, do you know who your customers are, on which marketing channels they can most effectively be reached, what to say, and when to say it to them? The real impact of your current marketing spend? Which customers you are in danger of losing? How much waste there is in your supply chain? I could go on, but the answer to every question is “what does the data tell us?”

At this point I should clear up some misconceptions. First, more data is not always better – you need to collect the right data. Start with the business problem and work back from there. Second, you are only as good as your technology – get the right data architecture in place. Third, data is not only the privy of large, wealthy companies or technically savvy start-ups. It does not cost the Earth, you do not have to be a technical expert to make it work for you and you will get a swift ROI. I wish I had known this in previous roles leading smaller organisations. It’s time to start asking the right questions of your data. You need this more than the large companies do to compete.

I know it can seem overwhelming. Hiring huge teams and buying lots of solutions is not the answer. Start with getting the building blocks right – sort out your data architecture, and get the right business intelligence in place. I cannot recommend Sisense highly enough for this. It helps me run my business every day. It offers a holistic understanding of your business and its patterns of a kind you’ve likely never seen, and critically, something user-friendly which ensures the data is in the hands of every one of your team so they take the next best action. When you feel confounded there are resources online and, of course, companies like Profusion can help. The most important thing to remember is data is not only accessible to everyone but necessary for everyone to compete in this changing market.

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