Standing by the UK’s small businesses during turbulent times

By Pete Oliver, Managing Director of SME for BT’s Enterprise unit

Almost a year on from the first national lockdown, small businesses have never had it so tough. While there is hope on the horizon from the mass Covid-19 vaccination programme, the troubling reality is that the next few months will make or break many. Government support has provided a vital lifeline, but many small businesses will be feeling anxious at those due to close in the Spring. What’s become clear over the past year is that while Government intervention is essential if small firms are to survive the pandemic, larger companies can play an important role in supporting small businesses, too. That’s because we really are all in this together. Small businesses need larger businesses – and vice versa. We’re part of the same ecosystem – relying on each other for sales and revenues, supply chains, innovation and talent. And with the SME sector making up three fifths of all private sector jobs, it is the bedrock of the UK economy and therefore vital for building post-pandemic prosperity.

BT is amongst a number of large companies which have stepped up to support small businesses over the course of the pandemic. During the first lockdown, we asked small firms to tell us about their biggest worries and three clear themes emerged – connectivity, cash flow and confidence. In response, we launched our Small Business Support Scheme – a broad package of new measures which, by addressing these concerns, helps give businesses a better chance of survival. Since the launch of the scheme last Summer, we’ve helped tens of thousands of small business customers better weather the impact of the pandemic. Here’s a flavour of what’s been delivered so far:

Boosting Connectivity

With many small businesses shifting to online sales out of necessity during the pandemic, we know that reliable, high-speed connectivity is more important than ever. So, as part of our Small Business Support Scheme, we’ve so far helped more than 1,000 small businesses fund the cost of high-speed business lines (or Ethernet connections) by almost £3 million. A further 25,000 small firms are now able to stay better connected to customers when working remotely or out and about thanks to our new Halo for business product. And with Covid-19 driving more cashless transactions, our new Square mobile payments solution is also helping to accelerate the adoption of digital, contactless payments amongst small retailers, with no commission paid on the first £1,000 processed. We’re also supporting the UK start-up sector by offering 6 months’ free fibre broadband, mobile and digital phone line bundles for 1,000 firms.

Better Cash Flow

We’re helping to ease cashflow worries – a top concern amongst small business hit by the pandemic – by giving thousands of small firms in financial distress more flexibility in paying their BT or EE bills. And we’ve fast-tracked the majority of our 4,500 small business suppliers to faster, 30-day payment terms, with the remaining suppliers set to benefit over the coming weeks and months.

Building Confidence

It’s not surprising that small businesses lack optimism during the current climate, with our research showing that more than half are not confident in the future of their business. What’s clear is that businesses can get better prepared for growth post the pandemic by learning new digital skills, with 44 per cent wanting more support in this area. So far, we’ve delivered free digital skills training to a further 20,000 small firms since the launch of the Small Business Support Scheme. That’s on top of the tens of thousands of small businesses that we’ve already reached through our ongoing Skills for Tomorrow programme. We’re delivering on our ambition to equip one million small business owners and their employees with digital skills by 2025 by launching new learning content on crucial topics, such as how to spot and prevent cyber-attacks and using social media tools to boost sales. In the last year alone, we’ve delivered almost 200 free learning webinars for small businesses, with even more to come in 2021. We’re even helping to address mental health issues amongst small firms which are struggling with the impact of the pandemic, through the launch of an online wellbeing toolkit and webinar series.

Introducing BT and Digital Boost’s free mentoring programme for small businesses

At BT, we feel passionately that one of the best ways in which we can help small businesses to boost their confidence is through mentoring. So, this week, we’re bolstering our support for firms through the launch of our free mentoring programme in partnership with Digital Boost. Starting with 1,000 small firms initially, we’re involving BT volunteers – including our senior leadership team – in delivering face to face coaching sessions for small firms across the country. We’re aiming to share our expertise across a wide range of topics where small businesses told us they needed more support, including Cyber Security, Marketing, Advertising, Digital, Strategy, and more. I’m really looking forward to sharing my expertise with a small business and learning a whole lot more about how BT’s experience can help SMEs to build back better. I’d encourage any small business owner who wants to get better positioned for the future by learning new skills to request a free online session via the Digital Boost website – www.digital boost.org.uk.

What’s next?

BT’s support for small businesses will continue over the course of the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, which unfortunately show no sign of abating quite yet. It’s a desperately worrying time for the sector, and while we will do all we can to ease the burden for SMEs, it’s important too that Government avoids ending its support measures in a cliff-edge prior to the phased reopening of the economy. In the meantime, we’ll continue to listen carefully to the needs of small businesses and look at other ways of investing in them – whether that’s through full fibre and 4G/5G; helping to fund apprenticeships; delivering more support around wellbeing; or through the launch of new products and services. For example, we’re set to launch new digital marketing tools for small businesses over the coming months, to help SMEs better promote themselves online and reach more customers. With 63 per cent of small firms wanting more support around marketing and sales, BT’s expertise in using targeted digital advertising - alongside our digital skills and mentoring programmes - can play an important part in helping the sector to rebound post the pandemic.

To find out more about our Small Business Support Scheme, please visit www.bt.com/smallbusinesssupport