Tim Vine, Head of Credit Intelligence at Dun & Bradstreet
The closed doors of businesses have become a sadly familiar sight on the high street. With social distancing in force, many of the small and medium-sized enterprises at the heart of the economy have been lockdown was enforced. Unfortunately, it looks like we’re a long way from returning to business as usual.
Access to finance is critical for many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) right now. The government has recognised this with loan schemes that seek to inject much needed cashflow into smaller businesses, and financial services providers are equally looking to offer support.
However, in recent years SMEs have had a tricky relationship with borrowing, lacking confidence with the types of finance and options available. In 2018, nearly half of the UK’s small business owners viewed themselves as permanent non-borrowers (47%). Equally, lenders have sometimes struggled to access the information needed to make robust loan decisions.
Understanding the full range of lending options available will be critical for smaller businesses to make informed borrowing decisions in the coming weeks. Credit reference agencies (CRAs) can play a key role in supporting SMEs, as they secure the finance they need to weather the current storm.
The double-edged sword
The borrowing decisions taken now will impact the financial health of SMEs for many months to come. However, even before the coronavirus outbreak, there were signs that these businesses didn’t always have the awareness or the information needed to make confident borrowing decisions.
A survey commissioned by Dun & Bradstreet in late 2019 found that 46% of SME respondents seek business loans from the bank, with 25% turning to private investors and 23% to family members or friends. According to research from the British Business Bank in 2019, small business owners had misgivings about the cost (29%), strict conditions (26%) and difficulty (25%) of securing finance – that put them off applying for loans. This left many SMEs facing a double-edged sword when it came to finance: put off by the terms offered by their bank, but not willing to look elsewhere.
Perhaps as a result, finance has been used as a way to keep the doors open, rather than developing the business. Where SMEs were borrowing, it was most often for working capital to continue trading (56%) – rather than to invest or expand. In Dun & Bradstreet’s survey, over half (52%) of respondents believe there is a lack of financial support available to help small businesses grow and succeed. Today, the challenge to survive is tougher than ever in the wake of COVID-19, so it’s vital that SMEs can look beyond one provider to find finance on the best terms possible.
Lack of information
Importantly, in 2019 small and medium-sized enterprises were most likely to rely on their own knowledge – rather than external sources – when considering access to finance. When asked about their most common source of guidance, small business owners pointed to themselves – both for choosing the type of finance (35%) and the specific provider (30%). Right now, this could result in SMEs limiting their borrowing options and missing out on the best choice for the business.
On the other side of the fence, banks historically struggled to approve loans to SMEs due to a lack of information about the risk they represent. Unlike larger businesses, SMEs haven’t been required to register at Companies House or publish annual accounts.
However, since the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act of 2015, credit reference agencies (CRAs) have had access to information on how banks lend to small and medium-sized businesses. This means that CRAs can act as an independent intermediary between SMEs and lenders, offering information to support robust lending decisions during this critical time.
Linking SMEs to lenders
Credit reference agencies can act as an important link between SMEs and lenders. CRAs can provide banks with the depth of data needed to make qualified decisions about offering loans to SMEs, as well as providing greater clarity on how to handle marginal decisions. In other words, CRAs help lenders to say yes as much as possible, to the right business at the right time.
On the business side, credit reference agencies can link SMEs to a wider range of sources for finance, suggesting alternative options and providing clarity over declined applications, to help as many SMEs access finance as possible. Solutions offered by CRAs can help smaller and medium-sized businesses to get a holistic view of their options to make informed decisions – and secure finance on the best terms for them.
Importantly, many CRAs are also taking steps to avoid unfairly discriminating against SMEs due to special measures taken during the pandemic. For example, rating systems will draw distinctions between where SMEs have negotiated approved payment freezes with suppliers and payment defaults, without an impact on credit ratings. This will support smaller businesses’ recovery in the long term.
In everyone’s interests
With strict social distancing rules in place, many of the UK’s SMEs may have to face this period of hibernation for a while longer. Access to finance will be vital for meeting financial commitments, protecting jobs and ultimately staying in business until more normal times return.
Right now, it’s vital that SMEs are able to make informed decisions about the finance that they access, including the lender that they choose and the form that it takes. Equally, lenders should be able to make qualified lending decisions, providing crucial cashflow to SMEs that can afford it. By opening up data on both sides, credit reference agencies can act as a critical intermediary and help to keep SMEs in business.
HOW FINANCE TEAMS CAN UTILISE MODERN TECHNOLOGIES TO PREDICT AND MITIGATE RISK
Carol Lee, CFO of Wrike
There is no denying that the finance function plays an important role in every aspect of ‘doing business’. Although much of ensuring strong financial health, tracking revenue, and managing budgets will take place behind the scenes, all are key ingredients which, ultimately, determine whether a business is successful. This is even more relevant in today’s climate.
Thanks to the ongoing pandemic and resulting economic flux, each and every business has faced financial challenges in recent months. As revenues continue to falter, budgets are tighter than ever and profitability is essential.
Amid the economic uncertainty, CFOs and finance teams are set to play an important role in recovery efforts moving forward. Ensuring financial wealth and a solid revenue stream has never been more important. For many, it has also never been more difficult to achieve.
The modern finance team needs to be about far more than month-end and retrospective quarterly reporting. The pandemic has highlighted how important this statement is, with sudden shifts in consumer demand for certain products and services driving drastic changes in revenue for many businesses. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, many supermarkets will have seen their revenues increase, whilst restaurants and gyms witnessed significant dips following necessary closures.
In order to survive this time of turmoil, finance teams need to be able to quickly and efficiently adapt to these changes in customer behaviour. Planning projects that are expected to yield profit is no longer enough. Finance teams need to ensure that these projects maintain profitability throughout their lifecycle, controlling financials from the planning phase through client delivery. As such, tracking budget spend in real-time in order to keep margins positive and meet customer expectations is key.
Visibility needs to be front of mind, especially in our new remote working landscape, where face-to-face communications has had to take a backseat. The right performance metrics, delivered on time, can enable finance teams to track and obtain a deeper understanding of how projects and finance strategies are progressing and delivering against set objectives. They can help to determine stress points in the business and articulate events and triggers for certain financial actions to be taken.
When utilised alongside the right modern technologies, they can even help to save projects that aren’t delivering, flagging potential problems and recommending where adjustments should be made.
Predicting and mitigating risk
Whether it’s unforeseen additional costs, tight margins, or budget burn, these are the factors that can make or break the success of a project and, ultimately, a business. By using real-time insights, finance teams can play a pivotal role in keeping the entire organisation on track. In order to take this one step further and mitigate any potential risks before they wreak havoc, finance teams need to be able to predict and plan for a series of different outcomes. This is where modern technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) can help.
Tools with these technologies can help finance teams to get one step ahead and tackle at-risk projects before they cause any issues. By identifying signals and patterns based on hundreds of factors – including past campaign results, work progress, organisation history and work complexity – they provide extremely timely diagnosis and help to minimise risk throughout the entire organisation. For each project, an automated risk assessment prediction will be issued. For both medium and high risk levels, the machine learning model will also provide a list of factors that could contribute to potential delays. The insights that these reports provide can help to save entire projects.
Once a finance team knows what the potential risk might be, they can turn their attention towards what is truly important – managing and mitigating it. This can be done by assessing a project’s ‘risk tolerance’. Put simply, how much risk can you allow before you need to act. This is an essential part of any project management process, helping finance professionals to decide on the most effective response and ensuring that resources are being used in the most effective way.
As organisations across every sector fight to get back on their feet post-pandemic, ensuring long-term profitability will be a key focus. Many businesses will turn to their finance teams to lead the charge and provide the solutions and recommendations which will ensure future economic survival. As such, having a plan in place to make sure that all projects stay on track and that any potential risks to the business are mitigated before they cause a problem needs to be a priority. By investing in modern technologies – such as AI and ML – today, finance teams are setting themselves up for success tomorrow, no matter what is around the corner.
TAPPING INTO THE RIGHT MINDS
David Holden-White, co-founder and managing director, techspert.io
The world is awash with information. Analyst house IDC estimated that more than 59 zettabytes of data would be created, captured, copied and consumed in 2020, and that the amount of data created over the next three years will be more than what was created in the past 30. The boom in consumer technology and the rapid improvement in mobile connectivity has meant that the 48% of the globe that owns a smartphone has near instant access to all the digitised, publicly available information in the world in their pocket.
A world overloaded by information
It’s no surprise that people talk of information overload, or how much it impacts productivity. It’s not new either. A 2012 study from McKinsey & Co highlighted that nearly a fifth of professionals’ time was spent searching for and gathering information, half of the time they spent undertaking role-specific tasks. This is only likely to have increased as we’ve become more dependent on digital tools and services.
On top of that is the realisation that, thanks to social media, we’re living in a time when anyone can be an influencer or thought leader if they shout loud enough. It doesn’t matter whether you’re pushing trainers or cloud computing, whether your audience is a broad spectrum of consumers or a niche group of B2B buyers; the tools and resources are pretty much freely available to build a profile and push your message out there.
The result is that it’s becoming increasingly hard to find the value amongst vast and accelerating volumes of online data and noise, and to use that data to make accurate, effective decisions.
This is something we need to be able to do. We’re all expected to work faster, to make better decisions more quickly. The pandemic showed that certain changes don’t need five committees, two working groups and a proof of concept to take place before decisions can be rubber stamped. At the same time, no matter what industry you work in, there will be competitors who are more agile, more flexible, and seem to be much better at making decisions and capitalising on opportunities.
Yet those decisions still need to be backed by evidence, by irrefutable knowledge. What’s more, there’s only so much data can give us. We need the insights stored in the minds of true experts, with lived experiences of the particular problems, markets and technologies in question. In accessing this, we can develop a decision-making edge in businesses that competitors don’t have, that can be used to drive entrance into new markets, or for winning investment decisions.
Limiting risk in investment decisions
As we all know, investments are inherently risk-related, so, anyone making such a decision will do all they can to minimise their risk exposure, especially in volatile post-covid markets.
To do that requires being able to identify, consume and process information quickly. Investment opportunities, particularly in industries with significant growth capacity, come around quickly and get snapped up fast.
Those decisions will incorporate analysing and drawing insights from raw data, using publicly available and analyst-produced information. But there is also an opportunity to draw on human insights, from leading experts in relevant fields, to get a sense of the story that 0s and 1s can’t properly tell yet. Tapping into the right minds is essential to informing investment decision-making in 2021.
In an ever-growing haystack of information, the challenge is finding them quickly. Plus, once they are found, there’s a tendency to keep using them, or to use them as a gateway to others in their network. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, it leaves investors exposed to a lack of diversity in thought that makes getting to an unbiased view of the world impossible. At the same time, casting their net wide and finding lots of experts is resource and time-intensive, at a point when time is one commodity in short supply.
So, what’s the solution? Ironically, given that the challenge is bringing the right human insight into the process, the answer could lie in technology, specifically artificial intelligence (AI). AI-powered platforms can take a request for expertise and run searches through all available published and credible material to recommend the most appropriate experts for the project in question.
It’s true that there are already services that recommend experts, but they are heavily manual and therefore slow and imprecise. It’s also true, there are also both negative and positive connotations being attached to AI. No technology is without its flaws, and if investors were relying on the AI platform itself to provide expertise then there would be cause for concern. Services that provide access to the experts themselves, however, are providing a fast way through the noise and data – it’s a car to the destination, not the destination itself. Once investors and experts are connected, the former has access to the relevant insight the latter holds in their heads. What AI has done is rapidly scan through millions of people of talent to highlight the relevant knowledge holders with pin-point accuracy.
Using technology to highlight the best human knowledge
Using an AI technology platform to find the most relevant human is a way of taking a resource-consuming process and finding what’s needed in a thousandth of the time. In that way, investors can get fast access to the human insight they need to make the best decisions, allowing them to capitalise on opportunities and not miss the next big growth opportunity.
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TAPPING INTO THE RIGHT MINDS
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