The covid-19 pandemic and subsequent social distancing restrictions have had a significant impact on every business. But, small-medium enterprises have been particularly hard hit.

In the UK, Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) account for 50% of the total revenue generated by UK businesses and 44% of the country’s labour force.

And while every SME has reacted differently to the covid pandemic, social distancing restrictions have posed some common challenges to businesses of all sizes.

The SME paradox

The limitations posed by social distancing have exposed existing blind spots in businesses, not least an effective work-from-home policy. 

Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), in particular, have suffered recurring issues around support; partly because their size limits their capacity to extend their internal infrastructure.

Supply lines have been disrupted. Staffing is a major challenge. The economic downturn (compounded by uncertainty over Brexit) threatens demand.

But the issue of organisation capacity also offers a converse benefit for SMEs – agility. Unlike their larger counterparts, SMEs can adapt their processes without requiring a massive culture shift.

Most importantly, they can introduce new technologies with considerably less top-down adjustment.

Woman and man answering calls on headsets as part of SME sales & support strategy

SME Sales & Outreach in Numbers

Following on from the second wave of covid-19 in the UK, AnswerConnect commissioned Arlington Research – a renowned international research institute – to conduct a study into business attitudes and practices during the covid-19 pandemic.

The study gathered responses from 200 US and 200 UK companies, including 201 SMEs. The results laid bare the challenges posed by covid. But, they also revealed the breadth of different attitudes – between SMEs of different sizes, between countries, and even between individuals within organisations.

Over half (52%) of SMEs say the number of customer and prospective customer calls to their organization has increased since the outbreak of COVID-19 (since March 2020) compared to the previous year. That number rises to two-thirds for businesses with 100 – 249 employees.

Woman waiting on hold to SME sales & support department

The Power of the Telephone to SMEs

The telephone has always been a powerful sales tool for SMEs. Short of meeting in person (either physically or via video chat), nothing quite compares to the personal touch of a phone call. That’s why 93% of SMEs say the telephone has real value to their business, and 63% say the phone is their organisation’s best customer service tool.

Despite the growth in new technologies – including email, live chat and AI chatbots, phone calls remain the preferred option for many businesses. In total, almost half (49%) of all customer interactions were conducted by telephone in the past three months.

Telephone used for answering calls as part of SME sales & support strategy

For SMEs, the personal connection provided by the telephone is essential to maintaining an engaged customer base. That’s why SMEs spend, on average, 2.6 hours a day answering calls. That’s a significant part of the workday, but SMEs are convinced it’s worthwhile. Over three-quarters said their customers prefer talking to a person than leaving a voicemail or an Interactive voice response (IVR).

This is hardly surprising – the phone call offers a direct, personal line. Without the freedom to meet in person, SMEs have come to rely on the telephone even more. But with that reliance come some challenges.

Responding to Customers

Of all the challenges posed by social distancing restrictions, replicating tasks that required access to an office was perhaps the hardest. And that challenge becomes particularly difficult to navigate when they affect prospects and customers. 

In a recent independent study, 52% of SMEs said calls to their organisation had increased since the covid-19 outbreak. 

Despite this, SMEs are struggling to maintain support in the face of social distancing measures. 44% of SMEs say they don’t have enough dedicated staff to answer telephone calls. 

Even when they can answer calls, many SMEs recognise their capacity is limited, and callers bear the burden of short-staffing.

Man waiting on SME sales & support call

42% of respondents said it was common for customers to face a wait/hold time of more than five minutes before speaking with someone. 58% agree “Many customers hang up if their call cannot be answered by someone in my organization within five minutes.” 

But even within that, there are diverging opinions. While just 49% of smaller organisations (under 50 employees) agreed their callers would hang up if left waiting more than five minutes, that number rises to 72% for organisations with 100 – 249 employees.

Could it be that small organisations assume they have a strong enough connection with their customers to leave them waiting? And do larger organisations worry their callers will move on to a competitor if left waiting too long?

Gathering Leads and Building Relationships

Capturing and qualifying leads is just one step in building a profitable business. 

To turn leads into customers, you need to offer a reliable solution at a competitive price. But even that is only half the battle. To build lasting relationships, SMEs need to continue to provide reliable support in every interaction.

It doesn’t matter if you sell products or services, your business is built on trust. And at the heart of that trust is connection. Leads need to feel like you understand their problems.

More importantly, they need to trust you when you tell them you have the best solution for that problem.

Of course, meeting a prospect in person offers you several points of reference. You can read their body language, see their facial expressions and notice changes in their tone. 

But social distancing has limited our capacity to meet in person and driven salespeople back to the telephone. While not as personal as meeting face to face, phone calls offer immediate insights into a person’s mindset.

Identifying that mindset is key to offering the best solution when they first reach out.

But the personal touch of a phone call extends far beyond the first point of contact.

Smiling woman on call providing SME sales & support

57% of SMEs say their customers will pay a premium for goods and/or services if they can receive instant, 24/7 top-quality phone interactions.

Again, the response varies by organisation size; just under half (49)% of 1 – 49 employee organisations agreeing, while 70% of organisations with 100 – 249 employees feel the same way.

Just what qualifies as ‘top-quality’ is pretty subjective, but the importance of ‘instant’ and ‘24/7’ can’t be mistaken.

The Real Cost of Impaired Service To SMEs

Almost half of all interactions between SMEs and leads were conducted by telephone between August and October 2020. On average, SMEs said they missed 18% of calls to their business every day – equating to approx £1.6 million missed revenue, every year.¹

Of course, not every call to their business would lead to a sale. Inbound sales calls have a 30-50% conversion rate. It’s also worth noting that many inbound calls will be from existing customers, while others could simply be from prospective customers wanting to enquire about services or products.

Smiling woman writing down details for small business call answering service

But each and every call still represents a missed opportunity. The loss of trust incurred by a missed call can have long-term indirect repercussions for a brand.

It’s not just financial cost. Productivity is damaged too; over half of respondents say their workday would be much more efficient if they had someone to answer calls for them.

The Stopgap Approach to Remote Customer Support

Reliable support means being available to respond whenever a lead or customer reaches out. But for many SMEs, that level of support simply isn’t viable.

Some businesses have opted to update their telephony to direct calls to employees’ personal phones. That’s one solution to being restricted access to the office telephony system. But that approach also comes with its own challenges.

Man with headset responding as small business live answering agent

Who decides who answers which call? Are employees expected to answer out-of-hours calls? What happens when they need to elevate a call to someone else in the company?

Customer Support Solutions for SMEs

Those questions have led many businesses to outsource their customer support. Hiring a team of virtual receptionists comes with several benefits, including:

  • Business owners and employees can maintain support even without office access
  • Employees can spend their time working without the distraction of regular phone calls
  • With calls directed to a virtual receptionist, employees can keep work and personal life separate
Smiling woman writing down customer details in SME sales & support role

The appeal of a virtual support network via a third party varies between company size. Smaller companies tend to look less favourably on the idea: 

60% of organisations with 1–49 employees say a 24/7 virtual telephone answering service would benefit their organisation. That number rises to 83%  for organisations with 50–99 employees, and a whopping 97% for organisations with 100–249 employees.


Whatever comes post-covid-19, businesses of all sizes will face further challenges to their business continuity. But with adversity comes opportunity. Those SMEs who can adapt their sales and support processes and embrace a more 

SMEs have a variety of solutions to choose from, but one thing is for sure; the future of customer service will still depend heavily on people connecting with people. And the telephone will continue to play a crucial role in providing that connection.

Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that 73% of SMEs say the telephone will continue to be an important customer service tool for their organisation in five years’ time.

Man answering call to provide SME sales & support

To read more about the Independent Study, click here.

¹ – Based on an average annual turnover of £18,398,214.6 and an average customer spend of £19,934.60 in a single transaction.