Overcoming the hurdles of the SME – Two Success Stories on Go Digital With EZAssist

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RJ Shantu: Hello, welcome back to the 7th episode of Go Digital With EZAssist. It’s Thursday, 11am right now, which means we’re back with another episode and live on Facebook at facebook.com/ilovedhakafm

On today’s episode we’re going to hear about the journey that the small and medium businesses go through as they struggle and grow bit by bit, we’ll hear about their challenges and learn about their businesses. And side by side, we’ll hear about EZAssist and how it stands by these businesses and what kind of support EZAssist provides. So to have this discussion today, I’d like to invite on screen with us Irin Parveen, Senior Manager, Customer Success, Loosely Coupled Technologies. We have with us Anika Ishrat Kabir, Owner and Founder of  Fashion Punch, and Afroza Khair Anika, Owner and Founder of Spice Club. Welcome to Dhaka FM.

Let’s start with Irin apu, please tell us a bit about the struggles that SMEs have been facing during the pandemic. Let’s talk about the struggles first and then we can discuss the success.

Irin: The SMEs are facing many challenges due to the pandemic. There’s stocking the right inventory, delivering the products on time, many more. I know that Anika Apu, founder of Fashion Punch, has a job and also her business on the side. She works very hard to maintain both. And right now a lot of SMEs are doing very well, Fashion Punch and Spice Club both, so it is becoming a silver lining for Anika Apu and Afroza Apu both. There are many challenges that they are dealing with regarding stocking, delivery, creating a proper site, posting about the products and also with promotional activities. Overall we’re doing our best to overcome these challenges and move forward.

RJ Shantu: Anika apu, please tell us a bit about your business.

Anika: A little about the backstory of our page, I moved to Malaysia in 2017 and as Irin apu said, I work full-time, and I did that back in Bangladesh too. As a woman, I know that whether it be for office, or university or for any social gathering, our accessories like bags and shoes are important to us to present ourselves. A challenge in Bangladesh is that you cannot always find the type of accessory that you want and even if you do find it, it might cost a lot. And there is the question of authenticity as well. So what we used to do before was wait around every year for when we might be able to go on a vacation abroad so we could shop, or see if someone we know is going abroad and ask them to bring something for us. But that too is not an option anymore due to COVID. So when I moved to Malaysia, I no longer faced those problems. I could buy branded items for cheaper than I would get non-branded items of poorer quality in Bangladesh. Fashion Punch was built on the idea that why don’t we serve as a bridge between the brands available at Malaysia and the unserved clients in Bangladesh, who are actually looking for these products. Our aim is to ensure that a client from anywhere in Bangladesh can purchase a product available at Malaysia, it will be our responsibility to source the desired item from Malaysia and deliver it at the customer’s doorstep. 

RJ Shantu: Afroza apu, we’re becoming busier day by day, we all go out for work and have very little time to ourselves. I think spices are very important for a household, and you’re 

working with daily use spices. So please tell our viewers a bit about that.

Afroza: I started working with spices when I thought that there is still some question of purity for the spices that we buy. I started out with a food business, which I still do, but I started a spice business because I myself faced a problem in finding pure spices and I know many who have faced the same challenge, especially if cooking is something they do on a daily basis, or for businesses. So that’s how my business started, I thought I’d eat well myself and I’d feed my customers healthy and quality spices. 

RJ Shantu: Of course. Authenticity is so important in both of your areas, for a woman it’s often a matter of pride that her accessories are branded, and when it comes to cooking, the purity of spices really makes a difference. 

Now, Irin apu, as EZAssist, how have you been helping Anika apu and Afroza apu with their respective businesses Fashion Punch and Spice Club?

Irin: Okay, I’ll start with Anika apu. In Bangladesh, you can actually find a lot of branded bags in stores, you see one and like it and then you find out that it’s actually a “master copy”. But this so-called master copy ends up costing almost as high as the original itself, and what is the point of it all then? What Anika Apu is doing, they’re bringing authentic products from Malaysia. A while ago they worked with Aldo, Vincci, and other brands. So these products, they source the bags directly from Malaysia and deliver it to the doorstep of anyone in Bangladesh. When we brought Fashion Punch onto our platforms, we went for many campaign offers, promotional activities and others, just as they did from their side, we also did on the platform. The benefits of coming onto our platform starting from delivery service to bank transfer and everything, so for all these benefits we have been able to get many businesses to sign up with us. And as for Spice Club, it is one of many spice brands we have on our platform. We have childcare, toys, spices, fashion, accessories and many other kinds of businesses enlisted with us. So we give all these businesses an online portal for payment and a trusted delivery system that helps all these small businesses and also helps customers. 

RJ Shantu: Afroza apa, tell us a bit about how EZAssist has been helping you.

Afroza: I think a company like EZAssist helps us reach our business goals and ambitions easier and it takes us closer to the buyers and helps our business grow. Whether it be fast delivery or order processing or anything related to the business, they aid our business to become better. It makes our business activities easy, which is why they are EZAssist.

RJ Shantu: Irin apu, please tell us a bit about why it’s important to move forward digitally. We’ve had other episodes with Jewel bhai and he always emphasizes how it’s no longer a style to go digital, but a necessity.

Irin: At one time we used to think of digitalization as a luxury, but now it’s no longer that. We order everything online now, starting from food to daily necessities. People have busier work lives now, even without the COVID restrictions making people stay at home, it’s become difficult to make the time to go out physically to browse and shop for many things, and that’s why people are adapting to online shopping these days. You’ll find very few people these days who do not make any kind of online purchases. And especially in these times, people are scared to go out. Even to the corner store to buy some groceries, people are scared. So digitalization has come as a solution. Only because of digitalization can someone sitting at home in Bangladesh receive a product from Malaysia within 14 days.

RJ Shantu: If I may share my own experiences, when COVID started I was scared about how this radio station would run, how we’d manage guests and keep people interested. But now, we have Anika apu joining us today from Malaysia, we’re all in our places and joining together on the show for this discussion right now and it’s possible due to digitalization. Anika apu, do you have anything to say about digitalization?

Anika: If I talk about my own business, people from Bangladesh sitting right at home are being able to buy products from Malaysian stores, they’re browsing the latest collection, making online payment and getting delivery right at their doorsteps. This whole thing is a digital approach. Even 5 years ago we wouldn’t have been able to imagine that someone sitting in Chittagong could buy something from Malaysia sitting right at home, and all this is possible only through digitalization and I think that’s incredible. 

RJ Shantu: Afroza apu, the product you sell is spice. There is a matter of purity for spices, I’ve seen my own mother being very nitpicky about the quality of spice that she uses. So how do you determine the quality of the spice that you sell? 

Afroza: The same turmeric, chilli, or coriander can have various quality, and we take into consideration where in Bangladesh the best of each spice or garnish is produced and we source ours from there. We’re still a very small business but we try our best to bring the best quality spices to our customers. We go through many challenges even in sourcing our products, we’ll talk about that later I think.

RJ Shantu: Yes, we’re about to head into the discussion about the challenges. Let’s start with Anika apu, I visited the page for Fashion Punch and I liked quite a few items but unfortunately the sale is over now. On that note, when you hold sales on your page, it reaches customers and they place an order, and you do door to door delivery of their items. There are quite a few steps involved here, and I want to know a little about the steps involved here, and the process that you go through. This might be helpful for the new entrepreneurs who are just starting out.

Anika: Since we follow the pre-order model, a customer can explore the products available at Malaysian stores sitting right at home, and place an order with us. I think having a ready stock would be limiting for us. Since I do have a full-time job, I have time constraints. I have to update the product pictures, post details, handle queries, it’s a long process. Now thanks to EZAssist, ever since I enlisted with them, the workload that I have has gone down significantly. They handle most of the customer queries and order confirmation, which makes my job easier.

RJ Shantu: We have a query here for Irin apu from one of our listeners, does EZAssist help businesses reach their exact target group and also does it help with increasing reach?

Irin: The work that we do is transform offline shops to an online platform. For example, let’s say, there is a vendor at New Market selling crockeries. This vendor has a base of customers. Now let’s say someone lives in Uttara but travels to New Market to visit this store since they trust this vendor and like his products. But if that customer from Uttara knew that this vendor has an online platform, then the customer would choose to buy online rather than visit New Market from all the way over in Uttara. These are the facilities we’re providing the vendors. At first we are trying to bring their existing customers onto a digital platform and then we will reach out and bring new customers too through promotions and campaigns. 

When a merchant comes onto our platform, we provide them with a website free of cost and create a digital shop for them. So customers can buy products online and get it at their doorsteps. The merchants don’t have to worry about delivery either, because we have our delivery partners doing that for them too. So for offline merchants we’re providing an online solution and we’re helping them reach more and more customers.

RJ Shantu: Absolutely. As Anika apu said, you’re sitting at home and maybe you want a product from Malaysia that is authentic, branded and high-end, you can do that right then. I think EZAssist helps bring customers and merchants together. 

Alright, we have a question for Afroza apu. Are there any specific measures you take that make your product unique, why should customers buy spices from you? And please tell us a bit about the spices that you sell first. 

Afroza: We mostly sell ground spices including turmeric, chilli, cumin, etc. We also sell Shahi Garam Masala, Shahi Roast Masala and other spices. I don’t know whether my spices are unique but I would say that whatever I sell, my products are of the highest quality and my customers all love my products and keep coming back for more, and in some cases my spices have an added punch of flavour which makes them unique. That’s about it. 

RJ Shantu: Not only that, I’d say that it’s not very healthy to buy open spices or unpackaged spices from the bazaar. What you do at your home, sourcing the spices, packaging it with care and I think that brings a lot of customers to you. I used to see my mom sending spices to be ground at stores because she didn’t trust the spices available in the market. 

Afroza: Another thing I’d like to mention is that all of our spices are manufactured by us, we do source the plants or the raw product from outside Dhaka but I have a little machine and workspace where we ground the spices ourselves, mix them, and package them. And we take care of the quality and discard anything that doesn’t meet the standards so that our customers can be satisfied. 

RJ Shantu: Anika apu, people often say that when you start a business like yours where you source products from abroad and deliver to the people in Bangladesh that you need a lot of capital to start. Is that true?

Anika: I’ll share my personal experience with the business here, initially we ended up stocking a huge amount of inventory without having done any research on whether customers want these or not. So what happened is that we incurred some financial losses and the customers weren’t finding our offerings too attractive I believe. But after that, we decided that we would go to a preorder model for our business and in this model the risk can be minimized quite a bit, and you don’t need to stock any products. The customers pay an advance or even the full amount and the cashflow is ongoing.

RJ Shantu: During COVID, did products get stuck or delayed? And how did the customers react to it? 

Anika: In 2020 the lockdown started right before Eid, and we had a lot of products ready to be shipped. So before Eid people started texting the page asking when they might get it, things like it goes with their outfit for Eid or it was for a gift, etc. But our customers have all been very kind and understanding too, and thankfully we managed to complete a majority of our shipment before Eid. Some were delayed, yes, but we tried our best. And I would say that this is a two-way approach, our customers were considerate and we gave our best effort.

RJ Shantu: We will speak about customer relationships too, I’ll direct the question toward Irin apu, but first we will go on a short break. You’re tuning in to Dhaka FM 90.4, please don’t go anywhere, we will be right back. 

(Video Ad)

RJ Shantu: We’ve been discussing the importance of digitalization, there is no alternative anymore. For our listeners today, please visit the Facebook page of Bibiana, our merchant of the week, to avail a 50% discount on sarees, salwar kameez and more by simply texting the chatbot “Hi”. The EZAssist chatbot can guide you through the whole process and you can get your favorite clothes for the upcoming Eid-Ul-Adha. And by doing this, you can also figure out the process of how the whole EZAssist bots work and what it can do for your business. A lot of us do not know how to operate these technological channels but if you take a little time to try it out and learn, you can avail the 50% discount on products from Bibiana, and I think it’s a very good deal and you should grab the opportunity right now.  

Well, I’ll welcome back our guests today, Irin Parveen, Afroza Anika and Anika Ishrat Kabir.

Irin apu, we were about to discuss how to maintain customer relationships. When we spoke with the owner of Bibiana in a prior episode, we found out how loyal her customers are to her, and how they want only Bibiana products for occasions. The customers are adamant about only buying Bibiana products. So, this amazing relationship that Bibiana has with its customers, is there any formula for it? 

Irin: Customers often have had bad experiences with shopping online, I myself have. I have a habit of ordering from random places, and some turn out alright and some are horror stories. Now, I always think that if someone is providing authentic products, products that are of good quality, and maintaining communication with the customers then there is no reason for them to not come back. Let’s talk about Fashion Punch since Anika apu is with us today, we provide them with a chatbot that can respond to customer queries and guide the customers through the whole process, and rather than having a moderator or responding to messages yourself, this AI bot can do it for you. The benefit to that is, a page gets hundreds of queries per day, and responding to them all takes a lot of time, and then the back and forth is difficult to keep track of, and so much happens all at once. But with our AI bot, thousands of customers can be reached within a minute. Anika apu will tell you more about that but in general customers don’t like the wait for replies. Anika Apu is also a working woman, so for her it’s just not possible to respond to the number of messages a page gets on a regular basis. Our bot can handle queries about the product, the variations, the colours and sizes, and basically everything regarding the available products on a page. It can also answer questions related to delivery and payment. So, the bot can handle all these queries so the business owners do not have to, nor do they have to hire a moderator to do it for them. During peak times, like before Eid or any other holidays, there is a huge boost in customers and sales. We get near 500 to a thousand queries a day. So it is not possible to sort through these timely with people. But our bot is there at all times to take the load. But it isn’t only the bot, sometimes customers have questions that cannot be answered through the bot, our bot separates them and lets us know too so that we can respond, and the customer gets email confirmation or sometimes phone confirmation from us for their orders. This I think is very hassle free. 

And recently, SMEs themselves are coming forward to avail our EZAssist features. They’re starting to question the logic behind hiring an extra person as a moderator for their page rather than just going for digitalization. I think Anika Apu wants to say something.

RJ Shantu: Anika apu?

Anika: About the chatbot, so I’d been handling my page by myself for 3 years. And I was pretty confident that I could do everything by myself and didn’t really need a chatbot doing things for me. So, this one time, I made a post in Bangladesh time 10pm but Malaysian time 12 pm, and within minutes of making this post the page inbox was flooded with queries from customers. And it was so late at night for me, I told Promee apu it’s just not possible for me to handle the queries tonight. So on one such night they activated the chatbot and I could sleep in peace. And before, I needed time to respond to the customers, I obviously couldn’t reply to everyone at once. So customers did have a wait time before they had their queries answered. But now the bot can instantaneously respond and I think there is a positive impact from that too. 

RJ Shantu: Alright. I think we’re nearing the end of the episode now, it’s been 45 minutes. Afroza apu, is there anything you’d like to say? 

Afroza: I think everyone has already covered much of what needs to be said. But I do have to say, as entrepreneurs or business owners, there are many challenges that we go through when running our business. But at the end of the day, when a customer receives our product and tells us about how satisfied they are, it all seems very worth it. And as small entrepreneurs we have certain small problems that our businesses go through. We always have to work toward building the trust of our consumers, because why should they buy from us? So we have to build trust, ensure product quality first. And I think that a platform like EZAssist is helping us small entrepreneurs progress with our businesses very fast and is also empowering us women with our small businesses. It’s digitalizing the SMEs of Bangladesh, and without digitalization we wouldn’t be on this show right now either. 

RJ Shantu: True. I have an sms here for Anika Apu, this person’s relative lives abroad and they want to start a business similar to yours. Are there any tips and tricks that you have for them?

Anika: Okay, so, when you start off a business like this, you shouldn’t expect that you’d get a huge consumer base right from the start. When we started, we had a very small group consisting mostly of the people we knew, our friends and family, who decided to support us. But we started growing because our product quality, customer service, delivery time, everything was good. Soon enough, through word of mouth, our business kept growing. We developed a strong organic client base, and we also established our digital presence well so that consumers could easily reach us. And we enlisted with EZAssist to further that process.

So with time, it’s important to modernize your business and keep growing. Your product and customer service are the basics you need to make sure are good, but along with that you have to continuously update your business. 

RJ Shantu: We’re at the very end now, Irin Apu, do you have anything to say for the entrepreneurs or for anyone looking to start a business at this time?

Irin: I think that whether you have a small business or you’re just starting out, everyone should go digital. Businesses need an online presence at this time. As Anika Apu was saying, a person’s own community will support a business, the friends and family will buy your product but on a digital platform your product will reach people no matter what. If someone likes your product, people will keep going back for more. I personally have bought products from both Anika apu and Afroza apu. When Anika apu started working with VIncci, I was very excited and asked if this shoe is available, is that available, so much. I wanted to place an order with her, regardless of the delivery time. 

So for anyone looking to start a small business, or anyone who has a physical business, I would recommend that you seize the opportunity that the digital platform can be for you. It’s only growing day by day. As for Afroza Apu, almost everyone at the office has taken spices from her when she came onboard our platform. She sells the Shahi Roast spices which is my personal favourite, and also loved by my whole family. It’s a hassle to mix all the spices needed for making a roast, she sells everything in the perfect amount anyway, and the roast turns out delicious. 

And I would like to ask our viewers and listeners today that you try out the products being sold by the SMEs around you. This helps them grow, and it benefits you too as you discover authentic and great products. And digitalization is what connects the buyers and sellers, makes things so much more accessible to all. I think there isn’t even an option here, businesses must go digital. Already people are starting to forget what it’s like to go to the market and shop, people are getting used to the online shopping experience. So at this time, there is no other alternative but to go digital. 

RJ Shantu: Word of mouth is very powerful in helping businesses grow. We’re at the very end now, let’s hear some short words from Anika Apu.

Anika: For those of us operating small businesses, every order is an experience, there’s a story involved. Not everyone places orders for themselves, sometimes people buy things from us as gifts for their moms or daughters, sometimes guys buy things from us for their wives or moms too. So when we can deliver our orders to them on time, that is our achievement. We feel like we’re a part of their story. And this makes our journey worth it.

RJ Shantu: Afroza Apu?

Afroza: For entrepreneurs out there, I would like to say that it’s important they develop their soft skills a bit and learn how to go digital. It’s not too difficult and makes running the business much smoother and expands reach. And of course, platforms like EZAssist make an entire digital shop for you. 

RJ Shantu: Right, the shop you had physically can now have an online outlet. Thank you so much everyone for tuning in today, and thank you to our guests for joining us today. I hope we get to speak again someday, and I hope that at that time the two businesses we spoke about today, Fashion Punch and Spice Club, both will have grown a lot. That’s all for today, but before I leave I’d remind our viewers that our Merchant of The Week is Bibiana and you can avail a 50% discount on any product by simply sending a “Hi” to their messenger chatbot from the Facebook page.

Thank you for tuning in to Go Digital With EZAssist, I’ll see you again next Thursday, 11AM. 

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