In any gathering of B2B marketers, the topic of small business inevitably comes up. After all, those of us who work for large companies collectively discovered them just a few years ago. I’m pretty sure they didn’t exist until we found them. Or if they existed, they certainly didn’t buy complicated things like computers and machinery. Or did they?
Maybe that was them pretending to be consumers while they deprived us of the right to sell them through the channels of our choosing and went instead to the dreaded retailer or, disintermediated us all at eBay and Craigslist.
Meanwhile, the rest of us sat about munching artisanal cheese and whining about our daycare centres, dog groomers and dentists and also the annoying fact that small businesses keep screwing us up by acting like consumers. The nerve.
Kellie Stewart, in an excellent Computer Dealer News article observed this very thing and suggested it is because small businesses “…often lack the time, knowledge or inclination to devote to IT buying decisions.”
It’s Not Because They Want To
With respect, I disagree. I think small businesses behave like consumers because big businesses force them to. We can’t seem to resolve the paradox of serving this market: providing business-grade products and services to customers, with business-grade margin to ourselves and systems that scale to the vast numbers of firms in this segment.
Medium and large customers are assigned an account manager, maybe a sales engineer or even a service manager. They have special customer support lines. They don’t wait on hold – ever. They get taken out for lunch, they are called Mr. or Ms., they get hockey tickets, travel mugs, newsletters, webinars and lots of attention.
Small businesses get an endless call queue, IVRs, consumer-grade products, indifferent technical support and little, if any, communication beyond their monthly statements (which most of them can’t decipher).
Why? Because most big businesses can’t figure out how to serve them and maintain their margins. So because they act like consumers, we treat them like consumers. We make assumptions about their technical acumen, the critical role our products play in their business, their tolerance for technical issues and their support requirements. Mostly, we assume wrong. Then we build ridiculous systems that lack both trust and imagination to serve them. And we wonder why we haven’t yet “cracked the small business code”.
I don’t pretend to have the solution to the small business paradox, but I wonder if the answers aren’t simpler than we think:
- What would happen if we traded margin for volume: eat a few points in favour of actually delivering service?
- What if we figured out a channel model that pushed customer service to organizations that could actually execute it instead of just thinking about it?
- Could we invest in true online self-service models that aren’t warmed-over versions of our consumer experience?
- How about building products from the ground up for small business instead of dumbing-down the enterprise products or tweaking the consumer versions? Intuit is good at building for small business.
- What if we let them buy our products at retail but offered a business class purchase experience (little red carpet and velvet rope, anyone)?
- What if we let them pay by credit card?
- What if we sent a simplified statement they could easily understand?
- What if the documentation for our products was written specifically for a small business owner instead of an IT manager or a teenager?
- Can we set up peer networks for small business owners to support one another with our products? We do it for consumers and the enterprise, why not entrepreneurs?
- What if our customer service hours were longer for business than for consumers, so customers whose work days end after midnight can still get some support?
I don’t think there’s a code to be cracked with small business; I think there’s just a need to blend generous amounts of common sense and a few dollops of capital.