Keeping customers happy is one of the most demanding challenges faced by the small reseller. But when it comes to satisfying SME and home users, particularly in terms of price, expectation, and support, the effort required often outweighs the benefits accrued. Every dealer wants to keep its customers happy, but doing it cost-effectively is another matter altogether.
Often, it's a case of the smaller the customer, the harder they are to please. Barry Spalton, managing director of reseller Pro-Com, says: "They don't know what they want and that's the biggest problem. They're jacks of all trades - trying to run their own businesses and, at the same time, drag themselves into the 21st century. They need a lot of advice and training."
Many small businesses resent having to pay for IT, especially services and support, and don't see it as strategic. It is viewed as a necessary answer to problems, to be solved at the lowest possible cost and minimum inconvenience.
In January, a survey conducted by Black Box found that more than 50 per cent of SMEs buy on price, but that 70 per cent are dissatisfied with product reliability and the technical support they receive.
After-sales satisfaction is low, with 60 per cent of SMEs saying they would change to a supplier offering free technical support or on-site service support, and 50 per cent saying they would switch camps if they knew they would have an easier implementation. But that's all after the event. When they go out to buy first time, many SMEs are clearly just trying to scrape by with the minimum investment required.
Even technology that is exciting fails to convince smaller users. Matt Tomlinson, development manager at MIS Corporate Defence Solutions, says it's a real problem persuading a small business to open up to the potential return on investment (ROI). "The internet can prove to be a considerable investment for a company with 25 users or less," he says.
"The biggest issue is providing them with the information to base their expectations. It is fair to say that larger companies are sometimes more open to the business issues and their expectations may be more realistic.
They make a specific purchase, while smaller firms purchase in reaction to a problem," he adds.
This is a persistent problem for resellers that deal with SMEs. IT is seen as a cure-all elixir to fundamental problems, and customers are always going to be disappointed and angry when the system does not match up to their expectations, which are often unrealistic.
Bailey Telecom is a specialist data and telecoms integrator. Two-thirds of its 6,000 customers have fewer than 50 staff. Graham Iliff, director of service at Bailey Telecom, says that while price and quality of service are clearly important to small business customers, the ease of doing business is also important. "To a small business, time is money, and they don't want to get involved in time-consuming processes such as lengthy contract negotiations or complicated paperwork. Larger companies often have dedicated commercial departments to deal with these issues," says Iliff.
Peter Hiscox, technical and marketing director at networking specialist KMH, agrees. "Order processing is important to customer satisfaction, it shouldn't feel like a chore to the client. If a customer has a history of ordering the same items, or complicated items, we set up a spec book with their technical person. A complicated cable assembly then becomes a part number and orders can be placed by a non-technical, purchasing person," says Hiscox.
It's to do with making things easy for the customer, says Iliff. "It's about responsiveness, ease of doing business and flexibility. The key is to avoid jargon and relate technology to ways to operate their business with reduced cost, higher productivity or competitive advantage."
This may be sound advice when packages are being sold to customers, but keeping them happy after the sale is made and processed is another matter.
Geoff Goddard, marketing director of Network Alliance, a reseller specialising in network traffic management and control, says customers need to have complete confidence in the reseller's ability to support them. But acquiring that confidence can be painful as it will mean insisting that customers invest in service and maintenance prior to the actual sale.
Services such as 24-hour hotlines, guaranteed faulty product swaps, training, remote management and support, and regular technical updates, are valued by the customer. The problem is how to provide such high-level service without breaking the bank. There's no point in making promises you cannot keep, says Goddard.
"You have to be realistic about what you can offer. There's little point in trying to impress people. As long as you communicate your service standards and time scales to customers, they will feel comfortable when dealing with you."
This is important because it's vital to win the trust of the individual doing the buying. Customers need to be listened to and understood, they need to feel that the reseller understands that theirs is an important and difficult decision. Patience is a great virtue when selling to smaller buyers.
David Redden, general manager at reseller Internetwork Management Systems, (IMS) says: "Customers need to know that you'll deliver what you say at the time and the price originally quoted.
"This can help to develop long-term business because when individuals make career changes, the relationship goes with them - so does the business," adds Redden.
Having a single point of contact is also particularly important to the SME customer, he says. "Many have queries relating to different parts of their network or different applications. Rather than simply passing them to another member of the team, they deal with a single customer account manager."
This contact needs to be maintained even if it's necessary to bring in outside expertise to address the problem. The customer need only use one telephone number or speak to one person responsible.
This is one of the most important aspects in keeping customers satisfied, but it is often overlooked, says Hiscox. "It's highly annoying to call someone and just have the phone ring continuously. Customers are more than likely to hang up and ring a competitor instead."
Like many companies, KMH has a policy of answering all telephone calls within three rings. When the phone is answered, the caller hears a recorded message to which they then punch in a certain digit for the department they really want to talk to.
"It may seem obvious but we feel it's very important for the customer to go directly to someone who can help them, rather than leave them annoyed as they are put on hold while the receptionist searches for someone to help them. In my own experience, it's very irritating to be transferred from department to department while they try to find the right person," says Hiscox.
But every customer is different. For every one that's happy with voicemail systems, another will hang up. There are no catch-all solutions to the problem of keeping smaller customers content.
With 30 full-time staff, KMH is a medium-sized reseller and as technical and marketing director, Hiscox sees both sides of the story. He manages expectations when selling the company's services, and deals with customer problems after the system has gone in.
His advice is to treat customers the way you would expect to be treated yourself. "The things that have upset us when dealing with some companies, we have subsequently tried to eliminate in our own business dealings."
One way to tackle unrealistic expectations, says Tomlinson, is to deal with smaller customers in the way a service organisation would deal with larger firms - write down what is and what isn't included as part of the deal, and set agreed and realistic service levels.
"It takes time to deal with a lot of enquiries and demands, and this costs money. But if you understand customer requirements well enough, then you should allow room for manoeuvre via your service level agreement - providing set levels of free service and others that are chargeable," says Tomlinson.
"The trick is not to allow yourself to be exploited but to enter into a contract with the customer to balance their requirements against their expectations. Small clients may well demand more for their money, because they are associating expenditure with service levels, as opposed to relating it to quality of product," he adds.
And that's only half of the problem. Small businesses still expect the product which they have paid for to work perfectly, and to get endless levels of service and support should anything go wrong. Typically, they only pick up the phone when there's a problem. And to keep them happy, resellers need to be ready.
Honesty is the one quality that all customers appreciate, whether or not the service they want is available, says Hiscox. "One policy that we think bodes well with our customers is our realistic delivery times.
If, for some reason, we can't deliver on a certain day, we say so. It may lose us that order but the customer generally appreciates the honesty and will come back to us next time."
Paul Kibble, marketing manager at ONI, says it is important to remember that the IT systems departments of SMEs are not normally very big. "Staff are always stretched and need suppliers to provide a high level of support.
They don't have time to explain the topology of their network, what protocols they're running, what products are in it and the versions of code they're running, every time they place a support call."
Using a regimented system to track information on customers can be invaluable, says Kibble. This avoids support staff asking routine questions necessary at the start of every call if the information is not right there in front of them.
But some resellers believe such investment doesn't pay dividends. Pro-Com's Spalton says: "It's not a market I want to get into. It's a long drawn out sale and too expensive. I used to do that but I don't want to anymore. We'd work evenings and weekends. When you cost it out and look at the time and effort put in, there's not much in return."
Pro-Com is a small business and its sales, just over £1m, are all product-based. There is online support but no pretence at expert technical life-time backup. With networking product prices falling to commodity levels, says Spalton, backup simply isn't practical anymore. Minimal support is, at least, one way of accurately managing customer expectations.
However, to worry about the cost of supporting small customers is to miss the point, says Iliff. "It is not so much that it costs more to meet the demands of smaller customers in terms of service costs - all customers are rightly demanding. The administration cost of, say raising a maintenance contract or an invoice, is the same regardless of size, and that's the issue."
In this respect, says Iliff, the need for simple products and ease of doing business is to everyone's advantage. "A package arranged around leasing, with supply, installation and ongoing support all bundled within a monthly payment scheme is particularly useful."
Keeping customers satisfied is not just about offering endless support and backup to the customer - that simply is not financially viable for any reseller. Customer expectations must be well managed, but so must resellers. Any reseller that sets up shop without making it clear what's included and what isn't is asking for trouble. Small businesses are very demanding. They have little or no IT experience and are pressed for time and money. They simply expect the system to solve their problem - not give them additional problems in return.
Customer satisfaction is about knowing limits and structuring their products as well. There is, as Goddard says, no point in making promises that cannot be kept. For resellers that sell low-cost products and run a passive support service, what's on offer is fairly clear. For the majority that purport to provide extensive post-sales services, the product is too often vague and intangible to the customer. It's very easy for customer expectations to drift skywards.
The antidote is preparation. From the experience of companies such as Bailey Telecom, KMH and Network Alliance, packaging the products and ensuring that the back-room systems are there to support those products is the key - even when dealing with relatively small business organisations or home users.
Making it easy to deal with and to keep doing business, is what will keep the customer satisfied. To do that, resellers have to be easy to find, easy to understand, and easy to talk to.
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