The small-business sector of the economy has been growing for about eight months now. More and more vendors are waking up to the powerful business opportunity the sector represents.
However, emulating such success requires hard work and a careful evaluation of the needs of smaller businesses.
One of the first things to grasp when selling to SMEs is the distinction between small and medium-sized businesses. This may seem to be a simple matter of headcount, but small firms don't employ dedicated IT professionals.
Normally in such companies IT management falls to the owner/manager, who is not usually a computer specialist. Gaining their trust is vital; they need to be sure they're spending their money wisely.
Earning trust starts long before you negotiate contracts. There are a number of strategies you can use. Affiliation with organisations, such as local chambers of commerce or the Federation of Small Businesses, is a good idea. Signing up to partner schemes is another.
Also bear in mind the importance of local business. Your proximity gives you an automatic advantage over the competition. If possible try to meet these managers outside the selling environment. This will let you build relationships in a less formal way and learn about their business.
Once you have earned trust, you need to retain it by selling new customers solutions appropriate to their needs. But in selling small it is important to think big. Technology solutions shouldn't assume that a small firm will stay small; they should be scalable and designed to support growth.
This means selling a client/server network, not a peer-to-peer solution. But in selling to small firms, the actual 'nuts and bolts' are less important than empathising with the customer.
Not only will SMEs that trust you give you more repeat business, the solutions that you roll out to them are more easily repeatable, making for more profitable sales elsewhere. This means that over time you can concentrate on selling additional services as your customers' demands change.
As you bring in SME customers, you should also aim to spread them across the economy. Unfortunately, not every small business survives, so it is prudent to have a diverse portfolio.
As well as looking at market sector, categorise your customers by their attitude to technology - early adopter or late adopter, for example. This will allow you to more closely match your products to their needs.
With the right combination of empathy, long-term thinking and technological savvy, there has never been a better time to sell solutions to SMEs. By becoming a trusted advisor you can guarantee a lucrative pipeline of repeat business.
John Coulthard is head of small business at Microsoft UK, and Eric Gales is director of SMS&P Managed Partner Group at Microsoft UK
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