Boston Business Journal, April 18, 2003

Making it easy to buy — honing the small-business edge

Barbara Bix and Melissa Josephson

The ability to develop customer intimacy, display a high level of responsiveness and be flexible during the customer's purchasing process has historically provided small businesses advantages when competing against larger counterparts.

These advantages become even more important as large companies try to close the gap by implementing customer relationship management (CRM) systems and seek to replicate the personalized service that has long been the hallmark of small businesses. Now, more than ever, small businesses must anticipate and respond to their clients' purchasing needs.

Consider this example: When mortgage rates dropped recently, national mortgage lenders unleashed aggressive telemarketing campaigns.

They flocked to the Internet to let consumers know that they offered the lowest available rates. Yet, when it came time for homeowners to refinance, many turned to their local brokers.

How did this happen? Why did local retailers win the business from larger, better-capitalized firms who could reach customers faster and offer them better prices?

These lenders win the deals by using the one major competitive advantage small businesses possess -- a firsthand knowledge of their customers' buying requirements.

Removing obstacles
Because the local brokers knew their clients, they quickly realized that many of them were too busy to initiate the refinancing process -- even though they knew those homeowners wanted to take advantage of the lower rates. The local brokers removed this obstacle to buy by figuring out ways to save their clients time. Successful tactics included meeting "off hours" at the client's home or place of business, offering to photocopy and return documents for clients who didn't have easy access to copiers, and using lawyers who would travel to the client when it was time to close.

Walking in customers' footsteps
Since small-business owners are deeply involved in every aspect of their businesses and touch every part of the customer process, they see directly how the pieces fit together. This means that small businesses can identify better with their customers. They learn to walk in their customers' footsteps through all customer touch points. The challenge is to maintain that personalized understanding and the customer's perspective as the business grows, as employees' roles become more specialized and as businesses implement systems to support the purchasing process with an increased number of customers.

One way to accomplish this is to set up formal processes to stay on top of the customer experience. Successful small businesses leave nothing to chance.

They identify the cracks in their delivery systems by paying attention to and understanding what their customers experience when interacting with them. Then they position themselves to design and implement processes that make it easier for customers to purchase from them.

As larger businesses further embrace CRM, small businesses can maintain their competitive edge as they grow by taking steps (see check box) to retain customer intimacy, responsiveness and flexibility. The keys to success are developing processes to identify and resolve problems and continuing their commitment to make it easy for customers to buy.

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