Business Journal, April 18, 2003
Making it easy to buy honing the small-business edge
and Melissa Josephson
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'
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.
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.