Jane Sunley on the rise and rise of SMEs in the UK
The onset of a new decade made me think back over the last one. It was this time exactly ten years ago, some might say with my corporate career in its acendency, that, some might also say, quite insanely, I decided to leave my well-paid and 'comfortably challenging' role as MD of a larger business and branch out and start my own small business.
Traditionally larger organisations have been looked upon as the leaders, I should know; I've worked in them. They were believed to be the ones that set the standards and called the shots. I believe this is changing. As an example, there's plenty of evidence to indicate that these big corporations are usually the ones who find it most challenging to get service right. Thankfully the business services section of our company is helping quite large corporations to do just that. What is one of the biggest customer service complaints? Lack of speed when correcting a problem. A call to one of the major utilities companies for instance may well have you choosing options from a digital menu, held in a queue, being transferred from department to department or redirected to a website (it happened to me only yesterday). A small company, on the other hand, would probably have it fixed in minutes and it's likely you'd have had a pleasant experience having spoken with a knowledgeable, empowered and enthusiastic person.
Don't get me wrong though, I love (almost) all businesses, large or small. There's excellence to be found in all types of corporate entity. Since I've been a small business owner, I've been really inspired and excited at the power, flexibility and potential of the small business. Small businesses can have an idea today, plan it tonight and be doing it by tomorrow. They can change direction at the drop of a hat as business guru Sir John Harvey-Jones attested in 'The Independent':
'The small have got everything going for them. First of all, they view their businesses holistically. Secondly, they can turn instantly – literally change the whole direction of their business in a morning. Thirdly, they know in a personal way all their people, all their customers, all their suppliers. They also know their stuff and the effect of one change on all the others. They are the first to know what is happening'.
I find it both fascinating and fantastic that our world continues to undergo changes of mammoth proportion. I'm enthralled by communication and, in particular, the power of viral marketing â€“ how else could cult rap metal band Rage Against the Machine beat Simon Cowell's latest X Factor winner to the Christmas number one slot? Why? Because communication today is rapid, far reaching and powerful. Because people want to challenge the influence of 'big'. Because people listen to other people they know and / or respect and / or who are like them.
People value personal opinion in a world where every day they are literally bombarded with information. This has had a dramatic impact on how purchasing decisions are made. Do people buy you on the strength of your brochure or impressive website? With increased sophistication when it comes to personal computing, most of the information received today looks pretty impressive. How confusing. How can anyone know how to sort the 'wheat from the chaff' without asking a reliable source?
In my experience, a high proportion of purchasing decisions are made on the recommendations of another satisfied customer. So the smart businesses are doing all they can to make sure they know people are saying great things about them. And they can only do this by actually delivering, by getting their products and service right, making it easy for their customers and caring what they think.
As an aside, this approach also applies when you are attracting people to work for you, think about how your people would rate you as an employer next time someone asks them what it's like to work at your place via Facebook?
In our world of dramatic and rapid change, it is those who can adapt to the new conditions quickest, be recommended most that will have the best chances for success. 'Survival of the fittest' has evolved into 'survival of the agile'. The small business is, in my experience, better placed to be able to take action and deal with whatever comes their way. The people who deal with the customer are likely to have more power to act – without always rigidly adhering to 'the policy'. If the small business finds its policy isn't working, it can throw it out of the window and create a new one. How many major corporations can do that without holding whole lot of meetings and getting approval from 'the powers that be'?
All of this is reflected in the level of service provided. Peter Bregman wrote in Harvard Business Review:
'The gap of confidence between small companies and big ones is growing. We used to rely on the security of big companies. Now it's a risk. We simply don't trust companies anymore. We trust people. That gives small companies a huge advantage.'
Small business people usually do what they love to do, that's why they started doing it in the first place. If there comes a point when they no longer love it, then they change things or go do something else. One of our long standing and much loved clients strated out as a small business, just two eager young guys in a tiny office with the strapline 'We love this business'. I'm happy to say that today, through impressive organic growth combined with a series of acquisitions, they are now a sizeable business. They firmly believe that the values that made them a great small company are the same ones that made them grow and prosper. This indicates that by adopting some small business philosophies, values and ways of working, the larger business can become more agile. Their 'We love this business' mantra is still alive and kicking…
Another way for a larger business to access the innovation and creativity, flexibility and agility of a small one is to choose them as a supplier. We're delighted to be working on a large project with a much admired high street chain. When were in the initial stages of discussing the scope of the work to be done, whilst acknowledging our expertise, they did question whether we, a small business, would be big enough to cope. Fortunately for us they have a very enlightened HR director who is close to the board and was prepared to 'stick her neck out' for us. They've been delighted with the results and have benefited from our agile small business approach.
In small businesses every client really matters and work tirelessly to get things right. If for some reason things don't go to plan, they bend over backwards to provide a speedy resolution. As a purchaser of business services myself, I really value this and would always choose a small business if possible. Years ago I became the first client of our current IT provider, two exceptionally bright techies who had escaped corporate life to set up on their own. We still work with them today and recommend them to others. Do they really value us as a client and walk the extra mile for us? You bet they do. In a similar vein, we've just done some work on our branding with another new start up. We've been able to access some serious expertise at a fraction of the price it would have cost us if we'd gone to a major design agency.
Small businesses aren't always cheaper though they will usually provide fab products and service and well honed expertise as well as brilliant added value. So because people love a recommendation, below are the web addresses of some of the suppliers we work with. Access a little more small business know-how this year and help perpetuate my theory that 2010 really is the year of the small business!
www.brandy.uk.com (Branding and design)
www.energiseyou.com (Employee wellbeing)
www.gpsprintworks.co.uk (Graphic printing)
www.nakedcreativity.co.uk (website development and other desgin)
www.pondgroup.com (IT support)
www.sonniccleaning.com (Office cleaning)
www.tclcomms.co.uk (Telecoms support)