The continuing evolution of customer service – and customer expectations – is always imposing new challenges on smaller firms as they try to avoid being squeezed out of the market by their larger competitors. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have to operate with tight budgets, so it’s crucial that they continually find new and innovative ways to match and exceed the experiences offered by enterprise business.
Within many companies the ability to run an effective and efficient fleet is key to the customer experience they provide. The accessibility of technology such as fleet tracking and routing and scheduling is helping SME’s close the service gap.
We caught up with Stuart Brunger, director of business development at Maxoptra which specialises in software scheduling solutions for the distribution and field service logistics industries – to get his expert view on just what SMEs have been doing not just to survive but prosper in highly competitive marketplaces.
Q: Why do SMEs consider it so challenging to match the customer experience provided by bigger companies?
Stuart Brunger: They think it’s difficult to mirror that kind of customer experience offered by bigger organisations because there’s a belief that the technology required is expensive, highly complex and difficult to implement. That’s the simple answer, I think. My response would be that while this might have been true ten years ago, two key things have changed. One is the advent of cloud-based solutions, so SMEs don’t have to invest huge amounts of money in hardware and so on. The second thing is the advent of the smartphone, which has impacted software in a big way. Smartphone apps in particular, as these have to be intuitive to encourage uptake. This has impacted particularly on the type of software solutions that companies tend to offer. A lot more thought goes into making them easy to use and easy to implement.
Q: What advantages do SMEs have over larger enterprises, and what opportunities does this present them with?
SB: I would say that the biggest advantage small businesses have is being closer to the customers and closer to their business operations Because of this, they get a lot more clarity and visibility of the issues that are holding back their growth – critically, they get to spot emerging opportunities faster. That’s the first point. The second is that SMEs, generally speaking, have more entrepreneurial spirit. What that means – and I know this from setting up my own consultancy – is that they’re more prepared to do something where there aren’t definite returns. You’re more likely to do things where the outcome is uncertain – maybe make a small investment on a potential emerging opportunity.
On the other hand, what you tend to find with bigger organisations is that they’re less prepared to do anything risky. Before they do anything, it has to have a proven business case. But because these firms are bigger, the investment is too. The bigger business is then faced with a ‘big investment’, in a potentially emergent opportunity, for which there is no proven business case. So, you get the situation where an SME is quite happy with a high-risk but low-investment decision, while a bigger firm takes a high-risk, high-investment decision.
It may seem a bit complex to understand, but this is actually based on research done into entrepreneurial behaviour. So, a SME can see issues earlier and understand how a particular market is changing faster, and also has the mindset to do something about it.
Q: What would your top tips be for SMEs looking to compete against larger businesses?
My first point would be to recognise and leverage to the maximum the advantages that come with being an agile SME described above. With this I would also add a word of warning about trying to become ‘a bit more corporate’ too soon and therefore lose the advantages that you do have.
The second point would be to set aside time to investigate the new technologies that are becoming available almost daily. Being cloud based – they are affordable and easy to implement. The key point however is that armed with the knowledge of what supporting technology can do – this strengthens your position in spotting new emergent opportunities.
Q: What have you seen enterprise businesses do to further advance the services they provide?
SB: I’ve got a couple of points here. The first one is where senior executives effectively run their own equivalent of the BBC Two programme, ‘Back to the Floor’. That’s where the senior guys get out and speak to customers and frontline staff, which gives them an insight into how the market is changing at first hand. Let’s face it, these customers and frontline staff are probably the most experienced people at judging what they see.
And because the market is changing so fast – I don’t think some big businesses recognise this – those senior executives, who perhaps last dealt directly with customers five or six years ago, may find that their experience is a little bit out of date. You can see a lot of bigger businesses getting their senior guys out to see customers, sit on helpdesks and things like that, so they can get a feel for what’s going on.
Another thing that big businesses are doing is trying to break with the model where IT projects are automatically considered to be big projects. As a big business, why not think of ways where you can behave a little bit more like an SME and take riskier decisions for a lower cost? So, for example, why not buy one licence and see what happens? In terms of technology – and we’re talking about big businesses here – if you’ve got a fleet of, say, 200, why not implement the technology on five of those vehicles to start with?
Q: The final question – what tech advances have you seen that are helping to close the gap between SMEs and bigger firms?
SB: I think the key technological advance is the emergence of cloud-based solutions. It helps dispel this common belief among smaller businesses that this technology is prohibitively expensive. In fact, it’s pay-per-use – so proportionally, it’s as affordable for a firm with one or two vehicles as it is for one with a fleet of 100. We talked earlier about big businesses trying projects out in a smaller way first, and cloud-based services help with that approach as well.