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Partners not customers

old man smiling in news agent

Small businesses often have a strong emotional connection with their customers. 

In a nutshell

  1. Small businesses often have a strong emotional connection with their customers, celebrating their success and seeing them as crucial partners in the business.
  2. SMEs feel a reward from knowing they made a difference to a customer and they are truly grateful for customers who stay with them.
  3. This has knock-on effects for suppliers of SMEs who should look to establish a partnership with their SME customers.

There’s a common belief that companies see customers as just another number on a spreadsheet. Customers grumble they are simply someone who buys a product or service, and stop the supplier company going out of business.

This may be the case with bigger companies, but our research into SMEs shows that small businesses often have a strong emotional connection with their customers, celebrating their success and seeing them as crucial partners in the business.

“Remember who pays your wages" is a common refrain of managers when staff grumble about a customer’s behaviour. And the more enlightened corporates invest significant amounts of time and money in changing staff attitudes and behaviour – customers are valuable assets after all.

Providing good service is a no brainer for any business and the proliferation of customer satisfaction surveys must at a stroke be increasing the sale of iPads as the prize of choice.

Consider the flow of information and reward here. Companies seek better customer experience scores, staff get KPI bonuses or contributions to the tip jar.

Now contrast this with SME’s where there is an evident and authentic two-way flow, characterised by a genuine celebration of their customer’s successes.

The SME participants in our Listening Project don’t just value their customers for the monetary value they bring to the business, but for who they are and what they want to achieve. There is noticeably more equality in the relationship.

Our SMEs talked about the rewards of knowing they made a difference to a customer and they are truly grateful for customers who stay with them.

“Our most important relationships are with our ‘superstar’ customers.”

They actively support other SMEs as suppliers and as colleagues, not just nominally but in practical ways. One SME told us that she never uses a credit card to pay for her coffee at the locally owned café because she knows they will pay a handling fee, but has no such compunction when shopping in a national chain.

“Treat every client like they are your mum and dad – they are special and deserve respect at all times.”

Customers who become friends are held up as the gold standard and there is a genuine effort to forge something more than just a transactional service relationship.

So if SMEs see themselves as engaged in a partnership with their customers, striving for common goals and successes, what does it mean for those who supply SMEs with goods and services?

  1. Partnerships are important to SMEs and they are looking for suppliers who are genuine partners. They don’t just treat a supplier as a nameless account customer.
  2. Reframe equality – make your connections with SMEs feel like a two-way process. They “get” the concept that “what works for us both will produce the best result”.
  3. Celebrate them as suppliers. Make them feel valued – tell them about a milestone you have passed; maybe even include them in your afternoon tea shout. Remember you aren’t just a client number to them; they want to feel valued by you – they want you to celebrate the success of having them as a customer. List them as a client on your website, use them in your own communications – and tell them about it.
  4. Tailor your messages and services to the special needs of SMEs to declare your genuine interest in their type of business. Think like the SME owner who doesn’t use her credit card in the café.
  5. Set “making a difference” as your goal. If the SME’s primary goal is to see the results of their work in their client companies, use this to set your goals – what difference are you going to make in their company. Then agree to work together to achieve that.

The Listening Project: SMEs was TRA’s second immersive research project. It followed 13 Kiwi SME owners to gain insight into their lives and the beliefs that inform behaviour and decision making. The Listening Project: SMEs was carried out by Colleen Ryan, Jeremy McDonnell and Chantelle Watt.

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA

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