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Are you doing enough to retain your SME customers?

Small businesses may be small by definition, but their collective power is by no means tiny. Rebecca Ley talks to Spotcap, Facebook and small business owner Rob Sayles about what companies can do to harness SMEs’ buying power and keep them for good.

B2B marketers know the perils of failing to segment their audience, personalise communications, and appeal to businesses on a human level, and this is doubly true when targeting small businesses. Attracting them might be easy enough with a broad-brush approach, but you'll retain them by appealing to their individuality.

Making up 99% of the UK's GDP, SMEs are a large market which deserves attention. They are a force to be reckoned with as part of a collective, as much as on their own: creating communities, working as groups, and learning from each other is a massive part of what keeps SMEs afloat, learning, and in business. Harnessing these partnerships and creating a way of working with them as a team might just be the answer to keeping them as customers.

Nurturing an ecosystem

"Creating an ecosystem which includes everyone they might need to work with creates trust and familiarity," says Linh Bergen-Peters, CMO of small business finance lender Spotcap. She explains the company doesn't just work with the small businesses themselves, but also the industry associations they belong to, and the financial advisors and accountants who have long-standing relationships with their clients. "We adjust to the region in terms of where they go to get financial advice," says Linh, explaining that a tailored approach in each country is how small businesses know they can trust the company. 

Partnering with people they work with, and also attending events tailored towards them, means they can understand their customers completely. "The benefits it delivers for SMEs are both emotional and practical," she underlines. "Their business is their baby, so trust is a key element." Working with who they consider key partners, she explains, gives them reassurance and makes them more comfortable, meaning they'll have a good experience and come back and work with you again.

"The key to retaining customers is providing the best experience for them, and they will come back to you whether they're an SME or an enterprise." However, she emphasises, SMEs do tend to be more demanding as customers, which makes it even more essential their lives are made as easy as possible.

Olivia Leonard, director of small and medium businesses at Facebook, echoes the sentiment that creating a community is key to keeping companies engaged. “For larger businesses this might be becoming a thought leader and using that to engage small customers,” she says. Facebook’s groups have been a model for this kind of thinking. “We asked businesses what we could do to help,” she says, “and they asked for more information to be shared, and more meet-ups. They want to learn from other community leaders because they’re also using our platform.”

Engaging the SME community

The evidence to support how important this is for Facebook is compelling. “Businesses who are learning from other businesses are more confident about the future,” Olivia says, “We find 53% of businesses are confident in relation to their own outlook, and 54% in relation to international trade.” Confident businesses are ones that will return and continue to use your platform if they can see the benefits, and having these online forums helps to create this. “The group is powerful in terms of sharing information,” she says. “Off the back of that, people will want to seek you out for your advice.” Facebook enhances this experience for small businesses by sharing material on its website about how to advertise, tips and tricks for SMEs, and offering success stories so businesses can learn from each other.

Servicing a need such as creating a community of like-minded businesses, rather than just selling a product, is one way to keep companies engaged and happy. “Simplicity is important,” Olivia explains, “being able to phrase your proposition for them to show it will solve a problem is essential.”

Rob Sayles, whose consultancy helps online business owners attract audiences and generate leads, finds that often the reason companies lose customers is down to not understanding SMEs’ problems. “Businesses have a cookie cutter method, and focus on the product they’re selling without truly understanding the pain-point.” He suggests building a marketing strategy around the solution to that pain-point. “Build the plan off that basic principle. If you’ve got that wrong, it’s a waste of marketing activity.”

Building individual relationships

Although you may have to tailor to certain sectors, there are some classic traits or pain-points which SMEs have in common no matter what the industry, explains Linh. “They're time poor, and resource poor, but they're also very passionate about their company, so you have to appeal to that, and solve a problem,” she says. "At Spotcap, retention is a fundamental area of our business model, which means making sure an experience for an SME is a good one so they come back to us."

For the finance lender, this has meant making their application process as easy as possible, done online in 10 minutes, and adding value for customers by creating content around financial forecasting, and other topics SMEs aren't necessarily confident in, says Linh. Often these areas are determined by listening to people on the ground floor, who hear the most from the front line: customer service representatives. "We also evaluate online, do social listing, and look at trending topics," she says. Its experienced client services team is not just a way of keeping customers happy, but helps provide a personal relationship that small businesses find useful, rather than just using a 'bot'.

Small business owner Rob says building that personal relationship is all about endurance and your long-term aspirations. “I get marketed to a lot, but there’s a feature list of things I want to achieve in the next year, and so if they are offering something that will help me achieve that, I’d be interested in that personal relationship now.” Having a sales person check in about a business’ future needs, or addressing a potential area of concern can make all the difference when coming to choose a tool to solve that problem in the next year, explains Rob.

The personal touch

Olivia at Facebook agrees that small businesses are looking for that personal touch. “When I was a small business owner, I bought from suppliers I trusted, and trust comes from a relationship.” She explains that when deciding on office suppliers, she chose one who would visit her once a month. “This was really valuable because I could say what could be improved or what I didn’t want. Business is personal, and it’s really important to be personal.”

In an age where small business owners can easily find services online, competition for their attention has never been greater, but this also presents an opportunity. “You just have to have a very compelling proposition,” Olivia explains. “What we call the thumb-stopping moment, capturing customers’ attention online.”

Rob agrees: “More and more businesses are cottoning on to the fact that social media can run content alongside big players and create traffic. It’s a leveller.” This is why he thinks social media is also a great place to help solve small business’ problems and keep them interested as customers. “SMEs are trying to work out how to streamline our marketing activity and connect with the right audience, as well as more tactical stuff,” says Rob. 

Personalising pain-points

Using Facebook as an example, Rob says “a lot of people are asking questions about the platform, learning from each other and bouncing ideas around.” Having a forum to engage with other businesses and also understand their problems by listening to them as a group can help the relationship between company and customer endure.

Segmenting by pain-point may therefore be a smart move. Addressing a group’s problem as a whole could be a way to understand the entire ecosystem of small businesses together. Not all SMEs prize growth above all else, for example, and some are happy to remain small.

Is it worth segmenting small businesses by whether they're getting bigger? Their needs may be different, but this isn't how Spotcap measures them, says Linh. "We don't look for growth, we look for financial health," she says. "Loans can be used for growth purposes but also day-to-day business usage. We're happy when they grow and come back to us but we're also happy to help them in maintaining their business."

But Rob has a different outlook: “A solo business owner has different problems than a slightly bigger business. A business with fewer than 10 employees probably has common issues you can market to: how to get new business and make processes more efficient, for example.”

Olivia also emphasises the importance of targeted content with a message that resonates. “Decipher how you speak to customers. Speaking to a millennial is different from how you’d speak to someone in their later life.” Even if it’s difficult in an online world, it’s still worth doing to keep your customers, she says. “You can have great confidence in a company you’ve never met. It’s important how you engage and how you respond to them, because trust builds relationships.”

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