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The small business purchasing journey and how to make an impact early on

Owners of small businesses make purchasing decisions notoriously quickly. Molly Raycraft investigates the characteristics of the market’s buying cycle and how you can make an impact early on

Small businesses may seem quaint, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less stubborn than corporates when it comes to knowing what they want. Moulding your engagement to complement small businesses’ buying behaviours will push you ahead of competitors and result in a much shorter sales cycle.

If marketing and sales manage to hit this sweet spot, you’re likely to enter a loyal, long-lasting and lucrative relationship. However, many miss the mark. Tactics geared towards enticing the big players in the industry just don’t appeal to small businesses and demonstrate your company’s complete lack of understanding. It’s the same as trying to sell a sunhat to an Eskimo – it’s not relevant.

The perks and difficulties of selling to small businesses

Hidden under the large and domineering rock of corporates lies a thriving community of small businesses. At a glance, it may seem all they can offer your business are tiny scraps of profit, but as Dan Roche, head of marketing at KPMG Small Business Accounting says, this simply isn’t true. “You could be more successful and get more profit by selling to many small businesses than selling to just a few big businesses.”

In fact, Mary Ellen, CMO at WP Engine, suggests small businesses could give corporates a run for their money due to their agile nature. “A small business with a tight message is constantly updating and can actually compete on a bigger scale,” she explains.

As a client, the agile nature of a small business is likely to be reflected in their buying cycle. “If you’re usually selling to big businesses, then you have a low frequency of sales and it takes a very long time in the B2B buying cycle,” says Dan. “With small business, the value of the deal or services is much lower, but there’s more opportunity to sell very quickly to lots of them.”

With the relative blessing of a concentrated and less siloed team, small businesses can afford to push through decisions quickly – and this is something Dan has seen the benefits of first-hand. “Usually for small businesses, there are only one or two decision-makers, so if they’ve already decided on their supplier, the sale can be completed within one to two weeks.”

For marketers aiming for a faster buying cycle, this is music to their ears, but it’s all worthless if you don’t understand what your small business prospects actually want. And, as Dan confirms, big B2B brands' misunderstanding of the small business market is one that runs deep throughout the industry. “There’s a perception that small businesses won’t perceive big businesses as suitable as they may be expensive or too corporate,” he explains.

Understanding the small business market

Individual small businesses may, at first, appear to operate as a lone wolf but, it quite often belongs to a pack of suppliers, supporters and fellow small businesses. It’s easy to fall into the trap of treating these networks and its members as one entity, churning out a one-size-fits-all package to address everyone’s common pain points in one foul swoop – but, as Dan is quick to mention, the small business market needs to be recognised as a diverse and distinct population. “You might work with a micro-business that employs five people, whose owner might be a bit older, and they’re just running it to give themselves a good income – what we call a lifestyle business,” he explains. “But you could equally want to target a similar-sized business, led by a 25-year-old entrepreneur, who wants to grow their tech business really fast and is completely different in their outlook and mindset and how they want people to supply services to them.”

This level of diversity in small business networks is something Dan warns marketers to consider. “It takes a lot of time to understand and it’s not easy to come up with a small business service or product and hope it will take off,” he says. But Ashling Kearns, UK&I and Benelux marketing leader at Salesforce, says small businesses can also be a fun community to work with. “They’re doing innovation; they’re moving quicker, they operate at a pace that larger organisations would find a tough.”

Ashling believes the small business sector is stronger than ever before. “The growth of small businesses is phenomenal, and often, they’re highly funded. They’re no longer the corner shop: they’re changing industries and they’re disruptive,” she says.

How can you capture the attention of these fast-movers? “It comes down to trust,” Dan answers. “Small businesses don’t want to go somewhere they’re going to be sold to, they want to go somewhere where there’s certain value as a networking opportunity.”

It’s understandable that a market type that can fly or die depending on the performance of its suppliers and partners may have a degree of scepticism in letting big businesses in.

Building a trustworthy brand

Becoming a trusted partner and another one of the cogs within a small business’ wheel can seem like an exercise that requires a whole toolbox of channels, engagement tactics and relationship building. But Dan argues it’s all about the brand, and creating one that breaks away from the clichéd corporate imagery. “Traditional accountants and high-street lawyers don’t have a strong brand that resonates externally, and often, they don’t have a wider network that helps the small business thrive,” he explains.

Establish a trustworthy image and you’ll grow your customer base quickly, but failure could see prospects diminish. “It’s about presenting a message and visual identity that shows you’re not a big corporate,” Dan continues, exampling his own company KPMG. “We had to come up with an entirely new brand, new messaging and new website to show ourselves as relevant to the small business market.”

Acquiring influencers is a good way to overcome resistance and build trust quickly. Pinpoint the small businesses that seem most confident in dealing with your business and make their voices the loudest once you secure their custom.

“Small businesses are really keen to help out with references and case studies because it’s good PR and promotion for them,” Dan points out. This will give fellow small businesses the nod of approval that you’re one of the good ones and welcome you into the pack. “It helped us show we had clients in that sector and that we were a trustworthy brand, we weren’t corporate or expensive,” Dan explains.

Cultivating your network of small businesses

Small businesses often work within networks because it offers safety and support to refer to when challenges arise. This is something Ashling says is a key principle when marketing to small businesses. “It doesn’t matter what channel you use,” she explains, “you have to be where your customer is and creating those experiences.”

Dan suggests a good way to achieve this is facilitating your own network of small businesses offering support and expertise to each other. “We hold regular events in our offices and invite clients along, and that allows them to network with each other,” he explains. “That’s the added value to small businesses as customers - it doesn’t come at an extra price but it’s just a bigger opportunity for them to take advantage of.”

Similarly, Ashling cultivates a network based around sharing expertise, but unlike Dan’s concentrated approach, she brings the realms of small business and corporate together. “It works so well because the larger-sized corporations are inspired and amazed about how quickly small businesses can get to market, so they become inspiring to corporations,” she explains. “Larger organisations also have a lot of lessons learned they can share with small businesses as they grow.”

Big blue chip brand or not, both Dan and Ashling believe the key to selling to small businesses is through ongoing trust, reliability and expertise, which is effectively delivered via networks.

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