What big businesses don’t understand about marketing to small business owners

in On Marketing To Small Businesses

(Quick note before we start – I originally wrote this in a response to a question I got from a large corporate client trying to market to small business owners. My comments also apply completely to smaller consulting firms and professional practices.)

Talk to a small business owner and they’ll tell you that the big businesses that sell things to them “just don’t get it.”

Talk to the same owner behind-the-scenes and they’ll tell you big businesses are a necessary evil and flat-out suck.

There are exceptions, of course, but the way most large companies market and sell to small business guarantees they’ll get price shopped and have little to no loyalty.

Surface loyalty, sure.

But loyalty when someone else offers a little better price or some tickets to a football game … nope.

It got me thinking about the 4 kinds of companies and salespeople that serve small business, how small business owners think about them, and why most companies don’t get it.

First up are Vendors.

Vendors sell stuff, and their value to the small business owners begins and ends at their ability to deliver their product or service on time and at a reasonable price.

The moment a small business owner has the chance to get a cheaper vendor, or a vendor that has a little more selection or can speak in the latest buzzwords … they switch.

There is no loyalty, no relationship, and no added value beyond the stuff vendor’s supply.

Second comes Consultants.

Consultants still sell stuff, but they provide added value by helping the business owner use the stuff they sell in the business.

Unlike the vendor who says, “Here is the stuff I sell, would you like some?” … the Consultant is more likely to spend time figuring out what is happening in the business and help the owner understand how their products and services fit in.

There is a higher level of service here, and being consultative results in more sales.

But there is still little real loyalty.

Consultants have more wiggle room than vendors, because they bring value beyond simply what they sell.

But the value is still being calculated in a purely analytical fashion—“Company X is worth keeping around because of Ralph. He helps us with promotions every time he comes to visit.”

But as soon as someone offers the business the same service as Ralph and “above and beyond” value … Ralph is out the door. Sorry, Ralph, “business is business.”

Which brings us to the Advocate…

Advocates go beyond simply helping the business owner use their stuff; they help the business owner even when it doesn’t directly lead to selling more products and services.

They operate with the question, “How can I help the business thrive?”

Practically speaking, a thriving business consumes more products and services to keep up with the growth, and they are more willing to spend beyond tomorrow—upgrading systems, purchasing new equipment, doing the things that need to be done to grow the business into the future without feeling the pressure to penny-pinch every step of the way.

Finally, there are Partners.

Partners are Advocates who develop and maintain a deep emotional relationship with the business owners.

Partners operate with the question, “How can I be the person who is with the business owner through thick and thin, the person who they can count on, the one who will always be on their side?”

Partners provide a top-notch product or service (Vendor), they help the business owner optimize the product or service in their business (Consultant), they look for opportunities to help the business owner reduce stress and increase success (Advocate), and they develop a deep emotional relationship along the way (Partner) that makes the business owner feel like … when everything is falling apart and they are holding the business together with bits of glue and duct tape … that this person and this company was there when it counted.

How all of this impacts your B2B marketing and sales strategy

So, if you are the CEO or in sales or marketing management in a big company, the question you should be asking is as follows:

“Short of finding those diamonds who naturally fit into the Advocate or Partner role, what can the company do to facilitate that emotional connection and relationship in a systemic way through marketing systems, through sales systems, and through hiring practices?”

The great news is that there are answers.

Great ones.

And we’ll be talking about that soon …

If you have comments about this post or about your experiences with big business and/or their salespeople selling to you, leave a comment.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 juliacassidy June 1, 2010 at 12:02 pm

I agree with @earthypoet, this is very inspiring. I think that small businesses and big business are not to be compared, because when we do so, we end up having this kind of trouble. To be honest, I don't think big businesses' entrepreneurs will ever understand small businesses' entrepreneurs. Strategies are different because strategies are adapted to both size and the nature of a business. However, principles are priciples and they should be the same always, no matter how big or small a business is.


2 lynnlane September 10, 2009 at 2:57 pm

Thanks for that Michael. I agree with Laura that it would also serve the small business to be that unique business that serves the people.

Lynn Lane

Success Strategies For Life


3 susan01 September 9, 2009 at 11:52 pm

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.




4 alexayvengo September 7, 2009 at 6:26 am

Michael, but how about brand loyality?
If big company has well known brand, have good positions and strong support, and fast respons for all quaestions about quality it leads to loyality.

Also – a lot of clients from “small office, home office” looking for labels that they can sell faster.

When we create brand for photopaper in Russia we take 9% of russian paper market only – to give small business good payment rules, support and new brand get good sales.


5 Laura Walker August 26, 2009 at 5:23 pm

Well written blog, Michael. I'm inspired to subscribe! Made me think: Just as a business can be a vendor, consultant, advocate or partner to another business, I think the same principles can be applied to the small business that serves individual consumers as well. I look forward to perusing your other posts and reading those that are upcoming. Thanks again.


6 michaelcage August 26, 2009 at 2:37 pm

Dealers can be perceived as any of the 4 — most fall into the vendor and/or consultant category (which explains many of their struggles.)

Thanks for the comment.


7 Anonymous August 25, 2009 at 7:51 am

Hey Michael nice writing but you forget to write something about dealers.But really nice to read, thanks.


8 Anonymous August 25, 2009 at 5:53 am

great information


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