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Small companies, here’s how you whack the big players

Big firms with long histories and huge market shares tend to dominate many an industry. If you’re a small, modest new player trying to make your mark, what should you do?

First, a recent real-life story.

My family hit an unexpected problem at home. An essential piece of equipment failed, leaving the household in some disarray. But, not to worry, it was a high-quality bit of machinery, a renowned global brand, supplied by a large, reputable, long-standing local company, one of the largest in the industry.

All would be well, right? You would expect these guys to have excellent after-sales service and care, right?

Actually, you can guess what happened next. We were given the runaround for five consecutive days. Pilot lines not answered. Appointments not kept. No single point of contact. Different people saying different things. Technicians making promises then disappearing and not answering calls. Supervisors turning surly. Not one person willing to take responsibility.

Finally, after many appeals to reason, as well as threats, the equipment was replaced. Expensively.

That failure threw up a related problem, and this time we decided to go small, not big. We looked up the closest small supplier on the internet. We found a credible-looking advert. We closed our eyes and contacted them, preparing for a possibly even worse experience.

But lo and behold. The phone was answered instantly. A friendly supervisor was at our house in minutes. Technicians were gathered and brought to our place within the hour. The personnel were all uniformed, friendly and cheerful, and completed their work there and then, with the supervisor present and monitoring the whole thing.

I watched this zippy team come and go, gave them hefty tips, and thought: now that’s how you do it. If you want to hit the big boys, whack ‘em where they are clueless. Don’t try to match their strengths – their balance sheets, their deep connections, their multiple locations. They’re better than you at all of that. Go for their underbelly.

What are big companies generally terrible at? Consistency of standards. Making their large, anonymous workforces give a damn about their work. Customer care. Treatment of suppliers. Speed. Creativity and innovation. Enthusiasm.

And that’s what the thinking SME goes for. It tries to show its customers a dramatic difference in response times, in cheerfulness, in keeping appointments, in getting work done properly and first time. Once customers notice the difference, they become the cheerleaders.

But wait. Most SMEs are not like this. For this one great one described above, I have probably encountered nine who are worse than the big boys. You don’t win by being smaller; you win by being better at things that matter to customers – by creating a meaningful difference. You win by being more hungry, yes – but by turning that hunger into kinship in your workforce; into dedication to customer care as a genuine mantra; into proper organization via simple processes.

And then, if you start to win and grow fast yourself, remember this vital rule: do not turn into the thing that you beat so easily! As you scale up and spread out, do not adopt all the bad habits the big boys have, the very traits that made it easy for you to grow. Do not recruit or tolerate unenthusiastic workers. Do not complicate your processes and slow everything down to a crawl. Do not introduce multiple decision-making hierarchies. Do not allow bully-boy supervisors to take root. Do not let anyone who works for you anywhere forget that everything, everything, depends on happy customers.

To sum up: you don’t beat incumbents by trying to be like them. You beat them by being unlike them, in ways that matter. You will never out-spend them, but you can out-innovate them, out-work them, out-speed them, out-smile them and out-dance them. When you do that, natural selection will do the rest. The rigid will tumble, the nimble will jump.

Now then. Do you know which business leader most needs to discuss this issue with his or her team tomorrow morning? Not the great SME leader, whose people will likely be too busy getting good things done. It’s the boss of the big, ugly, rigid, hierarchical, ponderous, boring, stifling organization who has a lot to think about. But probably won’t.

(Sunday Nation, 27 January 2019)

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