Even The Wall Street Journal has taken notice, with a recent piece on how big companies are drooling over the IT services market for SMBs. I'd say this isn't so much a new trend--it's simply more apparent than in the past. A key reason: The online era has made it easier than ever for vendors to target the disparate SMB market--a segment so diverse that it lacks a universal definition of "small," "midsize," or anything in between.
The good news: Cutthroat competition for your budget can mean better pricing, service, and other benefits. The not-so-good news: The number of sales pitches in your inbox and voicemail is likely at an all-time high.
To be clear, this isn't an anti-vendor rant. Finding the right partners and products can make a monumental difference for SMBs short on time and money, especially if they lack in-house tech know-how. InformationWeek's Jonathan Feldman recently made the case for why dodging vendor pitches is a short-sighted strategy.
[ Want to learn how to play with the big guys? See 5 SMB Tips For Partnering With Big Business. ]
This is an acknowledgement, however, that not all vendors are created equal. You can start to make those distinctions for yourself from the very first contact. Here are some of the most common pitches I see being made by tech vendors to SMBs--and why they should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism.
1. "This gives you access to the same technology and tools that big businesses use." This (or some version of it) might be the sales spiel of recent times. Its fraternal twin pitch: "This technology levels the playing field for SMBs." Both tap into a certain populist ethos that isn't without basis. You can see that leveling effect at work in social media, certain cloud platforms, and mobility. The iPad inside a Fortune 500 boardroom is the same hardware in use at a 50-person company.
But here's the problem: Almost everyone says this these days. (Everyone.) So even when it proves true, the pitch does little to set apart one choice from another--or to tell you how it will better enable your company to succeed in some meaningful way.
2. "We've taken our world-class enterprise platform and right-sized it for the SMB." This one's the shiftier cousin of number one, and tends to crop up more when dealing with tech giants that also have huge enterprise footprints. The problem is that's kind of like saying: "We took the engine out of this brand-new Mercedes so that you could afford it." That's not to say large vendors can't be productive partners for (much) smaller companies--just that pitches of this variety should make your radar chirp. Be prepared to ask tough questions about features and functionality--not a bad habit in any scenario--and what has been stripped out of the flagship platform. The fundamental issue? This line of thinking often claims to understand the "right size" for a wide range of SMBs--whether an auto dealership, fashion designer, or software firm.
3. "[Technology X] enables small businesses, professionals, and consumers to…" The flipside of number two: Falling into the prosumer/consumer hole. Certainly, there are some tech tools that might serve a freelancer and a veritable SMB equally well. But in other areas--security, storage, and backup are a few that come to mind--the needs of an individual or home office user and an 80-person startup just aren't the same. Buyer beware.
4. "[Buzzword] Is a Major Trend, Don't Get Left Behind." There's no better recent example of this than in the cloud--and yet I rarely encounter SMBs that use the word "cloud" unless they're discussing the weather, even when they're heavily invested in hosted platforms. No matter the underlying technology, the flaw with this approach is that it tends to emphasize hype and stats--everybody's doing it!--while not addressing how it will produce return on investment, help you innovate and compete, or otherwise improve how you do business. Buzzwords are a fact of business life, but if you can't find the real value beneath them, look elsewhere.
5. "…packaged in an affordable solution." Price is almost always a concern for SMBs; budget friendliness can go a long way for vendors looking to increase their appeal to SMBs. Accordingly, there's nothing wrong with a sales pitch that stresses cost efficiencies--but "affordable" means different things to different companies. Skip the adjectives and just ask for the numbers.
6. "Pricing starts at just $X." Actual prices are a step in right direction, but don't gloss over phrases such as "for as little as" or "starting at." Otherwise, you might think you're getting something you're not--at least not for the advertised price. Microsoft's Office 365 is a good example. The longstanding Office brand is so ubiquitous--and, for the typical SMB user, so integrally linked with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint--that an unwitting buyer might think he gets full cloud versions of the traditional productivity suite included with the small businesses tier. That package runs $6 per user, per month--and was a big part of Microsoft's marketing push--but includes only view-and-edit Web versions of popular desktop applications such as Word. If you want the full feature set, you'll need to step up to the $24/month tier.
Pricing choices, provided they're easy to understand, are a good thing. You're better able to match your needs with your budget. A small business that only wants Office 365's email and collaboration apps, for example, isn't force-fed Office Professional Plus, too. (And six bucks a month is tough to haggle with.) Just make sure you pay attention to the details--know what you're getting for what price.
Stay tuned to find out what lingo you should look for when comparing tech vendors.
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