SMEs put customers before profits in downturn

New research suggests SMEs are focusing on customer relationships to navigate their way out of recession...

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Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

Putting the customer first is now the most important priority for UK SMEs, according to a survey of 1,000 small business owners by networking company Cisco – which means it’s now considered to be more important than maintaining a healthy profit margin. Admittedly it’s a lot harder to do the former without the latter, but it’s still good news for customers that SMEs are so keen to raise their game: more than half said they’d introduced new measures this year to improve their customer service. This is also placing a premium on staff attitudes: nearly half said they’d sack a miserable employee if they were dragging down service levels. Could the days of bored shop assistants finally be coming to a long-overdue end?

The research was done to celebrate Cisco’s inaugural Customer Kings awards, a competition to identify customer service excellence in the UK SME sector. One notable winner was Firefly Tonics, maker of the healthy energy drinks (you’ve probably seen them in your local deli). The company was complimented for its use of technology in getting closer to customers, from online surveys to simple CRM systems – but founder and director Harry Briggs told MT that the key was to communicate with people directly. ‘We like to combine technology with the human touch. If people take the trouble to write, the least we can do is send them a proper personalised response rather than a standard mail merge. And that kind of thing that does get noticed.’

On the B2B side, Cougar Automation, a Portsmouth-based supplier of industrial control systems, was also a winner. ‘Delivering great service is quite easy,’ company leader Clive Hutchison tells us modestly. ‘You just get people to get people to do things at work that they love doing, then get out of the way and let them do it. We don’t try and change people to match the job, we do it the other way round.’ (As ever MT was ahead of the game on this one; we gave Cougar a Service Excellence award way back in 2005 – click here to read what we had to say about their innovative approach)

Cougar also has a different approach to customer feedback: ‘Most people try and collect data that makes them look good, rather than stuff that really tells them something useful.’ This means looking for scores of 9 or 10 out of 10: ‘If you get people up to these levels, they’re actively wanting to come to you and they’ll promote you to other people.’ Half of Cougar’s customer base apparently already falls into that category.

These SMEs have clearly learned fast that it’s never been more important to stay close to your customers – which is good news for the sector, and good news for the rest of us...

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