Marketing: give instant access with freephones and free faxes.
If US marketing guru Regis McKenna is to be believed, the era of instant gratification is upon us. Modern computing and telecommunications technologies are hurtling us towards a new era of 'real time' competition and 'real time' marketing, where customers increasingly expect to have direct and instant access to suppliers and to be recognised and treated as individuals.
Only organisations that are fleet of foot, ever sensitive to changing market needs and display the 'personal touch' should survive in such a world. Mega-corporations with their cold, slow, remote and faceless reputations shouldn't prosper because all these qualities are the traditional territory of the SME. Or so the theory goes.
Yet, big business is racing to apply technologies new and old to seize this territory. Forget the sophistications of data-mining, EDI and ISDN - even the most basic services such as freephone numbers are doing the trick. Using services such as 0800 (freephone), 0345 (local call rate) and freefax, even the most monolithic monopolies are finding ways to add new levels of service, from customer care and help lines offering information or advice to problem-solving over the phone, taking orders or simply conducting transactions such as direct-line insurance and banking operations.
Moreover, they're doing it in a way that enables them to come across as warm, friendly and responsive. As Roy Boss of Brann Contact, a marketing services agency that works exclusively for large firms comments: 'Call centres allow you to express a brand over the phone. They can make a big firm as personal as a small organisation can be.'
But are smaller companies in danger of losing the competitive advantage of the personal, friendly touch? Certainly, they have been held back by several things. First, resource: 'Big firms have the wherewithal, small ones don't,' notes Colin Lloyd of the Direct Marketing Association. Second, telecoms providers have in the past prioritised big contracts such as 500-seat call centres. Third, telecoms services have been promoted as bits of kit, not business opportunities. According to Vic Davies, who conducted research into the needs of SMEs for the Telecoms Users Association, telecoms companies 'have a tendency to sell in the technology and then walk away'. He says the crucial issue isn't technology but training people and organising the fulfilment of telephone-led services.
Which leads to the most important challenge. What customers want is not just speed of communication but speed of follow-up action - the technical problem solved now, the information made available now, the item delivered on time. Delivering these goes far beyond employing a few pleasant telephone operators. 'Too few SMEs are prepared to commit themselves to the business re-organisations (demanded by these systems),' complains Phil Purssey, a regional SME sales manager for BT.
But SMEs are not out of the race altogether. The ease of access offered to potential customers by 0800 numbers has given an edge to many local service operators. Two-men-and-a dog professional service firms such as surveyors have given themselves apparent national stature and generated new levels of business by advertising 0800 numbers instead of their local number.
Some have gone even further. Skippy Nationwide became the first national skip-hire firm after advertising its wares via BT Talking Pages and then using phone and fax to co-ordinate the activities of 500 separate local skip firms. Its turnover grew tenfold in two years to over £2 million.
Equally, over the last 18 months, telecoms companies have really started to gun for the SME market. They are now marketing two-or three-seat call centres for SMEs, for example, and SME demand for BT's freephone and related services doubled last year, boasts Tanya Walsh, marketing manager for BT's services.
In many sectors, SMEs don't really have much choice. The 'teleculture' that's now emerging means that customers increasingly expect instant, direct access to suppliers. Firms that fail to recognise this shift will find themselves marginalised - without, perhaps, realising why.
Alan Mitchell was editor of Marketing and now works as a freelance journalist.