Startups have never had it easy. Big businesses hate disruption, and when a new company starts doing things differently, established players do everything they can to steal the ideas and squash the competition.
PepsiCo, for example, has mechanized the process. Through its partnership with Black Swan Data, PepsiCo hopes to identify trends before they become, well, trendy and beat would-be disruptors to the punch in an effort to compete with its smaller competitors. This is because, as PepsiCo leaders suggest, smaller businesses are better able to keep up with trends.
Fortunately, startups don’t have to let big players such as PepsiCo steal their advantages without a fight. The biggest companies have the deepest pockets and the most service lines, so small companies must focus on niches, becoming industry specialists and offering nimble customer service.
Old-fashioned relationship building is the key. Most big players rely on dial-up customer service, but they don’t make in-person visits to facilities and events. Startups excel in the trenches where big companies don’t bother to go. Through superior customer service and personal relationships, startups can provide something that no big company can match.
The trick for small companies is to act like a small business while demonstrating the power of a larger one. By using the right combination of tactics, startups can not only survive in this cutthroat environment, but also thrive.
1. Always respond to prospects quickly and personally.
Smaller companies differentiate themselves from big ones through faster, more in-depth human communication. One company recently sent me a form email about buying a list from a database. I sent back my interest, but only received a second form email in response — one that didn’t even answer my questions. If a real person had emailed me back with answers to my specific questions, that company likely would have earned my business.
Whether in person or on the phone, respond quickly and personally to maximize the small business charm. Companies of all sizes have adopted automated software for marketing, but relying on automation loses the personal touch that differentiates small businesses from corporations.
If a consumer demonstrates interest in an automated channel — such as an email or ad — the worst way for a small company to respond is with an automated reaction. When we notice a prospect engages with one of our digital platforms, we have a person reach out to acknowledge the engagement and request a call.
2. Don’t solve unique problems with standard solutions.
Big companies fit clients into preset boxes. Smaller companies can be nimble in their ability to customize offerings to match specific needs. That’s why PepsiCo wants to stay on trend: to compete with smaller, more agile brands. Startups should take advantage of this by providing more specific service to customers who would fall through the cracks at larger entities.
One of our clients, Toyota Forklifts, chose our small company over plenty of bigger options for this reason. Toyota needed specific help that no one offered. Rather than go with “good enough” from a big provider, Toyota asked us how much it would cost to hire the people we would need to power the new program. That’s an uncommon level of customization, but our small size allowed us to rework our internal structure to meet a need no one else could.
3. Keep the face of the company familiar.
Big companies have big sales teams and lots of people who interact with clients. Small companies have only a few, but this can be a strength. McKinsey found that maximizing customer satisfaction through a consistent customer journey can potentially increase customer satisfaction by 20 percent and boost revenue by 15 percent. Keep the point of human contact as consistent as possible so prospects feel that they’re dealing with a person — not a brand.
While startups use personal service to get in front of clients, big companies invest in technology so they don’t have to. Keep personnel the same through the inquiry, proposal, launch and implementation phases. Customers will feel more valued if they are not being shuffled from one department to the next.
Salesforce is a successful, giant company, but there are no personalized terms for clients. The company has standard contracts, standard pricing, and a 1-800 number for prospects to call. In other words, the customers never talk to the same rep twice.
When I spoke to the owner of a boat company who was considering Salesforce, he asked why, instead, he should consider us — especially when the largest customer relationship management company in the world wanted his business. I asked him, “Is the person you talked to at Salesforce today going to be the same person who will work with you after the sale?” Those are the questions small companies must ask to compete with big businesses.
No matter how much ground big companies cover, they can’t be everything for every customer, and that leaves an opening for startups to survive and thrive. Small companies can leverage their agility, flexibility and creativity to go above and beyond for customers where the big businesses would otherwise get stuck in the mud. Small companies that focus on building active, solution-forward relationships with customers will find it’s easier to win out against the sluggish big businesses in today’s fast-moving market.