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Idea: When Marketing to Small Business Owners, Focus on Situations, Not Operations

By Rex Hammock, CEO

For 23 years, Hammock’s clients have included marketers at large organizations who sell products or services to decision-makers at small businesses. From our vantage point, we’ve seen how easy it is for such marketers to fall into the trap of thinking their customers run something that’s like a big business, just smaller. In reality, the people who make buying decisions for small businesses live on another planet in a galaxy far, far away from what a big business is like.

Large companies are organized in a hierarchy and order based on what we at Hammock call an “operational taxonomy” (borrowing the word “taxonomy” from the approach scientists use to map out classifications and connections). Such a taxonomy enables workers with specialized skills and responsibilities to understand where they fit into an organization by department (finance, marketing, IT, production, etc.) rank (assistant to the regional manager vs. assistant regional manager) or mysterious function (fixer, closer, rainmaker).

In a small business, people typically have multiple responsibilities and little perception of operational boundaries. (“Hey, can you help me move this table?” the intern asks the owner.) The flexible structure (translation: lack of structure) gives rise to what we call a “situational taxonomy.” Small businesses often don’t know, nor care, whether a problem is financial or operational, marketing- or technology-based. They simply know they have a problem that needs a solution. And the solution needs to appear now.

What This Means to Marketers: Unless your product or service is tied to a specific profession or industry, when you describe it to a small business customer, don’t use the language of a big business (or “enterprise,” as you might call it). Put yourself in the situation your customers typically find themselves when needing your product, and take cues from the way they may describe the challenge. (Imagine yourself at a hardware store asking a clerk if they have one of those thingamajigs that go with a whatchamacallit.)

Your small business customer wears many hats throughout the day. If you can find a way to help small business customers understand how your product or service can enable them to wear one less hat, you’ll have a better chance of generating sales and starting a long-term relationship.

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