Quintin Lew: service providers must position themselves to be a one-stop-shop
While the Western economy goes into freefall and large businesses begin to slow up on their investments, there remains a large section of the customer community that can't afford to put essential information and communications technology projects on hold — the small and medium business market.
So integral are high-performing networks and systems to being competitive and delivering customer service, that many small and growing companies depend on them almost entirely to run their business.
IT vendors have long recognised the commercial potential of the SMB sector, given the sheer number of smaller firms that make up national business markets, not to mention their growth potential. When IBM launched a renewed attack on the market last year, it valued the SMB market for hardware and software at $330 billion globally. And that's to say nothing of the potential for communications services and networks.
All of this applies doubly to communications technology and services, being the means by which staff keep in touch — with customers, with suppliers, with each other, and with their business and their market.
SMBs have several basic but vital needs as they contemplate new voice and data services:
• Solutions must meet their specific requirements as modest but growing businesses;
• Purchasing strategy must be simple — with number of suppliers and platforms to a minimum;
• They should rely on close relationships with trusted suppliers who can advise and support them;
• They need flexible purchasing options, especially leasing arrangements or monthly managed service arrangements.
Service providers addressing the SMB market may have found all of this a challenge in the past, wondering how they can sustain their own margins and cash flow as they serve customers that keep looking to drive down price.
Today, there is a plan to meet these challenges. To serve this customer base effectively, and make a good business out of it, requires the right kind of support from the carrier community — in the form of a comprehensive range of SMB-targeted offerings, provided on a wholesale basis, which provide price advantages and room for margin.
Simplicity is crucial, too. SMBs need to be able to pick and choose the solutions and capacities they need, which means service providers must be able to mix and match offerings easily, without billing becoming complicated or customers' future options being restricted.
They also need access to creative financing in the form of credit support. The so-called "credit squeeze" and growing uncertainty over the economy have dominated the news recently. Lenders and equipment leasing companies have generally tightened their underwriting requirements and are less willing to extend credit.
The ability to offer a financing source as part of a proposal — to the service providers as well as the SMBs — can now, more than ever, make all the difference when it comes to a customer's selection of a wholesale provider. This flexibility means SMBs are able to deploy the services they need without having to worry about cash flow.
Sales and training support are vital, too. With the right promotional campaigns and incentives behind them, and appropriate training to make sales easier, service providers can better serve their SMB customers, while running an efficient, profit-making operation.
Happily, the rewards are more than worth it. Having struck up a relationship with the right partner — one that is prepared to support them proactively — SMBs can be intensely loyal.
From SP to life partner
As economic conditions get bumpier, SMBs will be under increasing pressure to do more with less, pushing them in the direction of ever more versatile communications solutions, especially those that enable continuity of service as staff travel around.
The value of a wholesale service provider is its ability to offer solutions, through its wholesale customers, that remove the challenges of location and reachability for the smaller business.
This will result in growing demand for sophisticated mobile solutions that keep SMBs fully in contact, wirelessly. But, rather than add new suppliers and bills to their already unmanageable portfolio, SMBs will be seeking to streamline their numbers of suppliers and court greater simplicity in the way they manage and pay for their various services — for example by turning to integrated wireless/wireline solutions.
SMB service providers must position themselves, then, to be that one-stop-shop. In so doing, they will need to seek out a wholesale carrier with the complete portfolio of offerings and support services, right across the communications spectrum — from wireless to wireless — to fully support them and their SMB customers.
With the right partner behind them, the SMB service provider will be in the best possible position to drive simplicity and a solid return on investment down to the SMB. Above all, SMB service providers must seek out wholesale providers that understand what it takes for them to be successful in the SMB market.
The only remaining question then is whether the SP community is ready to take SMB customers on their new journey. Are you? GTB
Quintin Lew is senior vice-president of marketing at Verizon Partner Solutions, the US wholesale organisation of Verizon