What Do Small Businesses Want?

small business owners need helpWhat do small businesses want? How different should products and services that small businesses want be?  That’s an interesting question. Or is it?

I googled “What small businesses want” and it fetched all of approximately 800 results – nothing close to what I am looking for. That’s certainly not as interesting as “What women want” which generated about 1.1 million results.  🙂

But I think it’s fascinating. Small businesses exemplify entrepreneurial spirit that I so admire. Entrepreneurs pay for value – not for bureaucratic processes. We have distinct needs; and we aspire to be large. Very few companies have been able to come up with products and services that small businesses love!

Your Friendly Neighborhood Computer Guy recently wrote a wonderful post on what to look for in a small business bank. Anita wrote a follow-up post on How to Get Startups to Say “I’m in Love with Your Bank.” It set me thinking.

So this is going to be a post where all you small businesses can write in the comments your experience in buying a product or a service. You can write what you wanted in a product, what you found exciting or how it did not match your needs or resources. This is a post to voice your needs so that businesses out there can hear you. Feel free to mention (briefly) about your company.

I promise to talk to every one who puts in an insightful comment (for the first 5 days only) and write an article with all the insights that will be published again on Small Business Trends so it can be useful to all the readers that deal with small businesses. If your comment has insights, you could get quoted in that post and I’ll even point people back to your website!

So go ahead. Write an insightful comment about how you choose products or services!

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Chaitanya SagarChaitanya Sagar is the Co-Founder and CEO of p2w2, an online marketplace for services like writing, software, graphic design, virtual assistance, business consulting and research. Chaitanya blogs at p2w2 blog. He is fascinated by entrepreneurship and the difference technology can make in people’s lives.


Chaitanya Sagar Chaitanya Sagar is the Founder and CEO of Perceptive Analytics, an emerging company in the field of Data Analytics that helps businesses make better decisions. He has the experience of serving 300+ clients from medium to large companies in the US, India, Australia, Europe and Middle East. Chaitanya holds an MBA from the Indian School of Business, a school highly ranked by Financial Times.

29 Reactions
  1. A vendor, partner, supplier whose mission is to care, care enough to listen, listen enough to know their needs, able enough to customize their abilities to fit the needs of their client, the small business.

    We want a supplier/vendor, even employees, we can recommend to our customers. That’s because our customer share many of the same challenges we share. It adds value for us if you, the partner/vendor, is one who can help our friends and neighbors, aka, our customers.

    We want one headache removed, not two added, when we do business with you.

    These seem as reasonable as they are precious and long-lasting when found.

  2. American Express tries to market itself to the business user all the time… they even had that commercial recently where the AmEx card was so professional, it meant you were “really” in business (compared to a choose your own card).

    I had been using the AmEx Platinum for 5 years when I actually needed their assistance with a bad purchase. The amount was $250.00 (much less than the $450 membership fee I paid to AmEx yearly). I provided documentation (16 pages) showing how I purchased one thing, was given another, and how it was a classic bait and switch. AmEx spent 60 days on the chargeback and decided that I needed to work with the merchant; basically… “no, handle it yourself.”

    So despite having documentation (excessive in my opinion), and a 5 year track record, AmEx was willing to let me go. I even reminded them that they market themselves with fraud protection and that maybe they should eat this one since it was only half the membership fee. Nope, they’d rather see me go. And I did.

    So what do I want from a company? If you’re for small business… please, be for small business. If I wanted to deal with big corporate thinking (that can’t understand for example that eating $250 one time to keep someone that’s charging $15k/month is a smart idea) I would work for corporate America. Instead, I want companies that I know when I work with them, I’m working with someone that wants to help us both, not make me run through hoops and wonder why I’m spending money with them.

    Basically… bottom line… I’d rather give business to a business that provides good service and a good product, not a company that demonstrates examples of how I should not treat my customers.

  3. Yes — Google sucks… I cannot understand why anyone wastes money trying to advertise to those people who still hope to find anything on there (other than brand names like “Ebay” or “Amazon”).

    If you’re a small business owner, you need to show up on the radar for people who type in particular keywords (like “auctions” or “books” [or mp3s ;]) — this is what I refer to as the “Wisdom of the Language” (see http://gaggle.info/miscellaneous/articles/wisdom-of-the-language ). To do this, you need to be listed on the appropriate domain names (the ones related to the terms your company’s “target audience” tend to search for when they ought to find your company) — for example, if you are in the “hotel” (i.e. hospitality) business, then depending who your customers are, you would want to be listed on a domain name like “hotels.com”, “hotels.net”, … , (etc.) or “hospitality.com”, “hospitality.net”, … (etc.)

  4. A very simple one at the “pre supplier” stage: give me an idea on your website and promotional material of an rough order-of-magnitude budget amount for typical projects and services. Is it 500, 5k, 15k, 50k over a year, whatever…

    As a small business the budgets we can allocate to services is limited, and I absolutely hate contacting a potential supplier only to hear after a while that the kind of pricing is aimed at the corporate/public sector budget. I dont like to waste my time (or yours) then have to embarrassingly extricate myself.

    If there is not even a vague indication of cost, I do the “jewelry window” assumption: you don’t show your prices for your marketing/technology/hr/whatever services because they are in the “if you need to ask the price you cant afford it” category.

    Hiding the price only puts off potential customers, your competitors already know that information, as you know theirs…

  5. What we need seems straightforward: We need vendors who partner with us to provide a high quality product or service in the time frame they promise and who do so with little oversight.

    In a small business environment, I’m already wearing multiple hats. I don’t have the time or the desire to micromanage a vendor. At the same time, because I am often the only one within our company managing a project, I appreciate and need the expertise and “extra set of eyes” provided by a vendor or service provider who is engaged.

    But all too often, I’ve had to follow up repeatedly in order to have basic questions answered (how much?) and to push a project to completion, often well past the stated deadline (our web site). I’ve also found myself proofing and correcting vendors’ work on many occasions.

    And when I say “partner” with us, I mean that we need them to take ownership and watch over our projects as if they were their own. For example, the printing companies we hire again and again are those that notify us when they find a typo or a low-res photo in a file and take the time to correct it. The ones we never use again — and there have been a few — are those who print the file as is and then say, “You approved it that way. There is nothing I can do. Have a nice day.”

  6. Thanks for including my article Chaitanya. Since I’m still fairly new to the small business game, I’m still not quite sure what I want…but rest assured as I figure that out, I will be blogging about it! 😉

  7. Great question! I want a vendor who does what he/she says he/she can do, at a reasonable price, and is in touch with me at agreed upon times.

  8. Like Joelle, I want to see prices or at least price ranges. Not that I am a price shopper — I often will choose a vendor that is not the lowest priced. But I have to know that we’re at least in the same ballpark. Otherwise, as Joelle notes, I could waste a lot of time only to find I was thinking $1,200, and the vendor only values projects that start at $10,000. I’m not going to hire them at that price, and they don’t want me as a client. We both could have saved ourselves a lot of time if they’d just said that up front — couldn’t we now?

    Another point is that the inability to give prices (or at least general ranges) often is a sign that the service provider doesn’t have a good solid process delineated and will work inefficiently. I learned through my own efforts at being a consultant — early on I didn’t do a very good job at systematizing my own processes. So I really didn’t KNOW how long something would take because I hadn’t thought it through and broken it down well enough into its component parts. I couldn’t give prices — but I should have been able to, had I spent more effort understanding my processes on the back end.

    The problem is, nobody teaches service providers how to effectively determine processes and translate those into prices.

  9. I think small businesses want to look big. Maybe not corporate big, but bigger than two guys in the garage working 12-hour days to keep the business afloat.

    I’m starting a small business this January to create commercials that can be shown on a company’s existing website. I think a professional-looking commercial makes a small business look bigger and better.

    Putting a video on your website is a lot cheaper than trying to put something on TV. True, there is less exposure, but it definitely can make an impact with customers who see your page.


  10. I really like this post! It will definitely help me as I continue to build my clientele.

    What I’ve found working with some local retailers is they want me to carry the brunt of the work. Yes I will help you develop and implement marketing strategies and streamline business processes, but you have to hold up your end of the bargain as well. I understand you’re busy but help me help you!

    As I transition into becoming a full-time entrepreneur (cross fingers for 2009), I gravitate towards vendors/supppliers who make my life simpler and easier to manage. I’m all about simple SYSTEMS!

  11. Do small businesses want on-call consulting arrangements with information and technology experts? It seems like consulting firms are either too big and expensive to be useful or too small and obscure to find. I’ve worked as a consultant to friends starting businesses, and I’m curious about the demand for similar consulting one-offs. I’m especially interested in whether small business owners want to be able to ask experts about collaboration technologies or to hire someone to customize software or build something specific for your business. I’m a researcher, and I study distributed work in organizations. I’m exploring new research projects with small businesses and their information needs and use.

  12. Large corporations have marketing departments that generate sophisticated campaigns to fuel the growth of the business. Small businesses generally DO NOT.

    Therefore, many small businesses want a consultant or other resource that can provide a growth plan suitable for their stage in the business cycle. Growth plans can be specific to a marketing tactic (eg: Search Engine Marketing, Affiliate Marketing, etc). Or, they can be an overarching business strategy that encompasses all facets of the business.

    And, besides creating the strategy, many times the consultant will be needed to actually implement the tactics.

  13. When I first started my design firm, I was looking for a way to invoice my clients online, and also keep track of finances (other than Quickbooks). I found Freshbooks to handle online invoicing and they had a semi-functional way of monitoring my companies expenses. Through Twitter I found LessAccounting, which also offers online invoicing. I mentioned on Twitter that I would be using LessAccounting, and Freshbooks instantly responded asking “are you breaking up with me?” and I felt compelled to talk to them. Both companies discussed with me (via twitter) the features they had that I wanted, and the features they lacked (that the other had to offer). As it stands now, my company is utilizing both. Freshbooks handles online invoicing (it lets you clients pay through its interface) and support tickets with clients. LessAccounting is my Quickbooks replacement and keeps my finances in check. If it wasn’t for Freshbooks quick retention and LessAccounting pointing out a feature it did not have (online payment for clients) I’d be stuck with one solution that didn’t have all the features I needed.

  14. Of course the extremes come to mind: the very good and the very bad vendors, or partners. But I think the ones that I find most offputting are the vendors who present themselves in one-way (as if they are ‘for’ small business) and then act in another way. For example, the banks, merchant credit card companies, etc. (‘big’ business) market themselves as small-business-focused, but when small business needs those resources they have to jump through hoops to get the support they need … unfortunately this is even more true in today’s economic climate.

  15. Wow! Amazing comments! Wonderful – to say the least.

    Zane, Fred, NMW, Joelle, Angi, YFNCG, Margie, Anita, Nate, Kimmoy, Libby, Simmon, Amy, Kris, THANK YOU!

    Keep them coming. Speak out!

  16. Thanks Chaitanya for this excellent post and to all for the terrific feedback. I was totally absorbed in what everyone has said and it resonates. I think transparency in pricing is important. The days of “we’re so cool and cost is not an issue” are OVER for everyone I think. Also, I loved Angi’s comments on ownership. At the end of the day all anyone wants is to be validated for their efforts and to be important enough to be treated with care. Yep. Size shouldn’t determine my worth to a vendor.

    I’ve spent the last couple of years working to grow a grass roots business called http://www.dsmbuzz.com here in central Iowa encouraging consumers to recognize and buy local. So I’ve spent time talking to lots of businesses and learned a lot about what the very small often termed “micro-businesses” really want. These are businesses that operate on a limited everything with time being most in need. They run to put out fires and want anything they do to generate customers.

    As a response to the time issue that haunts both the small businesses and small nonprofits I’m working to create a portal that allows for the efficient transference of goods and services from small locally owned businesses to nonprofits. If you’ve ever encountered the request for donations that takes place between nonprofs and businesses, especially the cold call walk in, it is PAINFUL for both parties. Small businesses need to be strategic to some extent in their giving and certainly want to understand orgs before making donations. Small nonprofs operate on margins that challenge their time and lack of resources too.

    Small businesses most often donate good and services in small amounts to nonprofits which rely on them to help generate donations. These small donations are not honored in the newspaper as often as $10,000 corporate checks but they are in fact the backbone of support for nonprofits day-to-day survival. Also, many small businesses I talked to mention that they often don’t know if and how their resources helped the organization.

    LocalsGive.com is meant to help both sides facilitate a transparent response of need requests to those with resources in the small business sector. So if the local small restaurant has 5 pies each Friday and wants to know who can really use them they could do a twitter like shout out to registered nonprofits who could review and go get it if the donation fits their needs. I’m slogging along to get the site up and running but this was something I learned may be of value to small businesses and small nonprofits.

  17. I’d like to share my experience with an online marketing business (www.om4.com.au). Reflecting on my experience with them really clarifies for me what I want in a service provider.

    ‘OM4’ (a business that helps to create and enhance small business websites) saw opportunities and new possibilities for me to develop my website and products. They got truly excited by these new possibilities (I couldn’t help but get excited too!).

    They saw ways that my business could contribute to some of their other clients (and vice versa). Subsequently, OM4 facilitated meetings so we could work together.

    Whenever something comes up that they think will interest me they let me know (whether it be an email with a link to an interesting site or an article sent in the mail).

    To top it off, they are extremely efficient and effective at what they do.

    So in a nutshell, I want service providers who:

    a) genuinely care about me and my business
    b) see possibilities/opportunities they I don’t see
    c) are efficient and effective.

  18. In general, small business owners want to do what they love and get paid for it. To that end, if the business is large enough that it can afford delegate our outsource operational tasks, I think small business owners want people, products, and services who can take over and do a competent job without too much hassle (especially when it comes to sales, marketing, bookkeeping, etc.).

    However, if the business can’t afford to outsource the work entirely, I think small business owners want step-by-step guides and tools where everything has already been “figured out” for them– whether it’s a training course or a piece of technology that eliminates the guesswork and lets the business owner quickly and easily plug ‘n’ play an effective solution.

  19. Sorry, that should say “delegate OR outsource operational tasks.”

  20. As a small business part-owner and entrepreneur creating new ideas, I have seen the need for some kind of security system and background check routine when you are approached by so-called consultants that want to develop your business. I have been fooled by their promises, paid for their alleged services without seeing any result. I have meet several “experts” who have promised this and that and then ended up not delivering nada. I know several other small business owners who have had the same experience. This issue has got me thinking and I hope I could create a beta “security network” together with some other businesses in order to get stronger and build up a defense for future scam “artists” out there. We will set up a blacklist for internal use for the members and warn other serious small business companies, but the main thing is to focus on the positive and create a synergy effect between us in the this new social business network.

    Nate: Your Pilothouse films with commercial videos for small businesses looks interesting. I will contact you regarding an idea.

  21. I’m starting a small business this January to create commercials that can be shown on a company’s existing website. I think a professional-looking commercial makes a small business look bigger and better.

    –> Good luck on your endeavor, Nate. But I’m a little curious, what made you think an advertising business would be a good start up business especially in these times?

  22. Chaitanya – you’ve just proven the the most interesting and insightful learning comes from asking SIMPLE questions. I’m astounded that one of the more popular answers has been “vendors to partner with.” That just proves how successful our community is. I’m surprised that the most common answer hasn’t been “MORE CUSTOMERS.” Actually, I’d say (in addition to what everyone has said) I would want more of my favorite customers. Customers who are profitable, easy to work with, who value what I have to give.

  23. When I started my small business – which caters to other small businesses I asked myself and others whether or not I thought my product was a good fit. I got good feedback, so viola – an alternative to airline travel was born! Hopefully I can provide some of the service that everyone has been asking for.

    For my own business, I really wish there were some easy to find guides for everyday operations. I takes a lot of searching to find the appropriate information for my type of business in my location. It wold also be good if there was some good way to market products meant for SOHO’s directly to them.

  24. I use or rather used to use a virtual office company called Meridian Business Centers in Houston. Recently I decided to cancel my service due to economic constraints and the need to retrench my business and as I knew I was close to the end of my 1 year contract with them. Up until then I had a very positive experience with them and in the email I sent requesting the cancellation I told them as much.

    Imagine my surprise when I found out that not only had my 1 year contract expired but they had auto renewed it for another year without ever informing me. They had never notified me that I was approaching the end of my 1 year term and never gave me the opportunity to make a choice whether to continue on with them or not.

    Now in order to get out of the contract I have to pay the remaining 10 months of the second year. They refuse to let me out of the contract any other way. Now to be clear its not the auto renew option I have issue with, though that is bad enough. And yes it was in the contract that auto renewal would occur, but I had asked and been told over the phone that I would be informed when the first year was coming to an end. But to renew someones service still should require they be informed. I was never told that my first year was expiring nor that the second year was starting.

    Yes I should have kept better track, as inexcusable as it is that I did not I had been very busy over the previous 6 months traveling for business. Regardless isn’t it better to let your customer make a choice. I mean in today’s market who really wants to take a customer by force?

    Needless to say I won’t be giving them any more business, and if there is one takeaway lesson I will apply to my own business. Always keep my customers informed, always provide them with the power of choice. If my service is good enough they will stay with me and if they are unable to for whatever reason they will eventually come back to me. I will always make more in the long run by treating my customers with respect than by tricking them and forcing them to be customers.

    Every smart business owner knows its what you make over the lifetime of the client that matters. Any one transaction is unimportant in comparison.

  25. Luz Spielberg wrote:
    -> Good luck on your endeavor, Nate. But I’m a little curious, what made you think an advertising business would be a good start up business especially in these times?


    Well, this is a part-time, freelance sort of a business. I have a regular job and I intend to do this as I have time. There really is no significant risk for me, as I have to invest very little additional money to get started (basically licensing the business). I have summers off (teacher) so I’d like the business to be up and running by summer.

    Since I’ve got nothing to lose, I figured why not start at the first of the year? Also, my goals are very limited. I want to earn back my start up costs (minimal), and earn enough money to buy some better equipment (an HD video camera). I can do that bit by bit, one job at a time. If I meet those goals I’ll reevaluate and decide how to proceed. I may just close up shop and make videos for personal reasons once I meet my goals.


  26. All of the aforementioned statements have been very enlightening! I have had similar experiences and I also work within a small to medium sized family owned business.

    I must agree with Jane Genovese who said she wanted service providers who:
    a) genuinely care about me and my business
    b) see possibilities/opportunities that I don’t see
    c) are efficient and effective.

    This is what I look for when approaching a business that is to provide me with a service. This is also one of the reasons I work for The Hendrie Group. Everything that I expect from another business is what we endeavor to provide in the service that we offer. It is one thing to have expectations of a business and another to be able to provide that experience for your clients.

  27. I have read the above with relish. I will be starting my own small business shortly and welcome the thoughts and experiences of established small business owners on sites such as these. One thing that stands out is the lack of real service standards that some of you have encountered – I see it often and frankly it is a pet hate of mine. It seems whilst suppliers are trying to “gain your business” they are as nice as pie and offer you the world – very different story in many cases once they have your business. The after care and service standards just do not exist. I have been “lucky” in that I have worked in the corporate and small business worlds so can tweek my services to fit either entity. Customer Service and after care are two of the most important factors for me – if my clients are happy, they tell other potential clients and so it goes on, creating a win-win situation for all. So thankyou guys, whilst in research/business planning mode, all of this information is of great use to me to ensure I meet my client’s expectations and provide a real service that sets me apart from other suppliers offering similar services to me. Bottom line is…treat other business owners as you would want to be treated yourself.

  28. This article and the comments that support it are definitely amongst the most insightful I’ve come across in a while.

    I have taken notes on everything, especially the wants and needs of the small business owner in order to shape my services for the future.

    Thanks, Chaitanya!

  29. Thanks, Chaitanya for asking a question that I have been thinking about for a while.

    After reading all of the comments here, my question is how do small businesses find their vendors? When you need a vendor for a specific service, what do you do? Do you simple go to a search engine and type in “marketing consultant?” Do you asks associates for referrals? I would really like everyone’s feedback on this.

    If having vendors who care about providing excellent service is the main focus, the first thing is finding the vendor and then second as Martin said, small businesses need a way to verify the vendor can deliver on their promises. What’s the best way to do this?

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