Getting closer to SMEs: a six-step relationship builder for banks

Research Director Georgiana Brown has a six-step guide for banks on how they can build better relationships with SMEs. This article originally appeared in Global Banking and Finance Review Magazine.

Getting closer to SMEs: a six-step relationship builder for banks

The author(s)

  • Georgiana Brown Financial Services - Ipsos Loyalty, UK
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“What does good proactivity mean to small business customers?”
When a financial services client recently asked this question, it got us thinking about what proactivity really means to customers, particularly small and medium-sized businesses’ customers, and how a provider can best demonstrate that it is being proactive.

‘Proactivity’ is a concept that is increasingly high on the agenda of financial and professional services firms, and is increasingly preferred to ‘responsiveness’, which customers and clients see as too passive in the context of a developing and serious provider relationship.

We put our heads together, drawing on recent research conducted among SMEs for banks and others, and defined these key principles of demonstrating an outstanding provider relationship.

1) Provide a roadmap, setting expectations at the start

If a small to medium-sized business (SME) customer starts the relationship feeling as though they’ll get lots of personal contact and support, and then this doesn’t materialise, they are likely to feel the provider is not paying enough attention or being proactive enough. Setting expectations at the outset about contact, advice and what help and proactivity will look like should aid customer satisfaction – but only if these expectations are then met or exceeded consistently throughout the course of the relationship.

2) Proactivity is more than anticipating and reacting: it must appear tailored to your customers’ individual needs

As a provider, this activity is based on an understanding of each customer’s business needs, goals and sector challenges, and then providing a customised response. In the context of a financial services provider, targeted proactivity can be demonstrated through a combination of the following:

  • Regular contact, usually from a dedicated Relationship Manager. Customers place great value on personal relationships, though there are often challenges of contact time, and there can be a feeling of: ‘Why do they not have more time for me? Am I not important enough? Are they favouring other clients over me?’ This can be remedied by ensuring a single point of contact and being easy to get hold of.
  • Making suggestions for financial products / vehicles. These are likely to be well-received, if they are seen to be new, and it is essential that they are perceived as relevant, targeted and tailored - not just random or generic, and not put across in a way that seems ‘salesy’ – a real turn-off for SME customers.
  • Providing other anticipatory services. This could include annual reviews (opportunity to re-assess goals and expectations), or offering some sort of valid ‘help’ which also demonstrates proactivity.
  • Providing information – a source of financial knowledge – and arranging focused networking events. These should either be sector-related (though not a room full of direct competitors), or with others who are at the same stage of their business journey, and with the same needs / challenges (e.g. startups, those in a growth stage, etc).

3) Judge how reactive they want you to be

A few things to consider:

  • While some customers will welcome – and even demand – proactivity, others would hate it – so this should be understood early on and catered for on an individual business basis.
  • There is no point trying to be proactive and offer products, services and advice if your business is not a good fit with theirs. There are already many active SMEs, and this figure continues to grow. Providers should attempt to narrow down the target list to those suitable for this sort of proactive relationship building.
  • It’s only credible to make proactive suggestions if a provider really knows and understands a customer’s business. Generic ‘small business’ advice tends to be ill-received, as lacking relevance.
  • The approach will vary according to size and personality:
    • Smaller businesses will often have needs similar to individual consumers
    • SMEs are often (rightly) truly passionate about what they do – it is their life, not just their work – and they can often feel that their business is unique, and be quick to think that nobody can offer appropriate advice as they don’t understand them and their business.

Overcoming scepticism around truly tailored advice is hard, but the first step to any proactive suggestions or advice is that it must feel personal. This video from our ethnography archive, featuring views of European SMEs, sums this point up well:

4) Don’t make them work for it

SME customers are always busy, and often looking for efficient help – that’s why proactivity is often wanted / required. But many customers (including SMEs) often feel they are putting in far more effort than the provider – so brands should, wherever possible, demonstrate that they are putting in at least as much effort as their customers (an effective customer – company effort ratio). Crucially, they should continue this throughout the relationship, not just at the start. This idea of ‘fairness’ can build relationships that last, and create advocates of brands.

5) Innovation, innovation, innovation

The launch of PSD2 / Open Banking in January 2018 presents new opportunities for financial services providers to offer a whole range of new proactive solutions for SMEs. Providers could enhance their support of smaller businesses by developing products and services, utilising open APIs, that will tap into SME pain points and help ease pressure.

As an example, SMEs are often time poor and find business administration an unwelcome drain on their time; they may also lack the resources or expertise to manage tax and accountancy obligations as well as they should. A service that could integrate with existing small business accounting software packages to automate and speed up invoice reconciliations, payment initiation and tax liability calculations ought to be very well-received. There are also opportunities to support SMEs with cashflow concerns and instant payments.

6) Fall in love all over again

Demonstrating proactivity is likely to be a constantly evolving commitment to client service, but when successful, it will help build loyal, sustainable relationships with business customers, worth both the time and financial investment.

The banks have not always enjoyed the best relationships with their smaller business customers over recent years. Perceptions of low willingness to lend and, in some instances, of declining levels of service and support can make SMEs keen to look for alternative sources of advice and ultimately finance.

Demonstrating proactivity through these sorts of behaviours and activities could play a big part in convincing SMEs that you not only want their business, but you really value them.  And those that truly feel valued may, in turn, support you by becoming advocates for your brand, making recommendations and referrals among their peers.

The author(s)

  • Georgiana Brown Financial Services - Ipsos Loyalty, UK

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